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Five Tips to Make the Most of Restaurant Week

Restaurant Week can sometimes feel like a culinary wild west — make sure you don’t get played.

Blackbird has a $24 lunch menu for Restaurant Week, but you can nab a prix fixe lunch there every other week of the year for just four bucks more.   Photo: Jeff Marini

It’s every bargain-hunter’s favorite week of the year: Chicago Restaurant Week. The event runs January 24 to February 9, and offers $24 lunch or brunch menus and $36 or $48 dinner menus.

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Restaurant Week for many years, ever since I decided to prove, mathematically, that Restaurant Week was not a particularly great deal. Since then, a lot has changed: More than 400 restaurants are participating this year, brunch has become an option, and menus are generally better bargains than before.

Still, it’s easy to get a bad deal or mediocre meal. Here are a few tips to achieve the very best Restaurant Week experience.

Certain Diners Should Just Avoid Restaurant Week (Sorry!)…

Before even thinking about which restaurant to go to, figure out if your tastes and dietary restrictions would be a limiting factor. If you’re vegetarian, it’s hard to find a Restaurant Week menu with more than one good vegetarian option. Picky eaters won’t be able to maximize value, either, because they won’t be able to take advantage of the entire menu. Lovers of sushi, tapas, small plates, or other modes of dining that aren’t appetizer-entrée-dessert probably won’t get a great value, either.

…But Other Diners Will Love It

If there are some people who should avoid restaurant week, there are also certain people that the promotion is practically tailored towards. If you’re a carnivore, you’ll find some great steakhouse deals or be moved to try a place like Texas de Brazil, where you can sample a wide array of meats. If you’re a lover of all-you-can-eat places, like Zed451, they offer pretty much the same menu they always do, just for less.

Remember: This Isn’t the Only Dining Week

There’s a reason Restaurant Week is in January — it drives business during an incredibly slow time for the restaurant industry. That said, there are a lot of other “weeks” that model themselves on Restaurant Week. Black Restaurant Week is coming in February, a cluster of suburbs will celebrate Chicago Northwest Restaurant Week in March, and lots of neighborhoods have their own version of Restaurant Week. (For example, Lincoln Square’s is in October.)

Check for Regular (Better?) Dining Deals

It’s easy to get so fixated on the reservation frenzy that is Restaurant Week that it overshadows yearlong prix fixe deals that are as good, if not better. A classic example is Blackbird, which offers a regular $28 lunch prix fixe — it’s not quite Restaurant Week, but it’s a pretty great deal.

Check the Math

I’ve taken a year off from doing all the math on Restaurant Week, but now it’s become a phenomenon. The basic premise of that project: to ensure that your prix fixe meal during Restaurant Week is actually a bargain. There’s a lot of sources for the same sort of math I have done in the past, but my favorite is this Reddit post that links to a giant Google spreadsheet. It’s easy to sort, uses the same basic math I did, and includes some fun commentary.

Have a great Restaurant Week!

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