Restaurant Week is probably the only week-long event that lures most Chicagoans out of their homes to venture off into the frigid cold. When else can you experience incredible meals at pretty cheap prices? But with close to 400 restaurants participating between January 25 and February 7, you'll have a tough time deciding which deals are worth a trek out into the low temperatures.
After a laborious process of comparing hundreds of menus and endless combinations of appetizers, entrees, and desserts, I've confirmed that, as in previous years, there are too many “deals” that don’t actually qualify as such. In many cases, you’re better off visiting during any other time of year.
Here are a few guidelines to reference when you're determining which deals are worth the hype.
Be cautious of restaurants offering two dinner deals
If a restaurant offers two separate bargains, it's worth double-checking its standard menu to see how it stacks up. It’s also important to note if a restaurant offers prix fixe menus on a normal day. Some restaurants will simply recycle these for Restaurant Week.
Devon Seafood, for example, will offer two dinner deals this year: a $48 three-course meal and a $36 three-course meal. The latter, though, is practically identical to its regular $39 prix fixe menu, which features more choices. At least the $48 dinner is an incredible deal, saving you around $30.
Make sure your three-course meal is actually three courses
I don’t know about you, but I hardly consider cookies or a scoop of ice cream a full course. (Looking at you, Beacon’s Tavern and Blue Door Farm Stand.) Eduardo’s Enoteca’s $24 three-course brunch menu looks enticing with offerings like steel cut lavender oatmeal and avocado toast, but the first course is … a glass of juice.
When it comes to four-course meals, you'll want to make sure you're getting a variety of dishes instead of, say, an appetizer and first course that are both soups. La Sirena Clandestina’s $36 dinner menu allows diners to start with empanadas then move onto a kale salad or black bean soup before indulging in your main entree.
Be wary of unsolicited portion control
You should consider portion size when discerning between good and not-so-great deals. This doesn’t just apply to steak sizes, although those are most often the first dish to be downsized for Restaurant Week.
Dishes like Cold Storage’s seafood towers are unlikely to be the same size as what is usually served. The West Loop spot, though, is transparent where other participating restaurants might not be. Its menu specifically lists the dish as “Micro Tower”; it features various options from its standard menu towers, like shrimp, oyster, king crab, smoked mussels, and scallop ceviche.
Look for menus with a good mix of standard and new options
A great Restaurant Week menu will not only offer you a stellar deal; it will also have a decent number of standard options with many chances to try something new.
Another notable approach is to present a fresh spin on classics, like Volare is doing with most of its Restaurant Week menus. The special lunch menu, in particular, features a vegetarian and gluten-free version of the kitchen’s risotto, which is typically made with saffron, crab meat, and goat cheese. The Restaurant Week risotto will be cooked with fresh vegetables, white wine, and pesto.
But keep in mind that a menu with too many options can be as bad as a menu with too few options
Some menus simply regurgitate a restaurant’s standard menus — and the price differences are nothing to rave about. Take Napolita’s brunch, lunch, and dinner menus, which don’t stray much from its standard menus. Most of the combinations on the pizza spot’s Restaurant Week dinner menu just surpass $48, and that is likely credited to the desserts, which are normally $4.75 each.
On the flip side of that … avoid menus with just one option per course as this gives you no freedom to order, and you risk being stuck with a course you might not enjoy. One particularly odd bargain: Park Grill’s one-item menu that features a $24 burger. The burger, to be fair, is quite elaborate, featuring foie gras, caramelized onions, Bordelaise, American cheese, cracked pepper truffle aioli, and pickled tomato jam, all squeezed between a brioche bun. But, this is not a fantastic deal, given that the restaurant’s other burgers are $15-$16 — and one dish is certainly not enough to qualify as a menu.
Look out for unique offerings
… like Big Jones’s $36 three-course dinner menu, which gives diners the option to try Louisiana alligator with homemade andouille, tomato and wine sauce, and steamed Braggadocio rice. This dish is not on the standard menu but is likely similar in price to other seasonal entrees that range between $22 and $28.
If you come across a "dinner for two" deal, you've struck gold
In most cases, these bargains are among the best money savers in all of Restaurant Week. Aurelio's in the South Loop has a $24 lunch and a $36 dinner, both meant for two people. The latter consists of four courses, including a medium-sized pizza with up to three toppings. Being that the South Loop is so heavily populated with students from Columbia, Roosevelt, John Marshall, and DePaul, this will possibly be one of the most popular deals of the week.
Don’t let cute themes distract you from deal-hunting
I’m sorry, Ada Street — but as much as I want to love your Star Wars-themed menu complete with Jar-Jar Bisque and Obi Wan Cannoli … the Force is just not strong with this one. The $48 dinner deal comes too close to what a diner would regularly pay for similar menu items. A+ for creativity, but D for price.