Dining during Restaurant Week can be a good or bad deal, depending on the circumstances.
You’ll have no shortage of opportunity to dine during a Restaurant Week promotion, which offers prix fixe meals at set, usually cheap, price points. They’ve become a popular deal.
Some hold to the name, lasting just a week, while others last a month or more.
Not only do most major cities offer them, but they are also trickling down to smaller cities and counties.
There are even themed weeks in larger cities—for example, New York has Restaurant Weeks in winter (starting Feb. 17 this year) and summer, along with a Belgian Restaurant Week, a French Restaurant Week, and a Chinatown Restaurant Week, among others.
But promotion doesn’t always equal deal. Some restaurant week menus are still set at fairly high prices, costing $40 or $50 per person. Plus drinks. Plus tax. Plus tip.
That adds up to an expensive night out without careful assessment. Here’s how to tell if you’re getting a good Restaurant Week value:
Check the year-round prix fixe menu.
Sometimes the Restaurant Week “deal” is the same one you could buy on any other day of the year.
That doesn’t make it a bad deal—just one that may be more attractive in a few months, when other Restaurant Week participants are back to their normal (higher) prices.
Ideally, the Restaurant Week menu will offer some savings compared to ordering those dishes a la carte, says Jon Lal, founder of coupon site BeFrugal.com.
No overlap with the regular menu? “Compare the average regular price of a typical dish at the restaurant to the Restaurant Week price,” he says.
Again, the Restaurant Week offerings should represent some price break.
(A Chicago Magazine assessment found that vegetarians in particular might have a heard time breaking even.)
Assess menu choices.
Boston revamped its Restaurant Week this year after owners complained that the old price made it difficult to offer signature dishes without losing money.
It’s a common complaint–and one worth paying attention to. If a restaurant’s best dishes aren’t on the Restaurant Week menu, do you really want to go?
Some Restaurant Weeks offer extra deals, like discounted or free parking. American Express has offered statement credits to cardholders who dine out multiple times during the event.
It’s also smart to be on the lookout for other offers. “If a restaurant has a reward points club, you need to sign up for those programs, too,” says Cherie Lowe of QueenofFree.net.
Ask about portions.
“Sometimes restaurants add an extra course to their Restaurant Week menu to sound competitive, but serve much smaller portions,” says Lal.
(Frugal Foodie encountered this at one NYC barbecue joint, where an advertised rib appetizer turned out to be a single rib.)
It’s not a deal if you leave hungry.
In some cases, you can only get the Restaurant Week menu if everyone orders it.
Other restaurants require reservations, or only offer the Restaurant Week menu during certain seatings (lunch, for example, or weeknights).
There might even be supplement charges for ordering certain items.
Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.