There are a few things to keep in mind about Center City District Restaurant Week, the popular dining promotion that’s taken place in Philadelphia each year since 2003:
First, it’s longer than a week. Second, going 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 abridged.
However, the third thing to remember is that despite the fact that the promotion 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 how to find real values, here’s a guide to doing Restaurant Week right.
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 before bedtime.
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.
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 (the notion that the word stands for To Insure Prompt Service is spurious). However, 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.
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.
If you’re able to make time in the middle of the day, lunch is a good option. Not only do the three courses come for $20 instead of $35, 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, .
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.
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.