Let's talk about Restaurant Week, going on in New York right now. During the promotion (which, confusingly, tends to last multiple weeks), many restaurants in the city offer three-course lunches for $24.07, and dinners for $35. As dinners can indeed run so much more, knowing that you're capped at $35, before tax and tip and drink, can be comforting.
If you don't dine out often, or if you're used to thinking of New York restaurants as prohibitively expensive, it can seem like a great deal. Restaurant Week may make sense for a fine dining world, where refined cooking is only available at white-tablecloth restaurants, and spending under $40 is a steal. But that's not the New York of 2012 at all. The most talked-about restaurants these days often have no reservations and entrée prices in the $20s. Including many of our favorite restaurants.
$35 can get you a lot. That's a $8 app, $20 entrée, and $7 dessert. Or a $12 salad, $18 pasta and $10 shared dessert. Or a split $12 charcuterie plate, $23 entrée, and $6 bowl of ice cream. I could go on for awhile, but you get the idea.
What's more, there are major downsides to Restaurant Week.
- Restaurants often get more business than they're used to. Customers swarming in for Restaurant Week can overwhelm a kitchen that's generally less busy. That doesn't do anything good for the quality of your food.
- You're locked into three courses. I can't always sit down and finish three courses: appetizer, entree, and dessert (plus bread) is often much more than I can comfortably stomach. So retaining the flexibility to split an appetizer or forgo dessert saves me money. (Translation: leaves me with more money for wine.)
- Restaurants rarely showcase their best dishes. It's all about efficiency, churning out dishes to a high volume of customers. And I'm sure plenty of restaurants put care into Restaurant Week food and service, but many more realize that their patrons aren't likely to be repeat customers; they're deal-seekers. Which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but does mean an average patron is less likely to come back.
- Options are limited. Three or four choices for each course is the norm, generally with no substitutions. (Some restaurants offer more, but they're few and far between.) That limits anyone, but if you have any dietary restrictions or aversions, you're even less likely to find three courses you like.
- Menus aren't always online. I have to pay for three courses from a limited menu, but I can't know what I'll be eating ahead of time? Plenty of restaurants have their menus up, but many more don't.
- Gratuities are often included. I would rarely tip less than the suggested 18%-or-so gratuity, but I do like retaining the right to do so. Especially because Restaurant Week service tends to be sub-par.
Basically, the whole thing pisses me off. Because it takes restaurants that are often overpriced to begin with, scales them down a bit so they seem like a value ("Oh! That beet salad would usually cost $18, but I can get it as a starter!"), and in the process, puts them in a situation that further degrades the customer experience. And it positions them to seem like the best deals in town. Meanwhile, a hundred better restaurants in New York hum along, serving meals that won't cost you more than $35 either, but earning no credit for doing so.
It also gets so much publicity that plenty of diner-outers, NYC residents and visitors alike, assume that these are the restaurants to go to. Whereas they vary wildly in quality.
... To be fair, I'll digress for a moment to say that a few restaurants do Restaurant Week well. (Let's discount lunch, as even with the job I've got, I don't usually take 2-hour lunch breaks, nor do I know many people who can.) I've never had anything short of an excellent meal at the more casual Tap Room of Colicchio and Sons, and $35 is a chunk off the price of a normal three-course meal there. After Pete Wells's strong review, I'd drop $35 to try three courses at La Promenade des Anglais. Perilla for dinner? That's an amazing restaurant and a serious deal, though I'd miss the lamb meatballs. SHO Shaun Hergatt has two Michelin stars and generally strong reviews—I haven't been, but a $35 dinner opportunity could be a steal, and is certainly a substantial cut off the normal service. And Tulsi's menu looks gorgeous and I've heard nothing but raves.
But you'll notice that those are listed alphabetically. Because I just scrolled through all 300+ participating restaurants. And found five that I'd even consider spending my own cash on. Or recommending that anyone would.
So: my suggestion? Head to one of these 20 spots instead, where dinners under $35 can be had any day of the year.
