Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Are "Restaurant Weeks" worth it?

Ezra doesn't think so:
Take, for example, PS7s. Excellent restaurant, if a bit pricey. Exactly the sort of place you might try during Restaurant Week. But how pricey? Depends what you order, of course. But say you order on the expensive side. You start with Sarah's Salad. "Mixed field greens with fresh strawberries, toasted sunflower seeds, rosemary-black pepper crouton and mascarpone and lemon dressing." Sounds good, right? Ten dollars. And maybe, as your main course, you order the cornmeal-fried trout. That's got "lemon-butter sauce, French beans and a ginger-tomato confiture." Delicious! $22.

You're still only at $32. Now, Restaurant Week includes a dessert, and dessert costs more than $2.09. But it's also the least interesting part of the meal. More to the point, there are certain costs to participating in Restaurant Week. For one, the menu is limited. And the few selections on the limited menu are made in great quantity, so they're often worse than they'd be on a normal night (sort of how the food at a large event catered by a restaurant is worse than the food you get if you went to the restaurant for dinner). The place will also be more crowded, the servers will be more harried, and there'll be more of an effort to rush you through your meal.

I feel like we just had a restaurant week here in Boston/Cambridge, but apparently we have one coming up in August just like DC. I would guess the last one was in Spring, so it makes sense to have another one at the height of local produce availability.

We made it out to two different restaurants for the Spring restaurant week(s)... Harvest with another couple and just the two of us at Upstairs on the Square. In both cases, it was a pretty good deal money wise since both of those places price their entrees in the $30 dollar range. It's still an expensive night out, and don't be fooled into thinking it's some amazing bargain... but I certainly didn't feel cheated... other than that it did convince us to go out for two expensive dinners in the span of two weeks, which is significantly higher than average for us. However, we'd been meaning to go to Harvest for ages, so it provided a nice excuse.

Of the two, I thought Upstairs on the Square was fantastic and Harvest... less so, but still quite good. Part of that in the latter case may be more of a "catering mentality", but it's not like we're talking 1000 plate banquets here... they still have the same number of seats, still offered their regular menus, and had several options in each course for their prix-fixe menu. So the idea that they all turn into veal cutlet factories for the duration of restaurant week seems a tad overblown.

I think Ezra also undersells the benefits of a prix-fixe menu where a skilled chef has selected courses and wine pairings for you. While I wouldn't want the guy in the back at Red Lobster telling me what to order... or even necessarily the chef of your average "nice" restaurant... it can certainly be a superb dining experience to have your menu crafted by an expert. My trip to L'Espalier, many moons ago, remains the finest dining experience of my life. The vegan tasting menu we had for Anna's birthday last year at Upstairs on the Square was similarly amazing. While I won't assert that your average restaurant week menu is going to be the equivalent of those experiences... it's only three course for one, and not $100 a person for two... but it should be a little more interesting than what most of us do when we go out and order a main dish and split a random appetizer. Presumably a trained chef has put some thought into how the elements work together to create the overall meal in a way I can't really do as an amateur.

So while I wouldn't bother with a, perfectly fine, but not all that exciting Grafton Street during Restaurant Week for the hassles Ezra mentions... but why not grab lunch at L'Espalier, even if it's only a modest price break from $40, since I wouldn't otherwise do it?