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10 Ways To Make The Most Of Restaurant Week

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jan 13, 2016 7:00PM

A dish at Embeya, one of my Restaurant Week suggestions. Photo via Facebook.

This morning, I revealed my ultimate guide to the good and bad deals of Restaurant Week. I did the math on every Restaurant Week menu to figure out which are good deals, which are bad deals, and which are somewhere in between.

But not everyone wants to do a ton of math or look at spreadsheets. Plus, I couldn't put everything I'd learned in that sheet, or it would have been even longer than it already was. However, if you look at that many menus (and know a little bit about how restaurants work), you get a good sense of how to spot a good value.

Here are my top ten general tips for getting the most out of Restaurant Week.

1) Don't Be A Vegetarian

I have nothing against vegetarians, of course, but Restaurant Week is the wrong time to be one. Most places offers a vegetarian entree, but it's nearly always a bad deal. And it makes sense: if the restaurant is breaking even with a steak, they're definitely going to be making money on the grilled veggie plate. There are a few exceptions to this rule (Editor's note: Like Green Zebra!), but generally, if you order a vegetarian dish, you're gonna lose money.

2) Beware the $44 Dinners

Restaurant Week has three choices: a $22 lunch, a $33 dinner and a $44 dinner. Oddly enough, the $44 dinner is almost always the worst deal. Why? Because you're usually getting an appetizer, entree and dessert combo for $33, which means when a restaurant bumps it to $44, they're adding a small midcourse. It's rare that the midcourse is priced at more than $11. On the other hand, the $33 dinners are almost always a good deal, though fewer and fewer restaurants are offering them.

Photo by Kailley Lindman.

3) Shortribs and Salmon are the Enemy

Restaurants often create unique dishes that aren't on the regular menu for Restaurant Week. Sometimes, this is really fun, and is a way for the chef to be creative. Often, however, it's just a way to save some money. If you see short ribs on a restaurant week menu (and they're on literally 40 percent of them) and they aren't on the menu, it's so the restaurant can offer a beef main course that doesn't cost much. Same with the hundreds of salmon dishes that suddenly pop onto menus during this week. It's not that these are inherently bad, but just know that it's not representative of what the spot usually serves—and you might be getting a bad deal.

4) Steak Might Help, If They Don't Change It

Unsurprisingly, given what restaurants charge for steak in this town, the places that offer good steaks are usually a good value. There are a few caveats, however. First, look for places that identify the particular size and cut. For example, if the restaurant week menu says you're getting a 12 ounce dry aged New York Strip, that's awesome. However, if it just says "medallions of beef," watch out. Also, when pricing things out, note that a lot of restaurants create new steaks, not on the normal menu, for Restaurant Week—that's why you see so damn many six ounce filet mignons.

5) Small Plates, Small Value

While the trend in dining for years now has been away from traditional appetizer, entree, dessert meals and towards small plates, during Restaurant Week, go traditional. If you see a many-coursed meal with a ton of small plates, you're likely not getting a good deal once you do the math. It takes an awful lot of $6 bites to add up to a $44 dinner, so don't let the appearance of abundance fool you. You can always go as a normal diner and order exactly what you want.

6) Beware Existing Prix Fixe Menus

A few tricky spots have existing prix fixe menus that are a better deal than restaurant week. A great example? The Kendall College Dining Room, which offers a very nice looking three course, $33 Restaurant Week menu with a lot of choices. Except . . . Tuesday through Saturday, you can have a three course meal with an appetizer, main and dessert for $29.

(Chicken Ramen/Union Sush + Barbecue's Facebook)

7) Just Go For Lunch

While, as you can see from all the math, dinners are a minefield of potential mistakes, lunches are almost always a good deal. Coming up with a three course lunch that doesn't give more than $22 in value is difficult, and even if you don't quite make a fortune, the cost is low enough that you're not out much.

8) You'd Better Have a Sweet Tooth

With very few exceptions, the final course on a restaurant week menu is dessert. That's not necessarily a bad thing, except since you can't make substitutions, if you don't have a sweet tooth and won't finish it you're taking a hit. Also, if you don't like key lime pie or tiramisu, beware, since every restaurant in the entire city seems to have added them to the menu for Restaurant Week.

9) Enough With the Pasta

I love pasta, but not during Restaurant Week. If a restaurant offers a pasta course (which many Italian spots do), it can be a great deal and an excuse to eat delicious carbs. But if you only get one main, and it's a choice between the rack of lamb and the tagliatelle, don't pick the pasta. You'll lose money. Same goes for risotto, which is a very common restaurant week dish.

10) Look Out for Drinks

Most Restaurant Week menus don't include beverages of any kind—including non-alcoholic ones. This means that you need to remember that your $44 dinner is likely actually going to cost more than that. Some spots, though, include a drink, and it's usually either a cocktail or a glass of wine. This can be a great deal, especially if they give a selection of choices. However, don't be fooled into thinking "sommelier's choice" of wine is necessarily a bargain that makes up for a missing $10 course.