With the first breezes of fall bringing out our sweaters and boots, it’s the right time of year for a beloved Philadelphia tradition: Center City Restaurant Week. For what is actually two weeks (starting this past Sunday), adventurous diners can check out some of Center City’s hottest eateries with prix-fixe menus at a greatly reduced cost. As many as 125 eateries are taking part in the event, during which a three-course (minimum) lunch is only $20 and the same-sized dinner is $35. Many of these eateries charge that much for a single main course, so we are talking excellent deals here. Foot traffic is heavy and reservations are flying. This can be a unique and possibly challenging environment for both waitstaff and first-time participants, so the following are some recommended “do’s” and “don’ts” of taking part in Restaurant Week, all designed with maximum enjoyment and courtesy in mind.
Sure, it’s the staff’s job to wait on you, but there’s nothing saying that you can’t make that job a bit easier. Be nice to servers, especially if you hit dinner at a late hour. The whole waitstaff has probably been working lots of additional hours and longer shifts, spending a long time on their feet. Have patience if the wait for your food to arrive is a bit longer than you’d like, and definitely have patience if you arrive without a reservation and have to wait for a while. This is a popular event, and being nice to the hostess can’t hurt when it comes to getting you a table quickly. Servers also make fewer mistakes when they aren’t flustered, so you benefit as well by receiving an accurate order.
As I previously mentioned, reservations for meals at the participating restaurants – especially the most popular or discounted hotspots – have been flying off the shelves. This is especially true for dinner. Some places have already been booked solid for the expanse of the week. There’s not much to do about that last one, but try to compromise and consider either an early bird or late-night dinner. Yes, eating at 5pm may make you feel like a 75-year-old, but the food will taste just as good as it would at 8. And if you’re a night owl, taking a late ressie is much better for you than staying up late snacking on a tub of ice cream! If you have the ability to sneak away at midday, doing lunch instead of dinner is a great shortcut to getting in at the hottest tables. Not only is lunch cheaper ($20 versus $35) for the same food, but it is almost always less busy and everything is generally less crazy. The servers and kitchen staff will also be feeling refreshed instead of exhausted, which is always a good thing.
As a former waitress, I always leave a minimum 20 percent tip except for in the worst situations, because servers don’t make enough money to essentially pay for your bill. That’s a hot take, so I won’t keep going. But consider the opinion that you should tip more than you usually do when you dine out during Restaurant Week. Not only is the waitstaff doing a lot more work than usual, but so are the bussers, the bartenders, and the hosts, all of whom servers have to tip out. Also, you are getting a tremendous deal on your food. Just like considerate people tip on the original amount before any coupons or discounts, so should you take into account what your bill would have been if it weren’t a special event. A few extra dollars won’t break you, but it can brighten the shift of a busy server.
Center City Restaurant Week is all about getting to experience new things. You won’t experience maximum enjoyment of the event without trying a few new things. Maybe this means avoiding the hotspots and your normal favorite eateries and trying something off the grid. A number of new restos are making their debut this year, and you have the opportunity to check them out before they become super mainstream. Also, try new things to eat. This is especially true when visiting ethnic restaurants that you haven’t tried very much before – move outside of your comfort zone.
With so many eateries participating and a ridiculous amount of choices, it may feel tempting to book a table at several places all at the same day and time so that you get to have a “choice” when the actual evening comes around. This is extremely selfish. Every ressie that you hold hostage and don’t use is one that somebody else could have booked to have a great dinner. It also throws off the “reject” restos’ timing. Pour over the list in advance, and make firm decisions. When you make things work more smoothly for restaurant staff and owners, you make things smoother and more enjoyable for other guests as well. There is also the chance that a great restaurant might decide that all the cancelled reservations and customer crankiness aren’t worth it, and decide not to participate in coming years. So don’t be part of the problem; aim to be part of the solution.
This one should be a no-brainer: study the menus of what’s available for the prix-fixe diners during Restaurant Week at several different restos and figure out which is the best deal. The minimum number of courses is three, for example, but some eateries are offering four or more. Also, most participating restaurants have a limited menu for the event. Look for the places that offer a full, or nearly-full slate for Restaurant Week. And do some number-crunching. The priciest restaurants are some of the hardest ressies to get because they offer the best value for the price – you get the most substantial savings by eating there, since the regular price would be very high. As a general rule, Restaurant Week is a great time to visit steakhouses, since as a category they offer great bang for your buck.
At this point, you should be ready and hyped to enjoy Center City Restaurant Week! Keep these suggestions in mind, and have a great time!