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10 Tips To Avoid Losing Money During Restaurant Week

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jan 20, 2017 4:00PM

A steak dish that will help you get your money's worth during Restaurant Week.

Note: This is a heavily modified version of last year's list of tips and tricks. Some things about Restaurant Week change, some things stay the same.

This week, I revealed my ultimate guide to the good and bad deals of Restaurant Week. I did the math on every single 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 be even longer than it already is. However, after looking at that many menus (and knowing a little bit about how restaurants work), I got a good sense of how to spot a good value. I also got a good sense of what to avoid. This is especially important if you're dining at one of those "red" highlighted restaurants where it's possible to actually lose money if you do Restaurant Week wrong.

Here are my top tips to make the most of Restaurant Week.

Don't Be A Vegetarian or Order Anything Vegetarian.

I have nothing against vegetarians, of course, but Restaurant Week is the wrong time to be one. Most places offer 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, but generally, if you order a vegetarian dish, you're gonna lose money.

Shortribs and Salmon (and Trout and Mixed Greens and Pork Shoulder) Are Your 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 50 percent of them) and they aren't on the restaurant's regular menu, I will bet you cash money that it's so the restaurant can offer a beef main course that doesn't cost them all that 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. Also, if the restaurant has a really nice salad menu, but the restaurant week salad is a "mixed greens" salad that appears nowhere on it? You're getting shafted.

Good Lord, Don't Order Soup

The best way to lose money on a Restaurant Week meal? Order "soup of the day." That's why I only valued it at $4 when doing my calculations; it's just not a good value. A ton of places list it, and many of them are highlighted in red on our list because of it. You also won't be able to tell what you're getting in advance, and when selections are so limited, that's important. If you see "soup of the day," consider going somewhere else.

Look for Sizes On Your Steak

Unsurprisingly, given what restaurants charge for steak in this town, the places that offer good steaks are usually a good value. But this is also an easy trap, if a restaurant uses this to their advantage to make you think you're getting a good deal. Beware "steak" without a specified cut. Beware "filet" without a size. And keep an eye on those non-beef dishes at steakhouses. If you, a steak-lover and go to dinner with someone who doesn't like red meat, they are almost certainly losing money when they order the chicken or the risotto, even if you're making bank on your fancy steak.

Beware Existing Prix Fixe Menus

A few spots have existing prix fixe menus that are a better deal than Restaurant Week or pretty close to Restaurant Week, but without the crowds. 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. Restaurant Week includes wine, but what if you don't drink? Similarly, Topolobampo offers the exact same lunch deal it has during Restaurant Week for $25 instead of $22. If you can't get a reservation or want to beat the crowds, just eat the extra $3.

Go For Lunch

As you can see from all the math, dinners are a minefield of potential mistakes. But 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.

Skip Brunch

Brunch is new in 2017, and I was pretty excited. Unfortunately, there's one big problem: most of them don't really add up. It's rare to see a really good brunch deal. Plus, do you want three courses of brunch food? I certainly don't; I'd rather pay $14 for one great brunch dish than $22 for three.

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 you can't make substitutions. So if you don't have a sweet tooth or won't finish your dessert, 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. Finally, if you order gelato or sorbet, you're losing money; there's no way that little scoop of ice cream is helping you get a bargain.

Watch 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 do 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 a bargain that makes up for a missing $10 course. Also, if you're a non-drinker and the only way that the menu adds up is with booze, you're going to be out of luck.

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 dish, 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.