DC has an overwhelming number of great options when it comes to fine dining but how is anyone new to the city able to find their favorites? Maybe more importantly, how can anyone afford such a search? Part of the answer can be found by doing your homework (i.e., reading TwoDC of course!) but another can be found in Restaurant Week.
Organized during the slower times of the year, Restaurant Week in DC occurs every January/February and August. The concept is simple: top flight restaurants prepare 3-course dining options at usually bargain prices in hopes of stirring up new business. Lunch in 2009 can be had for $20.09 and dinner for $35.09.
As you may expect, reservations go fast and are handled through Open Table. Usually J and I make a point to take advantage of this opportunity and try out several new places on the cheap. While it can be expected that the crowds and limited menus cause the impressions of some restaurants to be slightly skewed, Restaurant Week is an excellent way to narrow down first hand where you may spend a future special night out. Places we've experienced and blogged about are Oceanaire, Rasika, Bistro Bis, Zola, and Oya.
Also, here are a few thoughts on places that we were able to preview (prior to starting our blog) thanks to Restaurant Week.
Oval Room. About as close to the White House as you can get, the food and service was excellent.
Caucus Room. Not particularly memorable for anything good or bad. Felt like a great place for a power lunch and a cigar with the boys.
Prime Rib. We had high hopes but felt that the prime rib was solid, which is code for lackluster.
Bobby Van's. We love the less formal Bobby Van's Grill which we've enjoyed several times. Our Restaurant Week experience at the stuffy Bobby Van's has not convinced us to change our ways.
Charlie Palmer. J took me here for my birthday and we went back for Restaurant Week. We loved it both times and felt that the experience was not any different whether you paid full price or $35.
PS7s. Fantastic interior but the food, while imaginative, wasn't executed perfectly. We were not particularly impressed but remain intrigued.
After sampling many different restaurants during Restaurant Week, I have mixed feelings about participating again. If restaurants do it right, they can win new loyal patrons. However, some restaurants seem to just be going through the motions and doing Restaurant Week because everyone else is doing it. Also, servers generally despise it because lower prices lead to lower tips, and so you can end up with some pretty bad service.
My advice is to go for the restaurant that will give you the most bang for your buck. Check the menu and see if the Restaurant Week menu provides any savings over the regular one. Also, think about your ordering habits when you dine out. Do you usually order two appetizers and two desserts? If no, it could be cheaper to dine at the restaurant during the rest of the year and you'll probably get better service. Also, some restaurants are stingy and put cheaper entrees on their Restaurant Week menus while others make the entire menu available.
That said, we've had some stellar Restaurant Week experiences. We thought Charlie Palmer Steak was a great value with large portions and outstanding service. The steak houses, which usually are very expensive, tend to be good Restaurant Week bargains.
Do you have a favorite Restaurant Week place or do you avoid it completely? We'd love to hear from you.