The dates for Restaurant Week were leaked last week, and now that I’m on Twitter, I’ve been hearing both sides of the eternal debate – is Restaurant Week worth it? Alex, the foodie over at Brightest Young Things and I got into a brief discussion, she is anti-Restaurant Week, and I’m pro, so I wrote her an email explaining my stance, the text of which follows. After I defend RW, then I’ll go on to share my picks for which places are the best bets this go round. If you’re not interested in my defense, you can skip right to that part, I won’t hate you. But, without further ado, here’s my pro-Restaurant Week diatribe for Alex:
I hear the haters, I do – I understand – the service during Restaurant Week can be crappy, the restaurant loses more than it makes so you get the cheapest food items they can serve, smaller portions, the kitchen gets tired of cranking out the same food over and over and the quality lacks. I get it. I hear you when you say if you’re a REAL foodie, you’ll stay far away during hell week and go back after the restaurants have recovered. But you know what I say to all that? Suck it.
Restaurants can crash or shine during restaurant week, and I think it’s a telltale sign of a diner-centric, service-driven here-to-stay restaurant if they do RW right. Plus, restaurants can choose whether or not to participate – smart ones do. Take Dino for example – a perfect restaurant week place. They serve practically their entire menu, and not only that, but they throw in added bonuses like muscato before dessert. The service was flawless, the place was packed, but they handled the crush extremely well, it just felt like a super busy Friday night, we just got in and out for much cheaper than if we had gone at full price. This is the essence of whatall is good about restaurant week. Dino wants to show the diners what they can do – so they send out great food.
Any restaurant worth its two cents will know how to staff, handle and feed a rush – restaurant week shows you what a place is made of. The servers might hate it, but they paste on a smile anyways. I had a fantastic server at Georgia Browns last winter, friendly, asked if we wanted more bread, and maintained a rapport with us the entire night, while totally in the weeds. I’ve worked in the business, at one of the crazy busiest chain restaurants ever – PF Changs. I know what that onslaught all night feels like! But a place that is well run and here to stay will know what to expect and prepare for it ahead of time. I was dining at Equinox right before the February 2009 RW and overheard the waiter discussing it with another table admitting he didn’t like it but that Chef Todd Gray tells his staff there’s absolutely no excuse not to give everyone the same service and same food they would in any other circumstance. And you know what? Gray and Equinox has been a well-respected staple in the DC dining scene for years and consistently churns out GREAT food. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
The second great thing about restaurant week is that it energizes the scene – have you ever seen as many Yelp reviews go up at once? I don’t really care how you feel about the legitimacy of Yelp and yelpers, you can’t deny that RW gets people talking, thinking, and critiquing the DC dining scene. Even my laziest, most complacent un-foodie friends get off their butts and out on the town at least once. There’s nothing about that that is bad for business, our fair city, or the lovely people that live here. Smart restaurants will know this is an investment in their dining future for the fall and winter – they’ll know that if they send out great food, with great service, for a week solid that they’ll get paid back in buzz and good reviews. In the peer-to-peer culture we live in, there’s no better opinion leaders than your friends. Smart diners will know to choose a place that offers a large, robust menu, that has done RW before, is known universally on Don Rockwell, ChowHound and yes, Yelp for good service, and will go earlier on in the week. Long live restaurant week!
Okay, so with that said, (I’m stepping off my soap box now) here’s maybe what you really came for – my picks for you.
So, my first advice with RW is always to sort the list by price. I sound like a broken record to those readers who have been with me through a few RW’s, but I MEAN IT HERE PEOPLE. Open Table has a sort function. USE IT. Restaurants like Co Co Sala, for example, sound like a good idea until you think it through. They’ve got great food, good service but DOH! They serve a prix-fixe menu throughout the year. Don’t go there. I mean do, definitely go, just not during RW. So start at the top and work your way down – 1789, for example, would be one of my picks. Expensive, delicious, and a staple in the DC dining scene I can’t afford normally. There are other great places on the list that you’ll be able to afford normally, without the special – Zaytinya, for example. Or Jaleo. Oyamel. Look at the prices of the regular menu before you go off booking. Also – a place that you’ve never heard of could be a hidden gem, but check around first? Use the We Love DC We Love Food archives, or even head on over to Washingtonian, WaPo or ChowHound and do a little research.
The other thing to consider is who is going to extend the specials. Oya, for example, is fun, trendy, and is quite delicious, but is known to extend the RW special menu for another month or two after. Why try and rush there during RW? Same thing for 2941, great place, but will extend.
Another thing to ask yourself is how long a restaurant has been around. Columbia Firehouse, for example, I’ve heard is outstandingly tasty, but they’re brand spankin’ new – and that means the waitstaff is new, and the kinks haven’t been worked out. Can they handle being totally in the weeds for an entire week and still churn out great food? I’m not sure they’re ready. Maybe they are, but do I want to risk it? Nah. I’ll wait til a normal night. Eatonville is another – I’ve already told you how much I like it, buuuuuuut, same risk. I’m not sure I’d take it. I won’t hate on you if you do, because maybe they’ll gear right up and it’ll be great, but I’m just sayin’…
Also, people, stay away from chains! Ruth’s Chris? Really? Go to Ray’s on Sunday night and get the A Place At the Table special. Don’t go to Ruth’s Chris. Same with Mortons and McCormick and Schmicks, and on and on. You get the idea. There are so many more worthwhile, interesting, UNIQUE places to dine in DC.
So, my best bets? Here they are:
1789, Cafe Atlantico, Ceiba, Acadiana, Me Jana, PS 7’s, Kinkeads, and Willow.
Places that would be worth a lunch, if you’re in the area? Westend Bistro and Adour at the St. Regis.
Now, go forth and reserve!