Young and Hungry

Is Restaurant Week a Rip-Off? We Did the Math.

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Savvy diners have long realized that Restaurant Week isn't a particularly stellar deal. Considering that booze, tax, and tip are not included in the fixed dinner price of $35.14, a night out during Restaurant Week doesn't differ much from a night out any other week in D.C., except you often have to order from a limited menu and the waitstaff is probably more harried. Notable exceptions aside, Restaurant Week at best seems to be a good excuse to try a new place, show some support to the local dining scene, and maybe save a couple of bucks.

But what if you aren't saving a few bucks? The value of your Restaurant Week meal can be difficult to calculate because so many of the items on a restaurant's RW menu are not on the regular menu, where you could see their normal prices. Several establishments, in fact, feature absolutely nothing from their regular menu during Restaurant Week (looking at you, Edgar Bar & Kitchen), while others only feature their very cheapest entrees (ahem, Georgia Brown's).

But plenty of restaurants feature enough regular-menu items during Restaurant Week to abet some back-of-the-envelope mathematical analysis. A look at nearly two dozen restaurants participating in Restaurant Week shows not only that many of these dinners aren't not much of a deal, but that you may actually be paying much more than what they're worth.

(A couple of notes on my methodology: I compared each establishment's posted Restaurant Week menu with the regular menu it has online. And I gave each restaurant the benefit of the doubt, and assumed it's serving the same size portions during Restaurant Week that it does otherwise. )

Take Vinoteca, which, to its credit, does offer all regular-menu items. Unfortunately, you'd have to work pretty hard to choose items that add up $35. By my calculations, the absolute best value you could squeeze out of the Restaurant Week menu would be to order the arugula, a bison dish, and a chocolate flight—based on their regular-menu prices, these add up to $39. But ordering sweet potatoes, a chicken and lentils dish, and pumpkin ice cream would only get you to $31. Swap duck for the chicken and you bump up the tab a few bucks, but the majority of your options (grilled squid, Jerusalem artichoke soup, gnocchi) will fall short of $35. (Meanwhile, Zagat calls Vinoteca one of the week's deals.)

Likewise at El Centro D.F., you can increase the value of your dinner by ordering the rock fish, which alone is priced at $26 regularly. But should you order chicken flautas, cheese enchiladas, and dessert, for example, you're getting just $27 worth of food. Sub in grilled nopal tacos for the enchiladas, and you lose another dollar in value. Forking over 35 bucks, plus tax and tip, for $26 of food isn't what most diners would probably consider a great deal.

Other offenders: Lincoln, where pork belly, short ribs, and brown butter fudge cake are worth $34 (swap pumpkin pear risotto for the ribs and it drops to $32); and La Tasca, which pulls the brazen move of offering the same menu options for lunch and dinner and only distinguishes the two meals by tacking on a glass of wine or sangria to the dinner menu. (The price difference between Restaurant Week lunch and dinner is $15. The most expensive glass of wine La Tasca will let you get at dinner is $9.50, and all the sangrias are $7.25.)

Vegetarians in particular get stiffed during Restaurant Week. At Bandolero, a meat-eater could get a decent discount on suckling pig, but if you stuck with sikil pak, butternut squash, brussels sprouts, and cookies, your meal would be worth an underwhelming $29.

Curiously, one of the Washington Post's "13 critic-approved" recommendations for Restaurant Week is, price-wise, one of the most egregious offenders. Daikaya's izakaya lets you pick a ton of stuff from different categories—little bites, green things, skewers, etc.—but almost all of it is already cheap. Edamame, grilled avocado, zucchini, chicken kara-age, and a rice ball seems like a lot of food, but if you paid for it off the regular menu, your tab would be a mere $23.25. Add ice cream, which can't be more than $5, and you're still well under the RW price. A few substitutions (beef tenderloin for the zucchini, or miso salmon for the chicken) would raise the price only five bucks.

Other restaurants are so reasonably priced already it seems ridiculous for them to participate in Restaurant Week. Sette Osteria only includes a few regular menu items in its RW offerings, and both (a $14 ravioli dish and salmon for $17.95) are already a fine deal. Matchbox, one of the more affordable options on Barracks Row and 14th Street NW, is offering a tiny Restaurant Week menu (just two options per course, none of them on their regular menu). Judging by what Matchbox normally charges for salads ($7-$10), pizzas ($13-$15), and dessert (all but one are $8), it's hard to see how a diner gets anything but fleeced by the Restaurant Week menu.

There are, of course, bright spots in the Restaurant Week catalog, many of which have been documented elsewhere. I consider the cash I dropped during a previous Restaurant Week at Vidalia to be well spent. But for diners who are disinclined to do arithmetic before heading out for a nice dinner, this week is probably a good time to cook at home.

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