What this means, practically speaking, is that a lot of places basically phone it in. They offer an extremely limited menu. The waitstaff sometimes seems put out for actually having to (gasp) provide you with the same quality service as everyone else, because you are ordering from the Restaurant Week menu. You sometimes find yourself looking at the pathetic, limited selection of appetizers and entrees, and wondering, if I even wanted a Banana Slug Terrine, followed by Mom's Favorite Tuna Noodle Casserole, would it be worth $35?
Once again another Restaurant Week is upon DC. This once annual, and now sort of semi-annual event, is a chance to eat out at some of DC's finer establishments for a low fixed price. From January 10 - 17, 2010 participating restaurants agree to give you a full course meal for a fixed price of $20.10 per person for lunch, or $35.10 per person for dinner. Considering that entrees in the $25+ range are rather commonplace, and even classically cheap places like Pasta Mia are charging $18 for a bowl of pasta (yes, it's true, I was just there), this is a great way to live like the other half on a somewhat reasonable budget.
Or is it?
The problem with Restaurant Week is that a lot of places don't get it. Back in the day, we used to look forward to this every year. The event was embraced by many local restaurants. It was actually their idea, a good one, a way to drum up business during the typically slow August doldrums. But as the tradition took hold and most area restaurants participated, the value has become questionable.
The problem isn't Restaurant Week itself. The problem is that it seems a lot of places participate because they feel they must rather than because they think it's a good business opportunity.
Let ask a very pointed question to all Restaurant Week participants.
If we aren't going to be able to order anything that's not from the "kids" or "last night's leftovers" section of the menu, then why did you bother participating?
Contrary to what some latecomers to Restaurant Week may believe, the point of RW isn't to unload all the crap that's going bad in your fridge. It's not supposed to be the restaurant equivalent of flying super-economy class on Continental Airlines.
Because you know what happens when you do that?
We don't come back. Oh yeah, and there's a good chance we'll write something evil about your restaurant on our blog. Oh, you think that nobody will read that? Well, think again. Google "columbia heights eating". The sixth hit is my stupid joke post from yesterday about soylent green. From yesterday! And compared to, say, an actual food blog, or, really, just about any other blog, I am nobody. Yet I still have enough google street cred to be on the first page for some pretty basic searches. That's right - if you screw me at restaurant week this year, I will destroy you.
I am always amazed how many supposed businesspeople seem to have no idea about how to run a business. Restaurant Week, a clever invention of actual people who own restaurants, is a way for these places to fill empty tables during slow times, and to get people in their doors who wouldn't otherwise be there. People who may, in fact, be having their first experience at your restuarant during Restaurant Week. People who will come back if they liked their meal, and tell their friends, about the sort of experience they had at your restaurant.
Nobody expects you to go broke or give away the farm. But if there's no value, then you have done nothing more than created an unhappy customer. Or more likely, a one-time customer. If we can't actually order anything other than a tiny, crappy subset of your menu, or even worse, really lame stuff that you concocted just for RW out of leftover bread crusts and beet ends, then why do you think we'd ever want to come again? If we walk away feeling like our so-called bargain dinner was a rip-off, did anyone win?
It's really quite simple. If you don't think that you have anything to gain by having a decent RW offering, one that actually represents the majority of the offerings of your restaurant, then please don't participate. Because to do otherwise makes the customer feel gypped, and probably will hurt you in the long run as word gets around. And believe me, word gets around. There is nothing people in DC like more than to gab about restaurants online.
So where do I go?
I would like to single out Ten Penh as the one place that has always had a stand-up restaurant week. It's a relatively expensive restaurant that always offers basically their whole menu (maybe excepting the lobster) during RW.
I am sure there are others. Unfortunately, I haven't been lucky enough to have gone to one of those during RW in the last couple years. Sad statement, that. The bottom line is, choose your eateries carefully. Many places have their RW menus online. Don't patronize places that don't get it.