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How to do Center City Restaurant Week: 9 tips from a food pro

There are a few things to keep in mind about Center City District Restaurant Week, the super-popular promotion that’s taken place in Philadelphia each year since 2003:

First, it’s way longer than a week (this year it runs January 18-30, minus the intervening Saturday, so 12 days). Second, dining out during Restaurant Week doesn’t necessarily offer a true glimpse of what a place is actually like — dining rooms are busier than usual, so service can suffer, and most of the menus for the three-course $35 dinners and $20 lunches are highly abridged.

However, the third thing to remember is that despite the fact that Restaurant Week is at heart a marketing gimmick, there are good deals and fun times to be found. You just have to know how. From reservation tips to where to find real values to the skinny on alternate deals, here’s the Billy Penn guide to Restaurant Week. Eat well and good luck!

  • Be Flexible

If you don’t already have reservations, chances are you won’t score one during prime dining hours. But food tastes just as good at 5 p.m. as it does at 7 p.m. (if you skip lunch, it’ll taste even better), and dining out late-night is way better than munching on snacks in front of the computer, anyway.

That said, there are still primetime spots available at several less-talked-about dining rooms, so if you’re up for giving Society Hill’s Bistro Romano or Rittenhouse’s Fuji Mountain a try, snag that 7:30 p.m. table and head over.

  • Be Nice

If you do go out late, realize servers have likely been running around more than usual by the time you get there. A little extra kindness can go a long way — not being snappy is a good way to increase your chances of getting your food quickly and accurately, something that holds true no matter what time you dine.

  • Tip Well

Do tips actually act as incentives for good service? Not exactly, since your server won’t know what you leave until your meal is over, but if Restaurant Week patrons decide as a group to leave better gratuities, it could put an end to the front-of-the-house griping that traditionally comes with the promotion. Happier servers = happier guests, simple as that.

  • Eat Steak
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Steak is always a good deal at 2nd Story Brewing Co.

Steakhouses are one of your best bets for a meal that would usually run you much higher than $35. At the Capital Grille, for example, one of your three courses can be a 14-oz. bone-in dry-aged steak that usually costs $43 on its own. At Del Frisco’s, it’s an 8-oz. filet mignon (usually $41), and at The Prime Rib, the namesake cut usually runs $38.

  • Look for Bounty

There are a handful of participating restaurants that, instead of holding back, make nearly the entire menu available. The Twisted Tail is one — fried chicken? burger? steak? crab cakes? beets? duck hearts? — and there’s also an extra course included in the prix fixe. Zahav is another, offering a Middle Eastern cornucopia of choices for your four courses. Bistrot La Minette sticks with three courses, but you get to choose them from the full selection of French cuisine.

  • Do Lunch
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Lunch with a view of the Schuylkill at Bistro St. Tropez

If you’re able to make time in the middle of the day, lunch is a good option. Not only are the three courses $15 cheaper, dining rooms are less likely to be jam-packed, and the service and kitchen staff will both be fresh. It’s a good chance to try places you might not venture during the evening, like Bank & Bourbon in the Loews hotel, or Bistro St. Tropez, the French restaurant hidden on the top floor of the Marketplace Design Center (although the dining room’s nighttime view of the Schuylkill is pretty killer).

  • Branch Out

Sure, everyone wants to go to the hot spots of the moment, but you might get better service (and find out about a fantastic dish before your friends do) if you try some of the older, more established restaurants on the list. Check out La Buca, for instance, a 38-year-old Italian dining room tucked below-ground by Washington Square, or Friday Saturday Sunday, where Samantha Orskog is the restaurant’s first female head chef in its 41 year history.

  • Don’t Double Book

If you can get them, it can be tempting to book several reservations for one evening, and then choose whichever one you most feel like on the night of. This is definitely not cool, since it leaves restaurants on the hook with empty tables and lost revenue. See “Tip Well” above; making the promotion smoother for servers and managers ends up making it smoother for everyone.

  • Go Alternative
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Bring on the meat at Percy Street

Not all Center City restaurants participate in Restaurant Week, and there are plenty of great spots outside the district’s borders, too. Here are five alt-RW promotions to take advantage of:

  • Percy Street Barbecue Meat Week: From January 18-30 at this South Street ‘cue joint, $20 per person brings a family-style spread of Erin O’Shea’s BBQ amazingness (chicken, pulled pork, brisket, cornbread, mac ‘n’ cheese and more).
  • Cafe Ynez Customer Appreciation Week: Hightail it to this Graduate Hospital Mexican between January 18-24 to score a three-course prix fixe meal for just $25.
  • London Grill Customer Appreciation Deal: For the entire month of January, this stalwart tavern in Fairmount is putting out a three-course feast featuring scallops or short ribs for just $20.15 per person.
  • American Sardine Bar Pittsburgh Cheesesteak: This is a snarky one, but if you bring proof of a canceled RW reservation, this Point Breeze pub will serve you Scott Schroder’s absurd cheesesteak creation — 60 day dry-aged NY strip, truffled Brie, foie gras gravy fries — for $25 instead of the regular $35 price.
  • Little Baby’s Keep the Industry Cool: Here’s one to win points with your friends in the industry — anyone who works in a participating restaurant will get half off cups and cones of ice cream for the duration of the RW promotion.

All photos by Danya Henninger

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