D.C. Restaurant Week: Is It Worth It?

Not everyone dives to make reservations

Note: This article was originally published July 21, 2010.

POINT: D.C. Restaurant Week is (almost) a double rainbow of delights.

I'll admit that D.C. Restaurant Week isn't for anyone who's cranky, impatient or expecting consistently amazing experiences. And with drinks, tax and tip not included in the $20.10 lunch or $35.10 dinner, you could end up actually spending close to double that when all is said and done (and eaten). But all that aside, I'm arguing in favor of the event, as long as you know how to play the game.

Don't go somewhere you eat often. You're likely to end up frustrated by the service (it's always busier during Restaurant Week) or disappointed in the options on the limited prix fixe menus.

But the week is a great way to break out of your rut/comfort level/economic abilities. Go somewhere you normally couldn't afford -- as long as you're opting in on the Restaurant Week menu, you already have an estimated budget.

Since reservations for participating locations are snapped up quickly, you may end up with your second -- or third, or fourth -- choice.

Or you could end up just blindly making a reservation for a place you've never heard of. Hey, most long-time D.C. residents have done that at one point or another. And sure, things could end badly (how many foods can possibly be made into compote?), but you could also discover a new fave. It happened to me with Acadiana.

And consider this: D.C. Restaurant Week comes but twice a year. Every group of friends has a cruise director, the person who bravely sends out the mass email seeking interested and/or hungry participants who own something nicer than a tank top.

I know that even if I don't see some of these folks for months, I'll get to meet up with them for a nice (or mundane, or admittedly occassionally awful) meal. With good company, crowded tables with long waits between courses can actually turn out to be a good thing.

-- Carissa DiMargo

COUNTERPOINT: D.C. Restaurant Week is rain on the crafty diner's parade.

Truth be told, eating out isn't for anyone who's cranky or impatient. It's a marvel whenever chef and servers come together, overcoming all the things that can and always do go wrong in the kitchen, to craft a brilliant dining experience. Twice a year -- when Congress is out of session and restaurants are struggling for the business -- Restaurant Week promises brilliant and affordable dining. Does it deliver either?

D.C. Restaurant Week isn't really about giving diners a great deal on the cheap. If it were, the prix fixe menus for lunch ($20.10) and dinner ($35.10) wouldn't cost as much as they do. At many of the restaurants that participate in Restaurant Week, after all, the difference in cost between dining during Restaurant Week and dining any day of any other week is nominal at best.

Take a best-case example: Zola, a restaurant that's often praised for offering its full menu instead of restricted options. If you ordered the house-cured salmon pastrami ($10) and the handmade hamburger on salt-and-pepper roll ($12), you'd spend $22. Granted, the Restaurant Week prix fixe includes a dessert -- but I can count the number of times I've ordered dessert during lunch on one hand.

A dinner at Zola of Taylor Bay scallops ($12) and the local Virginian veal loin ($26) gets within a fiver of the Restaurant Week price. Mind you, that doesn't include desserts, which are each $7. Of course, you could order Zola's $39 prix fixe menu any time -- and that holds true at a number of area restaurants.

And note that most Restaurant Week restaurants aren't Zola. At Againn downtown, for example, you can order the Loch Duart salmon or the Tamworth pork belly for dinner -- but not the crispy confit chicken leg, the braised shoulder of Shenandoah lamb, the whole roasted fish, the roasted Chatham cod, the roasted natural hanger steak, or the roast of the day.

On a normal night, pairing any one of those entrees with the Rhode Island squid (which is excellent, and also not available on the Restaurant Week menu) would cost you less than $35.10. Restaurant Week gets you dessert, but most desserts at Againn are $8 -- $4 if you split one.

It goes without saying that all the hubbub surrounding Restaurant Week drives down table availability. Does it drive down quality, too?

According to one Restaurant Week account from Vidalia last year, the answer is yes. Restaurant Week meals may be made with Restaurant Week ingredients -- and from anecdotal evidence, they're far too often served with Restaurant Week service.

There is one great way to plan for Restaurant Week, though. Get some friends together and make a reservation at the restaurant of your choosing, so long as it's not involved in Restaurant Week. Or go the week before. Order what you like -- but consider skipping dessert.

-- Kriston Capps

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