Three courses? You can do even better than that. Start with a $4 crostino, from white anchovy to chickpeas and guanciale. Add a $9 shaved brussels sprout salad before your $16 pork braciole or $15 gnocchi—and you've still got $6 for a ricotta cheesecake dessert. Alternately, rather than two starters, split a $17 antipasto plate, with two meats, cheeses, vegetables and olives. Either way, you won't leave hungry.
Prices at Frankies 17 on the Lower East Side are about the same; Frankies 570 in the West Village is a few bucks more, but it's still easy to put together three courses for under $35.
It'd be hard to drop more than $35 (on food, that is) if you tried. I'm a huge fan of Otto's vegetable pots; split four of them ($5 each) between two people, or perhaps two veggies and a fish (I recommend the octopus and celery). Or a 3-cheese plate ($11) alongside your spicy rabe with ricotta salata. Move onto any of the pastas, all excellent and all just $10, before you end with some of the best gelato in the city.
Saul Bolton's Prospect Heights bar and restaurant is the sort of small-plates spot where it's possible to rack up quite a bill—but also possible to order smartly. Both the "small" and "medium" menu sections offer good bites; if I were going with a date, I'd split the sriracha-honey brussels sprouts and house-cured salmon ($17 together). Their excellent sausages go for $12/plate, pork meatballs for $15. Plenty left over for dessert.
The Good Fork
I don't know if I could choose between Thai-style steamed mussels or a bacon-egg brussels sprout salad to start. So I might just order both and have only spent $23 on savories. Or I could go the more traditional route, sprouts salad + roast chicken, and a split chocolate bread pudding for dessert.
Edi and the Wolf
I'd be thrilled to split the $17 mushroom-brussels sprout spätzle to start, or could go for my own $9 sausage ; this is Austrian fare, after all. After that, wiener schnitzel—or perhaps the Schultzkrapfen, "Austrian Mountain Cheese Ravioli, Ricotta, Gruyere, Spinach, and Brown Butter"? (I can't even type those words without swooning.) After spätzle and schnitzel I'd be content to split a $8 apple strudel. But if I'd done a lighter starter—does a blue cheese Alsatian flatbread count as "lighter"?—I'd have cash left in my $35 for a dessert all my own.
I don't think of the elegant Balaboosta as an inexpensive restaurant, but it's easy to put together an excellent meal for under $35. Start off with the $7 smoked eggplant bruschetta or $10 crispy cauliflower (or any other vegetable dish on the menu; they're excellent). The $20 orecchiette with roasted fennel and olives or the unexpectedly exciting half chicken (man, that crispy skin) will both keep you in budget. Lighter eaters could choose the generously portioned $13 shrimp "Kataïf", wrapped in shredded phyllo, as a main course. Either way, you've still got cash left for dessert.
We often go out to eat for ambiance as much as cuisine, and some of our favorite Sichuan restaurants in the city, such as Chelsea's Legend, lack in the former department. Not the elegant Café China. Share $9 spicy rabbit and $6 dan dan noodles to start; excellent Chungking spicy chicken and spicy cumin lamb to follow; and you've only spent around $25 each. You could go for dessert. Or you could add duck tongues and ginger squash...
How to put together a deliciously gut-busting meal at one of our favorite Italian-American spots: two or three $3 bruschette to start, or maybe one $3 bruschetta each and a shared order of $11 baked clams. Move onto the massive $24 lasagna for two, or meatball-topped gnocchi; or why not a pizza? And zeppole or cannoli will make sure you don't leave hungry.
Farm on Adderley
This locavore-minded Brooklyn restaurant tends to do great thing with vegetables, so a $10 carrot-ricotta plate or a $8 kale-lentil soup should both do you right. Follow with $18 mushroom tagliatelle or $19 roast chicken.
I would happily hoard an order of fried oxtail croquettes (bitterballen) to myself. Or an order of maple-drenched bacon potatoes (hete bliksem). That's my idea of two courses.
But for a slightly more, er, balanced meal, split these indulgent items and try Vandaag's fresher ones, too. My dream meal for two? Roasted sunchokes and bitterballen to start; suckling pig with confit leg and lingonberry jus, insanely indulgent hete bliksem, and brussels sprouts for mains; and a stroopwafel each for dessert. (Did I call that more balanced? Heh.) Or a shared butterscotch pudding. Or, hell, another order of hete bliksem. All that doesn't top $35/head.
