Getty: Thomas Barwick

Nearly every major city or small town offers Restaurant Week these days, but is it really worth the money? Here are 6 smart ways to make the most of your dining experience.

Elizabeth Laseter
August 16, 2017

Restaurant Week evokes strong opinions among local foodies—they either embrace it or completely avoid it. Many cities, from busy urban areas to small rural towns, offer their own rendition these days, and for good reason. Restaurant Week is a perfect marketing opportunity for any restaurant, from a mainstay diner to a hot new eatery. It’s also a chance for diners to support local food scenes through trying new spots or old favorites. The format is straightforward—participating restaurants offer a lunch or dinner prix-fixe menu composed of two to three courses. The hope is, you’ll love it so much that you’ll want to come back after Restaurant Week ends.

While Restaurant Week generates buzz for local food scenes, one of the hardest and most frustrating tasks is choosing the right place to eat. In some cases, the special menus are not a good value. You may dish out $30 or $40 for a prix-fixe menu that skimps on portions or offers dishes unreflective of the restaurant’s finest. Even worse, you realize that it’s simply a better deal to dine at the restaurant during any other week of the year. And while these are disheartening scenarios, you should never assume that a restaurant is intentionally trying to dog you. Many places use the event as a chance to launch new and innovative dishes you wouldn't ordinarily see. While it may take a little extra research to seek out the best dining destination, we promise it’s well worth the effort.

With all of this in mind, support your local food scene by dining out during your city's Restaurant Week. Before you make a reservation, take these 6 helpful tips to heart to ensure you're getting the most from your experience.

1. Don’t Automatically Expect a Deal

A restaurant is a business, and like any establishment, it has to make money to stay open. The same rules apply to Restaurant Week, so you shouldn’t expect anyplace, from fine-dining concepts to mom-and-pop joints, to give away food for free. Furthermore, here’s something diners might not have considered—on top of normal operating and food costs, restaurants typically pay a fee (which can be pricey) to local tourism bureaus to participate in Restaurant Week.

2. Do the Math

If the Restaurant Week menu offers the same dishes you’d normally find on the menu, compare the total costs. If the prix-fixe price is higher, then you’re probably not getting a very good deal. Additionally, if you plan to order a bottle of wine or cup of coffee, make sure to factor in those costs. However, some restaurants will include a cocktail or glass of house wine with the prix-fixe meal.

3. Check the Menu in Advance

If you’re interested in a specific restaurant, check the Restaurant Week menu ahead of time if possible. Your city’s official Restaurant Week website is usually a reliable resource. Look at each course’s offerings, including the ingredients and preparation, and ask yourself if it’s worth the price. Typical “pricey” foods may include lobster, crab, grouper or sea bass, wagyu beef, and truffles. Spot any of these items and keep reading, because how they’re incorporated into the dish is important. For example, a pasta dish may only give you a few pieces of said premium ingredient. Additionally, make sure the menu offers standard serving sizes, such as a 6 oz. filet mignon.

4. Be Aware of Extra Charges

Some restaurants, particularly upscale steakhouses, may offer a filet mignon or New York strip steak on their Restaurant Week menu. In theory, this should be an excellent value. However, often times the dish is simply the meat with no accompanying sauces or sides—to enjoy any of these, you may have to pay extra. While this should not deter you from dining at a certain restaurant, it’s something to note ahead of time.

5. Be Adventurous

While chain restaurants can offer a predictable experience, that’s not why Restaurant Week exists. Think of it as your big chance to try something new in town, whether it’s that just-opened ramen shop, oyster bar, or tapas joint. When choosing what dish to order, try to avoid traditional Caesar or garden salads, pasta, or chicken entrees unless they have a unique or special component.

6. Don't be a Jerk

An influx of reservations can make Restaurant Week a stressful time for front-of-house and back-of-house teams. If the dining room is packed, and your food takes a little longer than expected, don’t immediately panic. More often than not, restaurants want you to have a positive experience so that you will return. While most places give you the chance to tip your server at the end of the meal, don't forget about the kitchen. For a extra few dollars, some restaurants let you order a “beer for the kitchen.” If you do it, we guarantee you’ll make someone’s day.