The “Restaurant Week” promotion in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has become so popular, the event has expanded from a single week once a year to two weeks twice a year. During Restaurant Week, dining establishments in Philly offer fixed-price menus and promise great deals for guests. Typically, three courses are offered for $20 at lunch and $35 at dinner. Some restaurants offer additional courses as well, or a 4 or 5-course small plate meal. More than one hundred restaurants and bars in Philadelphia participate in Restaurant Week currently, and the Fall 2010 dates were recently announced for September 12 – 17 and September 19 -24, 2010. Undoubtedly, reservations at some of the hottest city restaurants such as Amada, Estia and Zahav are already filling up quickly.
On the surface, Philadelphia’s Restaurant Week sounds like a great deal for everyone. Longtime city residents are encouraged to use the “special” pricing incentive of Restaurant Week to try out restaurants they haven’t been to before, perhaps thinking them too expensive normally. Tourists are encouraged to visit during Restaurant Week to experience Philly’s vibrant dining scene. For the participating restaurants, the event fills tables and draws in crowds on typically slower weeknights. But is Restaurant Week really any kind of bargain for the average consumer? I’ve participated in Restaurant Week for several years, eating at a number of different establishments each time, and have mixed feelings about the entire promotion. While there is no denying that Restaurant Week is good for restaurants in Philadelphia, I have problems finding it that great of an experience overall for diners.
Restaurant Week equals big crowds and a big hurry
Securing a reservation at a hot destination during Restaurant Week in Philadelphia can be a challenge. If you can get a reservation at all, you may be looking at dining extremely early or late, such as 5pm or 10pm. Other, less high-demand restaurants still take in many more reservations and diners than they usually may deal with on an average night. What this can mean for diners is significant. You can expect noisy, packed rooms, even in restaurants that are typically more quiet and serene. Service staff not used to operating under such high pressure may falter and not be as efficient as usual. Also, you may feel rushed as the restaurant needs to turn over its tables faster than usual. As such, Restaurant Week is not a great time to eat out if you want to enjoy a relaxing, slow-paced meal. It does not give one a feeling for the typical atmosphere of a restaurant, nor time to linger and savor each course.
Restaurant Week also means limited menus
Most restaurants participating in Restaurant Week in Philadelphia do so with limited menus. They will not offer their full, normal selection of appetizers, entrees and desserts, both to keep their costs down and to make it easier to complete that fast table turnover. The diner must make his or her choices from limited fixed-price selections, which may only include two or three choices per course. Expect a lot of places offering basic Caesar salads, grilled chicken, pastas and ice cream instead of their normal, more elaborate choices. Other restaurants prepare the same basic dishes as they normally do, but cheapen their ingredients. One popular restaurant substitutes shrimp for lobster in one of their signature dishes during Restaurant Week, while another has replaced duck with chicken. Vegetarian diners may find their options even more limited than usual, as well as those with any kind of food allergies or dietary restrictions.
Run the numbers and Restaurant Week may not be any real bargain
To determine if one is really going to get a special deal during Restaurant Week in Philadelphia, one must carefully investigate participating establishments’ normal menus and pricing. One Italian restaurant in Philadelphia I typically enjoy, Branzino, bragged during last Restaurant Week that they offered their entire menu during the promotion, with only the two most expensive entrees and one appetizer removed. While that was true, even ordering the most expensive items left on the menu didn’t result in huge savings over their regular prices. At best, with ordering an appetizer, meat entree and dessert, one saved about $8 over what a normal bill would be, or about 20%. Diners also could not choose one of the restaurant’s pasta or risotto dishes as a first course, as you normally might and as is very traditional in Italian dining. Those would only count as entrees. For someone who only rarely orders dessert, or typically shares one instead, the savings are even less as one may end up having to order more food than you normally would or would need.
As another example, popular Israeli restaurant Zahav regularly offers a multi-course tasting menu for $36. According to diners reporting on the messageboard Chowhound, their Restaurant Week “deal” was basically the same regular tasting meal, only for one dollar less.
With careful planning, one can find good deals during Restaurant Week
Despite all of these factors, it is possible to find some good deals during Restaurant Week in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This past February, I had an excellent Restaurant Week meal at Meritage. The restaurant offered diners the choice of either the fixed-price 3 course meal, featuring only slightly modified versions of their regular selections, or the option to dine from a shortened version of the regular menu. This is not always the choice, as many other restaurants do not offer their regular menu at all during Restaurant Week. I had an excellent pork belly appetizer, a generous and delicious hanger steak, and a terrific chocolate dessert that in no way felt like it was less-than-100% of what the kitchen could offer normally. My dining companion ordered off the regular menu and his four small-plate courses were perfectly timed to be served against my regular-sized three.
In conclusion, Philly’s Restaurant Week may not be the great bargain it promotes itself to be. Big crowds, limited menus, and limited savings add up to a lot of hype for the participating restaurants, but not the best deal for diners. Choose wisely if you do choose to participate in Restaurant Week at all, and know that you are generally not getting the best representations of what normal experiences at the participating restaurants are like.
* “Center City Philadelphia Restaurant Week.” Center City District / Central Philadelphia Corporation of Philadelphia.
* “Philly Restaurant week – Pennsylvania – Chowhound.” Chowhound.com.
* Personal experience.