Restaurant Week Mania

It’s a busy time for area restaurants, with NewportNarragansett, and Boston all currently hosting their own versions of Restaurant Week.

Foodies seem to divide into two camps when it comes to Restaurant Week dining. One sect avoids it at all costs, likening the experience to amateur hour (Chowhound is filled with RW treatises on everything from rushed service and clueless fellow diners to crunchy risotto). The other group thinks it’s worth risking what could be an unpleasant experience for the potential payoff associated with enjoying a four-star meal at a deep discount. I’m willing to bet restaurateurs are divided as well, either looking at it as something they simply need to get through or as an opportunity to wow new diners (with the hope they’ll return and pay full price).
To me, RW dining is worth the risk, but you have to be willing to make some concessions. I don’t necessarily hold the restaurant to the same standards I normally would. Last time Providence held its Restaurant Week, I had a good meal at one of the city’s most well regarded restaurants. The only problem? The service was almost laughably bad. We could have walked out without paying and no one would have noticed. If it hadn’t been Restaurant Week, I would have been incensed. But, hey, if I were a server I wouldn’t exactly be thrilled to work twice as hard for a fraction of the tips from (let’s face it) less sophisticated and often more demanding diners.
Last weekend, I finally made it to the much-buzzed-about Cambridge restaurant T.W. Food. I was there to take advantage of Boston Restaurant Week’s $33.09 three-course dinner, but had a first-rate dining experience by any measure. The welcoming atmosphere, attentive service and perfectly seasoned food made me feel like I was in on the deal of the century. And I’m sure I’ll return soon, if only for the fact that I can’t stop thinking about what Chef Tim Weichmann might be able to do with pricier ingredients.
So, how can you make the system work for you? Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way. And be sure to chime in with your own suggestions on the comment board.
 1. Time it right: It’s generally not a good idea to schedule your Restaurant Week experience for a peak time (e.g. Saturday at 7 p.m.). Last Sunday, when I arrived at T.W. Food at 5:30 p.m., there were only a handful of diners there. It was jamming when I left two hours later.
2. Study the menus: Most restaurants post their RW offerings—generally three choices each for a starter, entrée and dessert—online, so you can find out in advance which places look most promising. For instance, from a quick glance at Fluke’s Newport Restaurant Week menu I learned they’re throwing in a complimentary cocktail at dinner, which, given the fact that drinks are not usually included, exceeded my expectations. You can’t expect to find lots of pricey ingredients on the menu because avoiding things like foie gras and expensive cuts of beef is one of the things that keeps the scheme profitable for restaurateurs. But if you have a choice between an eatery that’s serving either a pasta or chicken entree and another that’s doing steak or swordfish, it’s generally pretty clear who’s offering the most for your dining dollars.
3. Do lunch: Don’t forget that most participating eateries also offer a lunch option. At $16 for Newport’s version and $20 for Boston’s three-course version, it can be an even better deal than dinner. And almost certainly less crowded.
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