Reflections on Baltimore “Restaurant Week” (Published 2010/August)

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The 2010 summer version of Baltimore “Restaurant Week” runs from Friday, August 13th thru Sunday, August 22nd (Right, that’s 10 days long!).

The participating restaurant’s objective is to drum up business at two times of year when restaurants would otherwise be more emptier than not due to the height of the summer vacation season (or the depths of a Baltimore winter!). It’s a heavily advertised sales promotion offering a three course meal (appetizer, entree and dessert) for a “bargain” price of $35.10 for dinner and $20.10 for lunch (though not all restaurants offer the lunch deal). Before you jump and pick out a place to go, there are some things worth considering first.

How much of a deal is a $35 dinner? Whether you consider that a bargain or a wallet busting splurge probably depends on what you’re used to spending for dinner. Even if you don’t order any beverages, with 6% sales tax and an average 15% tip for your server, you’re talking about spending about $42.50 per person for just food for dinner. Add just one cocktail or glass of wine (which at many of these places can easily run $7.50 to $10) and the price of your “bargain” dinner jumps up over $50 a person. Many people would be hard pressed to spend $35 per person on just food (and not liquor!) at some of the participating Mt. Vernon restaurants like City Cafe, Helmand, Marie Louise or Indigma. Is spending $35 per person for dinner at places where most people wouldn’t ordinarily spend more $20 outside of restaurant week a bargain? Maybe, maybe not!

If you’re new to “Restaurant Week”, it’s important to understand that you don’t get to order off of the restaurant’s regular, full menu. The participating restaurants typically offer just 3 choices for each of the three courses (a starter, an entree and a dessert). It’s a good idea to find out what the choices are before deciding on a restaurant. For example, Cinghiale, one of well known Chef Cindy Wolf’s restaurants participating in “Restaurant Week”, offers only two main course choices: ricotta cheese ravioli or pork shoulder w/spaetzle. If they don’t strike you as the perfect choice for a summer dinner, you might want to reconsider whether this restaurant week really provides the bargain that you were hoping for.

It’s intriguing which restaurants sign up to participate in “Restaurant Week”. This summer, while expensive restaurants at the Inner Harbor or Harbor East like Capitol Grill, Flemming’s and Roy’s are participating, other nearby prestigious restaurants like Charleston, Oceanaire and Fogo De Chao as well as well known P.F. Changs don’t participate. A logical deduction is that the restaurants that don’t participate are so popular that they don’t need additional business. That tells you something! The flip side of this is that many of the popular expensive participating restaurants end up filled to the max during restaurant week and both kitchen staff and servers can end up stressed and end up providing a different experience that you might have outside of “Restaurant Week”.

If you do decide to take advantage of “Restaurant Week”, do your homework ahead of time and take time to check out http://www.baltimorerestaurantweek.com. Here you’ll find a full listing of all participating restaurants and you can check out what’s on the limited “restaurant week” menus ahead of time. The website also alerts you that several of most well known and popular restaurants (e.g., The Prime Rib) on the list don’t offer the “restaurant week” special deal on Friday and Saturday and others don’t support lunch time specials! Be sure to make reservations ahead of time! Many of the more expensive restaurants which provide the most obvious bargains end up totally booked up during “Restaurant Week”. Despite all these cautions, there are some worthwhile bargain dinners to be had if you invest some time in planning before hand.

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