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Lunch Break: Against Restaurant Week

PH2009072801134.jpgWe're coming up on Restaurant Week here in Washington, D.C. From Aug. 24 to 30, an array of schmancy restaurants will serve up a three-course meal from a limited menu for a mere $34.09. It is, in theory at least, a way to try restaurants you'd otherwise be priced out of. The promotion is pretty common: Dozens of metropolitan areas have it, or some variant of it.

My advice is simple: Don't go. With few exceptions, it's not as good a deal as it sounds and the food isn't as good as you'd expect.

Take, for example, PS7s. Excellent restaurant, if a bit pricey. Exactly the sort of place you might try during Restaurant Week. But how pricey? Depends what you order, of course. But say you order on the expensive side. You start with Sarah's Salad. "Mixed field greens with fresh strawberries, toasted sunflower seeds, rosemary-black pepper crouton and mascarpone and lemon dressing." Sounds good, right? Ten dollars. And maybe, as your main course, you order the cornmeal-fried trout. That's got "lemon-butter sauce, French beans and a ginger-tomato confiture." Delicious! $22.

You're still only at $32. Now, Restaurant Week includes a dessert, and dessert costs more than $2.09. But it's also the least interesting part of the meal. More to the point, there are certain costs to participating in Restaurant Week. For one, the menu is limited. And the few selections on the limited menu are made in great quantity, so they're often worse than they'd be on a normal night (sort of how the food at a large event catered by a restaurant is worse than the food you get if you went to the restaurant for dinner). The place will also be more crowded, the servers will be more harried, and there'll be more of an effort to rush you through your meal.

So you're spending almost as much as you would otherwise, but getting worse food, fewer options, and a crummier experience. That, at least, has been my general experience. That's not to say you can't have a nice dinner during Restaurant Week, or that there's no restaurant out there offering an extraordinary value. But in general, this isn't near the deal it's touted as.

Photo credit: Washington Post Photo

By Ezra Klein  |  July 28, 2009; 1:40 PM ET
Categories:  Food  
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I'd say the entire problem with this promotion is the price.

My mom lives in a toney neighborhood in New York where they do this same thing, but it's $20 a head, and that includes a glass of wine, beer or soft drink.

I've also been to numerous "tasting" events where representatives of the restaurants gather in a hall of some kind and offer samples of their dishes with one price paid at the door. Usually these are fundraisers for some cause or other. I've seen them as cheap as $10 a head, and as high as $50 for a really highbrow event.

But it's all-you-can-eat, so there is no question of value.

Posted by: Rick00 | July 28, 2009 2:07 PM | Report abuse

The only restaurant week meals I've had that were truly, truly a great deal were the ones I had at Equinox. They put in a huge amount of care, even for their RW menu.

But apparently they're not participating this time. Boo.

Posted by: ameliashowalter | July 28, 2009 2:31 PM | Report abuse

I concur in the judgment and the result. Restaurant week is still far too expensive. Most of these restaurants are for people with expense accounts spending other people's money with tax advantages. They are too expensive for personal use.

Posted by: Dellis2 | July 28, 2009 2:48 PM | Report abuse

Say, how would menu calorie labeling work at buffets/all you can eat joints?

Posted by: _SP_ | July 28, 2009 2:56 PM | Report abuse

I eMailed your posting ti my daughter who lives in DC. Her reply:

I feel like it weeds restaurants out. I know they lose money, I know they get sick of making the same thing, I know they churn people out quickly.

But the thing is... they should be doing their best work to win over the customers that they wouldn't have gotten without RW. If they don't then it's not worth going back to, and now you know, and you didn't have to spend $150 to find it out.

Posted by: lensch | July 28, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

I'll agree that in most cases it's not a great deal, but I'm a huge fan of tasting menus and prix-fixe multi course meals... at least when I'm an admirer of the chef. I'm not going to bother with it, because of the hassles you mention, with your standard "nice restaurant"... but in places where I'd easily spend $50 a person and like a lot or have heard really good things about, I'm happy to see what the chef thinks is great three course representation of his or her restaurant.

Posted by: JWHamner | July 28, 2009 3:30 PM | Report abuse

I guess this means that I will have to be the dissenter. It's true that at some of the restaurants, restaurant week isn't a good deal, but generally the tonier the restaurant, the better deal you get out of it.

Restaurants where the $20 entree is typical immediately places that restaurant in the "not worth it for restaurant week" category for me, so your reasoning isn't going to apply in my case.

Posted by: constans | July 28, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

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