Foodies hunting for> a cheap meal want to know: Are Restaurant Week promotions a good deal?
These offers, which feature lunches and dinners at a low, fixed price, have taken the country by storm in recent years. Most major cities offer at least one, with many offering them seasonally. Now towns, counties, individual city districts and even entire states have banded together to offer them. There are also themed Restaurant Weeks where kids eat free, or to celebrate a particular cuisine or wine.
It s not surprising to see Restaurant Weeks taking off in the down economy, says Bonnie Riggs, the restaurant industry analyst for market research firm NPD Group. The industry has been hard hit in the recession, with more consumers opting to cook at home. This increases awareness, and gets more people out, she says. In May, 24% of visits to casual-dining restaurants were spurred by available deals, a 9% increase from this time last year, she says. Restaurant Week is an even more attractive promotion for high-end restaurants because they get to offer value without resorting to a coupon or obvious discount, which could damage the brand, says Aaron Allen, an industry consultant.
The deals can be equally attractive for consumers, who get to try out a place that would normally be a strain on their budget. This is the opportunity to check off that big-name, fancy place you ve wanted to try, Allen says. That said, some Restaurant Weeks offerings are a better deal than others. Common diner complaints include less-attentive service, long waits due to large crowds and an inability to get reservations. The food may also be lesser in quality or portion size than the restaurant s full-price offerings.
Use these eight tips to maximize the value and get a great dining experience:
Read the reviews
Message boards on sites including UrbanSpoon.com and Yelp.comthe city s Summer Restaurant Week, for example, users at Chowhound.com praised the menu items at some places and criticize service at others.
While midday meals might be more crowded with business diners, they trump evenings when it comes to value, says Nick Fauchald, the editor of foodie resource Tasting Table. The prix fixe menus typically are cheaper, albeit more restrictive. Keep in mind that at some higher-end restaurants, lunch may be the only opportunity. New York s popular restaurant Tabla -- where the summer city deal runs through July 25 -- offers a Restaurant Week menu ($24.07) only for lunch, eschewing the $35 dinner option for its regular, full-price menu. Some restaurants also avoid weekend participation.
The enticingly cheap two- or three- course Restaurant Week meal is likely to be just part of your total bill. Profit margins on food are slim, so anticipate extra charges that may crop up, Allen says. Restaurants may push more profitable wine or cocktail pairings, or add a supplement charge for expensive options. For example, Zylo Tuscan Steak House in Hoboken, N.J., offers five entree choices in its $35 dinner menu for Hudson Restaurant Week (July 26 through Aug. 6), but charges a $10 supplement for diners who want an 20-ounce bone-in ribeye or 10-ounce filet mignon instead of the branzino, chicken or 10-ounce skirt steak.
There may also be non-food fees for valet parking, as well as extra tips for a sommelier or sushi chef, in addition to the 10% to 20% expected for your server, he says.
Go during the winter
With major cities offering several restaurant weeks throughout the year, winter may be the better time to visit, Riggs says. Restaurant demand peaks in the summer. Diners are likely to encounter fewer crowds during winter weeks, as well as restaurants more eager for their business.
Hunt for extra deals
Before making a reservation, check for extra deals on its site and the site of the Restaurant Week organizer. During the Baltimore Summer Restaurant Week (Aug. 13-22), select city garages are offering discounted parking, while the Orange County, Calif., Kids Restaurant Week held in June let kids eat free with the purchase of an adult meal. American Express is awarding New York cardholders a $15 statement credit when they register their card and dine out at least three times during Restaurant Week.
On the flip side, you might find that the Restaurant Week deal isn t the best available bargain. Venues that participate at Restaurant.com, for example, regularly offer $25 gift certificates for $10 -- a price that can be knocked down to as little as $1 with the site s regular coupon codes. But they rarely allow to certificates to be used in conjunction with other deals. A Restaurant Week offering for $35, in comparison, is not much of an incentive, Allen says.
Peruse the menu
A common complaint about Restaurant Week: The special is so-so. To limit the risk of a bad meal, aim high, Fauchald says. A top-notch restaurant that takes itself seriously tends to go above and beyond, he says. They won t risk a bad review. Another good sign: one or two of the restaurant s signature dishes available on the prix fixe. Familiar dishes on the menu (which diners could easily compare visit to visit) indicate that the restaurant isn t skimping on effort or ingredients, Allen says.
Make a reservation
It s tough to get into some of the best restaurants without one, Fauchald says. Reserve early, and use a free site like OpenTable.com, which awards 100 points per reservation. Rack up 2,000 for a $20 dining check usable at any of the restaurants that use the site.
Check the promotion length
Restaurant Week is something of a misnomer, Fauchald says. Oftentimes the official promotions last several weeks, while individual restaurants may opt to continue the deals informally for months. If the Restaurant Week promotion is actually the restaurant s regular prix fixe offering, there s no good reason to go there (at least, not right away).