Sunday, Aug. 17 marks the start of my favorite biannual holiday: Restaurant Week (RW) in Boston! Starting then, restaurants in the area will offer special menus at a fixed price to entice new diners to enter their doors. Technically, the two-week event is now called “Dine Out Boston,” but it will always be RW to me. The name and format change occurred this past winter, and officially participating restaurants can now offer two- or three-course meals for $15, $20, or $25 for lunch. For dinner, restaurants can now choose between $28, $33, or $38. From my past experiences with Restaurant Week, I’ve picked up some general guidelines that help ensure your RW meal is worth it.
1. Do your research beforehand
The most important thing to do to have a good RW experience is to look at your options online ahead of time. My favorite website is restaurantweekboston.com, an unofficial guide overseen by another great Boston food-related site, bostonchefs.com. Restaurantweekboston.com is a one-stop-shop for all things RW. They list participating restaurants, their locations, directions via the T, and menu schedules if they’ve been posted. As a rule of thumb, I only visit restaurants that post their menu ahead of time so I know what I’m getting into. If you find a menu that you like during your perusal, go to that restaurant’s website and compare the RW menu to the non-RW menu. They should be of the same general style in terms of complexity and cuisine, with major menu components from the normal menu reflected in the RW menu. If that wasn’t clear, here’s a prime example: if you go to a steakhouse, you should be able to get a steak from the RW menu. The safest bet you’ll find is when a well-liked restaurant serves items from its year-round menu at a discounted price for RW (à la Marliave or Boston Chops).
2. Make a reservation early
If you prowl the Internet and find some highly rated restaurants with exciting offerings, chances are you aren’t the first one to notice. So if you choose a restaurant on Aug. 22 and show up later that night, don’t expect an open table to be waiting for you. This is especially relevant if you plan on going in a group. For some of the more in-demand options, like Bistro du Midi, you might need a reservation weeks in advance for an in-demand time. Luckily, most participating restaurants take free reservations via opentable.com, so take advantage of it! Just be sure to cancel in a timely fashion if it turns out you can’t go; nobody likes a no-show, and OpenTable will deactivate your account.
3. Go for lunch
If value is your watchword, lunch is your friend. The key in this case is to find restaurants whose lunch menus resemble their dinner menus. That way, you can get a meal for $20 or $25 that is basically identical to one for $33 or $38 later in the day. Again, restaurantweekboston.com is your greatest ally in this one. The main difficulty with lunch is finding places that offer worthwhile menus on weekends, since trekking out to Fort Point or the South End midweek doesn’t help one’s research productivity. But the effort pays off, and some of the best meals I’ve ever had during RW in terms of food quality and value have been weekend lunches.
4. Look for unofficial Restaurant Week deals
While examining restaurantweekboston.com you will definitely notice that many notable restaurants, particularly some higher-end ones, will be absent from the list. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ve forgotten about it. Some restaurants will participate in RW unofficially with special offerings of their own that differ from the official guidelines. This way they can be a part of the fun without being restricted in terms of menu size and price. For example, Craigie On Main usually expands the availability of its Chef’s Whim tasting menu during RW, and for the first time this summer every restaurant in the Barbara Lynch Gruppo, including No. 9 Park and Sportello, will be offering special fixed-price menus from Aug. 17 to Aug. 22 and from Aug. 24 to Aug. 29.
5. Rule out places with non-Restaurant Week deals (and save them for later)
A number of RW participants provide inviting deals throughout the year. As such, you should instead focus your attention during the allotted weeks on restaurants that have their best deals during RW. For example, I’d strongly recommend taking advantage of the deals offered by Mooo.... (three-course lunch for $25) and Metropolis Café (5:30 p.m.-6:30p.m., $29.95 for three courses and a glass of wine) — just not during RW.
If you follow these guidelines, your RW meals probably won’t disappoint. If you’re only reading this so that I would do your work for you, you’re in luck. Here is a list of my tried-and-true RW picks: for lunch, try La Voile, Marliave, Oishii, and Toscano. For dinner, head to Bistro du Midi, Bronwyn, Kitchen, and 80 Thoreau. Happy Restaurant Week!