Ever since we were freshman at Penn, we've heard the bi-annual "buzz" that is Center City Restaurant Week. Our older peer advisors raved about how this event was a great way to experience the many restaurants that Philly had to offer. For those of you who don't know, Philly's Restaurant Week creates a (near) city-wide food event, where participating restaurants offer special 3 (or sometimes more) course menus for a fixed price. When we first arrived in Philly, this event was only one week (usually 7 days) long, the only meal offered was dinner, and the price was a "mere" $30 per person.
So of course we saved our money and started anticipating this event. Our first Restaurant Week dinner was at Lolita- an adorable Mexican restaurant that is still one of our favorites in the city. With entrees all priced above $20, we thought we were getting a great deal. Since that meal, we have experienced several restaurants via the special Restaurant Week deals- Lacroix at the Rittenhouse Hotel, XIX at the Bellevue, Zahav, Salento, and Supper. Every time we went to pay the check however, I still felt like I was paying a lot- particularly when we were undergrads. A few years ago, the price increased to $35 for dinner, and for two with tax and tip the bill would top $90. It was definitely a "splurge."
As we've become more accustomed to dining out (and spending the $$$), we've slowly come to realize that Restaurant Week isn't as great as we used to believe. Most importantly, unless we're eating at one of the top tier restaurants, we almost never spend $90 for dinner (yes, Amis was an exception! It happens). We can easily experience most of the 100+ restaurants for a good deal less than that- and have the option of choosing anything on the menu, not just the limited few items the Restaurant Week menu offers. To be honest, some of our cost cutting ways also involve cutting calories- a three course restaurant meal is usually just too much food. Sharing an appetizer and a dessert (or hitting up Rita's on the way home) still leaves us stuffed and with $15-20 extra in the bank account.
However, maybe you're in the mood to eat a lot, or maybe you're fine with the ridiculous amount of fat, calories, and salt that usually accompany restaurant meals. In that case, you may be thinking $35 for 3 courses is perfectly acceptable! The case still stands that you're usually NOT getting that much bang for your buck (**unless the restaurant offers more than 3 courses, in which case, our argument that you really do NOT want that much food is more pertinent here). Take for example, the Restaurant Week menu for Twenty Manning. A stylish, romantic restaurant right off of Rittenhouse Square- sounds great right? I start with the Grilled Lemongrass Meatballs ($8 off the regular menu), order the Seared Ahi Tuna as an entree ($22), and end with one of the variety of desserts ($7-$8). A delicious meal, but I saved $2-3 by coming during Restaurant Week. On top of that, I didn't get a prime-time seating on Friday night because of other RW diners, my waiter was much less attentive that normal, and the food came out in rapid succession, cutting my dining experience much shorter than if I had come on any other Friday night of the year. All for that whopping savings! Not. Worth. It. Another example: Rouge. Another trendy Rittenhouse staple. The menu is so limited that I'm not even going to analyze the cost comparison: for the first course you can choose from a soup and two salads, for an entree: salmon, chicken, a burger, or a vegetable risotto, topped off with gelato for dessert. If I can't get a salad, a burger, and gelato for less than $35... it's pathetic.
There are a few tips that we recommend if you just must make RW reservations. First, compare menus as we have just done- make sure you are getting a good deal. Second, choose a restaurant that is not super "trendy"- this prohibits Stephen Starr or Jose Garces places. People will be clamoring for these spots, and the service will almost certainly not be up to par. Third, go for lunch! Lunch was added just last year for $20; many restaurants offer a very similar menu for both lunch and dinner, so if you can get out of work (and go back in a food stupor), it's worth it monetarily.
We have had *very good* RW experiences at both Zahav and Supper. This may be because these restaurants are just stellar and it would be impossible to have bad experiences here but.. we thoroughly enjoyed them and did not feel as if they were busier/trying to rush us. At Zahav, the menu mirrors the pre fixe menu that is available EVERY night for just $1 more, so it definitely isn't a big savings. However, it is worth every penny. The food is different than anything in the city and every dish is a delight. Last year, Supper had FIVE courses on their RW menu. You may be thinking that this goes against what I said earlier about stuffing our faces, but the dishes at Supper take "small tapas style" to a new level. The flavors are amazing but the servings are MINI. Five courses was not too much food, but instead perfectly satisfying. The food here is some of the best we've had, but if we went on a normal night, it would be way too much money to fill our stomachs- we calculated that our meals were "worth" over $50. A great deal. Unfortunately, the restaurant must have realized how good of a deal this was, as they have cut their RW menu to four courses this year.
So for those of you who just love Restaurant Week and plan your reservations ASAP, think about what you're getting in return. RW shouldn't be "an opportunity to try something new"-- you can do that any day while still saving yourself money and getting the most out of the restaurant experience.