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The Ultimate Guide To Not Getting Screwed By Restaurant Week 2017

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jan 19, 2017 4:30PM

It's almost time for Restaurant Week! For the three people in Chicago who don't know, Restaurant Week is a promotion that runs from Jan. 27 through Feb. 9 (yes, that's two weeks, not one) in which hundreds of Chicago restaurants create special prix fixe menus. It's held at a normally slow time of the year for restaurants, and diners jump all over it. Good reservations book up far in advance, and the more popular spots are packed for days on end. But is Restaurant Week actually a good deal for diners? Turns out, the answer is often no.

Here's how Restaurant Week works. Restaurants can create just a few types of menus, including a $44 dinner, a $33 dinner, a $22 lunch and, for the first time this year, a $22 brunch. These are usually multiple course pre-set meals with a couple of choices per course. Some restaurants give a ton of choices, some give none at all. Some include drinks. There are a huge variety of approaches.

Related: Our picks for 20 of the best deals from Restaurant Week 2017

There are some real downsides to eating during Restaurant Week. Dining rooms tend to be crowded, your choices are limited, many of the dishes aren't very creative and some restaurants will decrease their portion sizes to increase their margins. That means that if you aren't getting a pretty darn good deal, there is absolutely no point to going out to dinner during Restaurant Week instead of any other week as a normal diner.

That's why I did the math on every single Restaurant Week menu. What is "The Math," you might ask? It's relatively simple: if you can get a better deal by ordering the same or similar dishes off of the restaurant's regular menu, you're getting screwed by Restaurant Week. You're actually losing money by paying more for the same stuff.

Here's an example of what I mean. Let's say Anthony's Cafe, a stylish and upscale restaurant in Lincoln Square (which may be inside of my house) is offering a $33 prix fixe meal that includes a roasted beet salad, half a roasted chicken and a scoop of gelato. On the regular menu for Anthony's Cafe, the roasted beet salad is $8, the half chicken is $15 and the gelato is $4. Do the math: if you ordered that on any average day, you'd get $27 worth of food. Except this week, you're paying $33 for the pre-set menu. Chef Anthony is screwing you, and you're actually losing money. And that's assuming all the dishes are the normal portion size; if they've shrunk for Restaurant Week (which they very well could), you're getting double-screwed.

When I first did this analysis last year, I was surprised to find out how often it is possible to lose money during Restaurant Week.

This year, if anything, it's even more common to have Restaurant Week menus that don't add up or barely add up. So I created a database of every single meal at every single restaurant, so you can get the best deals. This year, I actually included some of the numbers, and I also broke it down by meal. I had to do all the math again, from scratch; a lot of restaurants are new this year, brunch is totally new and many places changed their menus.

You'll note that it's not always possible for me to tell if a menu is a good deal. Some restaurants make up special menus for restaurant week. If the dishes look close to dishes on the regular menu, I can guess, but often it's not really possible to figure it out. Sneaky, right? Some restaurants don't price their regular menus online so there's nothing to compare to. Also very sneaky. Also, many, many places "barely" allow you to break even (which I define as being within two dollars of the normal cost of the dishes). You aren't technically losing money, but it's also not worth dealing with the Restaurant Week madness and lack of choice.

I'll post later today about our favorite deals on the list, but here's the basic key to the chart: If a restaurant is highlighted in Green, I like it. You're not going to get a bad deal no matter what you order and the menu has good, delicious-sounding choices. If a restaurant isn't highlighted at all, it means that 1) I couldn't tell if it was a deal; 2) it barely broke even or; 3) it's a deal, but i'm not very fond of the menu or the restaurant, so I don't recommend it. If a restaurant is highlighted in Red, it means that it's possible to lose money on the deal. I've also included comments on many of the restaurants.

Before I get a million nasty emails for this: the fact that a restaurant is highlighted in red does not mean it's bad, or that you necessarily will get a bad deal. There are some great deals hiding in red restaurants, if you're careful. All red highlighting means is that if you or anyone in your party orders the wrong combination of things, you can lose money. Later today, I'll also post some tips for avoiding bad deals during Restaurant Week, which I suggest you read before going to a red restaurant.

I had to make a few assumptions, because of the ways restaurants design menus. First, I assumed that a cup of soup is worth $4 if the restaurant says "soup of the day" and doesn't have a price for it on the menu. I also assumed that ice cream is worth $4 and a regular dessert is worth $8, if the restaurant doesn't have a price for it on their menu. Amuse bouches or other "chef's gifts" don't count, because they can't be valued and you might get them as a regular diner. It's almost guaranteed that I made some arithmetic errors, since I was doing the math on over 400 restaurants. I will be updating this database as I get corrected or, as happened last year, if restaurants issue new, more bargain-filled menus.

So here's your Ultimate Guide to Restaurant Week 2017. You can either click the link or view it below. Good luck!