Wait, what? Andrew Carmellini's Tribeca trattoria: not a cheap restaurant. But if you've got $35/head to play with, you can do a lot. Good pasta is great that way. Split an order of pickled mushroom and an order of sheep's milk ricotta crostini to start. (Or order two sheep's milk ricotta plates for yourself and you won't want anything else for dinner. But some people prefer more conventional meals.) Pumpkin agnolotti or ragú-smothered gigatone to follow. And while sharing a dessert would keep you under the $35 mark with room to spare, it's worth dropping a few extra bucks to try more than one of Karen DeMasco's remarkable creations. (Split the generously portioned ricotta, each get your own pasta, and you can each get a dessert and stay within budget.)
Duck egg with spinach to start, or kabocha squash with housemade ricotta? Tagliatelle with housemade burrata, tomato butter, and brussels sprouts to follow; or risotto with pimento cheese and roasted broccoli? Either way, you'll have change left over for an ice cream sandwich; or share the caramel cake and a few rainbow cookies.
Share our favorite kale-squash salad and smoked bluefish rillettes to start. Roast chicken with chard and freekeh, or squid and mussel ragout to follow. And quince bread pudding or a chocolate-hazelnut torte to finish? All under $35/head.
There's always what I call the Carey Special: two bracingly tart gin Vespers and an order of crispy brussels sprouts. ($28.)
Okay, if you don't consider cocktails a viable dinner: share the squid and pork sausage and an order of those sprouts to start; grilled mackerel or roast chicken to follow; and the Honeycrisp Apple Charlotte for two, to finish. If you take my advice on anything, it should probably be that Apple Charlotte.
This neighborhoody Southern spot makes some of our favorite fried chicken in the city. With that as your main, add housemade chips with onion dip and bacon peanut brittle as starters (or, okay, share just one of those and a salad). If chicken's not your thing, go for shrimp + grits with andouille sausage, or roasted duck gumbo. And in lieu of dessert, a deliciously boozed-up hot chocolate is an excellent idea.
This sounds like a great three-courser to me: flounder ceviche, pernil, and torrejas de oliva, one of the best desserts I ate last year. Or Coppelia's excellent ropa vieja, cornmeal calamari, and a chipotle brownie sundae. You have to get a little creative here to put together a three-course dinner for over $35; under is the easy part.
Another not-inexpensive restaurant. But you know what my favorite 3-course meal is, at one of my favorite restaurants in New York right now? Garam masala and red kuri squash soup; massaman braised goat; Thai ice cream. $34.
Are there other ways to order that'll cost more? Of course. But I could spend $35 on an unknown restaurant's three courses, or on this fantastic spread from Harold Dieterle. I know which I'd choose.
Seafood does not indicate "inexpensive." Neither does the presence of Mathieu Palombino and David Malbequi, two fine and classically trained chefs. (Palombino then leapt the fine-dining boat to open Motorino, our favorite pizzeria in New York). But at Prima, get a beautiful fan of skate in butter and capers for $15. Tack on 3 oysters to start, or roasted beets, and you've still got more than enough for a rich chocolate mousse. Each.
If I picked two words to describe the Spotted Pig, "gently priced" would not occur. But a $35 dinner? Totally possible. Share their much-loved deviled eggs and crispy pig's ear salad to start. Move on to their legendary burger or sheep's milk ricotta gnudi. And each of you can still get your own $8 dessert. (I'd keep the banoffee pie all to myself.)
And A Million More
Those are just twenty off the top of my head. Some are pricier than others, but at every one, you can get an excellent and belly-filling meal in a pleasant restaurant, while eating from the highlights of the regular menu, for what you'd
risk pay at Restaurant Week. And if you don't want three courses each? Don't get 'em. Save your money for booze or a side of fries or a cab home or whatever the hell you want. It's nice how restaurants usually work that way. You don't need to wait for a promotion or closely read the rules. You just go in and you order.
I could name more restaurants, but enough of my blathering. Over to you, Serious Eaters—what do you think is a great New York dining experience for under $35? I bet we can get a mean list going.