Be flexible, tip well, take advantage of lunch and go out for steak.
Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
Originally published January 2015; updated September 2019
There are a few things to keep in mind about Center City District Restaurant Week, the popular promotion that’s taken over dining establishments in Philadelphia with a twice-yearly cadence since 2003.
At heart the event is marketing stunt — one that works. According to the district, it brings out more than 150,000 people each time it goes down.
The promotion, which despite its name always lasts longer than seven days, doesn’t necessarily offer a true glimpse of what a place is really like. Dining rooms are busier than usual, so service can suffer, and most of the menus for the three-course $35 dinners and $20 lunches are abridged. But there are good deals and fun times to be had. You just have to know how.
From reservation tips to where to find real values, here’s a short guide to doing Restaurant Week right.
If you don’t already have reservations, you might not score one during prime hours. But food tastes just as good at 5 p.m. as it does at 7 p.m., and dining out late-night is way better than munching on snacks before bedtime.
If you do go out late, realize servers have likely been running around more than usual by the time you get there. A little kindness can go a long way — and this holds true whenever you arrive. Exercising patience is a good way to increase your chances of getting your food quickly and accurately.
Remember that even though you’re getting a relatively low-priced meal, the restaurant staff is working just as hard as usual. Front-of-house servers and bussers depend on tips to make a living, so consider boosting your gratuity above the usual 20%. Happier servers = happier guests, all around.
Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
If you’re able to make time in the middle of the day, lunch is a good option. Not only do the three courses come for $20 instead of $35, dining rooms are less likely to be jam-packed, and the service and kitchen staff will both be fresh. Piles of sashimi at Fuji Mountain or loads of tandoori skewers at Indeblue are great ways to add a midday spark.
Sure, everyone wants to go to the hot spots of the moment, but you might get better service if you think outside the box. Try newcomers that are still flying under the radar — Chatayee Thai and Trattoria Carina come to mind — or find a dish you never knew you were missing at more established spots like Panorama or Fontana Della Citta.
Several participating restaurants go above the required courses or extend the promo prices to their entire menu. The Twisted Tail is one — fried chicken? burger? steak? crab cakes? beets? duck hearts? — with the bonus of four courses in the prix-fixe deal. Both Tinto and Bistrot La Minette stick with three courses, but you get to choose them from nearly the full regular slate of dishes.
Steakhouses are one of your best bets for a meal that would usually run you much higher than $35. At the Capital Grille, for example, one of your three courses can be a 14-oz. bone-in dry-aged steak that usually costs $43 on its own. At Del Frisco’s, you can snag an 8-oz. filet mignon as one of your options (usually $41 on its own). And at Chima Brazillian Steakhouse, gauchos will offer nearly the full “rodizio” selection — usually $57 per person.
If you can get them, it can be tempting to book several reservations for one evening, and then choose whichever one you most feel like on the night of. This is definitely not cool, since it leaves restaurants on the hook with empty tables and lost revenue. As noted above, making the promotion smoother for servers and managers ends up making it smoother for everyone.