Having lived and cooked in 4 major US cities, I have definitely dined in some of the best restaurants in the country. Since I am aware of the level of service, quality of food and general enjoyment associated with these types of restaurants it always makes me cringe when I see ads for Restaurant Week in New York City. I had never eaten at a restaurant during Restaurant Week after one of my chef instructors told me that it was the WORST time to check out a new place. Here is why: let's say a restaurant's normal check average is 100 dollars a person but during Restaurant Week they are offering three courses for 35 dollars. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to figure out that something has got to give since they are earning just over a third of what they are used to per customer. You can't really expect the same quality of ingredients and high food cost associated with a typical three or four star meal when you are only paying 35 dollars. Another factor is volume. Most restaurants amass a higher number of reservations than they typically do given the cost-conscious menu prices. People that normally couldn't/wouldn't spend 100 dollars a head on dinner are much more likely to spend 35 bucks on a night out at one of the city's finest establishments. Also, if a restaurant does 30% more covers during restaurant week it's not like any chef/owner is going to hire 30% more staff so the dining room is being staffed by the same number of people despite the spike in customers. So strictly speaking, it's a numbers game during Restaurant Week and unfortunately the odds are against you, the diner. But here I am years later and a friend of mine really wanted to go somewhere super special for Restaurant Week and so I obliged (so strong my commitment to journalistic integrity is...Yoda is my cousin). So we hit a perennial favorite of New Yorkers, Jean Georges' Nougatine room. My friend did the Restaurant Week menu of four courses and I created my own a la carte feast. My friend had a tuna tartare with avocado (fair), followed by sauteed skate (ok), roasted chicken (dry) and then a chocolate dessert with four components (delicious). I had foie gras brulee (OH MY GOD! How delicious!), some exquisitely prepared sea bass (flakey and moist!) and then a fruity vacherin (light, airy and hit the right tart notes!). He drank iced tea, I drank Mersault and then a Chapoutier Banyuls with dessert. My meal was fantastic and his was just OK. He spent 50 dollars, I spent 160. The lesson learned here was that while you can get an outstanding meal during Restaurant Week, it's only if you DON'T order the Restaurant Week menu.
P.S. Recently went to one of my new favorite places in the city, Bar Boulud, and couldn't get over the slow service, the continuous up-sell by the sommelier and the yellow discolored watercress and over salted vegetables. I didn't know what was going on--I had had many fantastic meals there before and had never been disappointed by the food, service, etc. The menu was also dramatically different. It was then that it hit me, Restaurant Week had reared its ugly head again and I was in the middle of it. Drats. I leave you with this analogy: Restaurant Week is like going on a double date with your average looking date and your gorgeous, rich and talented best friend and his supermodel girlfriend. You could say that you were on a date with the supermodel because you were technically seated at the same table and enjoying the same conversation and bottle of wine that she and your BFF were, but in the end, you are going home alone and unsatisfied while your buddy beds the supermodel. With Restaurant Week, you technically ate at the restaurant but you didn't really get to experience it in all its glory.