Monday, January 21, 2013

Center City Restaurant Week: Insider Tips

The bi-annual blitz of prix-fixe menus hits Philadelphia on Sunday, January 20th. Restaurant Week, which is actually held over 13 days, is a promotional initiative by the Center City District that shows off the city's diverse dining scene while allowing diners to eat on a budget. Let's call it an affordable adventure. Not only is it a genius marketing campaign for a metropolis (other key cities like Washington DC and New York participate), but it also contributes to the local economy. The last effort served over 240,000 diners and took in more than $13 million. There may be naysayers (those who think chefs cut corners with ingredients and quality while limiting options; service suffers due to unhappy servers; and amateurs dine in droves while tipping less)---but one cannot deny the success of this program. 

So, with over 100 restaurants participating, how does one select a dining destination while ensuring an experience that truly reflects a restaurant's identity and cuisine? The answer is Due Diligence. Learn the facts and do the research.  All of the information you need to know can be found at the Center City District website. You may also follow @PhilaRestWeek on Twitter for updated news.


The Highlights:
  • Restaurant Week runs from Sunday, January 20th to Friday, January 25th, then kicks-off again Sunday, January 27th to Friday, February 1st. NOTE: Some restaurants will continue the promotion on Saturday, January 26th. 
  • 3-course Lunches will be served for $20, while 3-course Dinners cost $35 (*price does not include tax, gratuity, or beverages).
  • Reservations can be made via Open TableCityEats or by contacting the restaurants directly. 

Differences to Past Restaurant Weeks:
  • Previous Restaurant Weeks cost $30 for dinner, but that was a couple of years ago and the economy drives price.
  • Lunch is now offered as part of the promotion.
  • Restaurant Week began as a one week affair, but its success has expanded it to a two-week period.
  • Critical weekend nights have been added to the mix. Previous promotions were Sunday through Thursday, but currently, Fridays (and even Saturday for certain participants) are included.
  • Restaurant Week is now a bi-annual affair, occurring in late Summer and early January, allowing for diners to explore the seasonality of ingredients. It also gives restaurants an advantage during two traditionally slow periods of the year. Second-tier restaurants, which may be less visited than their more highly-exposed counterparts, benefit greatly.

The Tips:
  1. Review the list of participating restaurants and seek out spots you have never visited in order to gain a sense of a restaurant's identity and cuisine. This is an opportunity to Explore.
  2. Choose restaurants that are offering a variety of options, not just a small, generic sampling of items for each course. 
  3. Compare each restaurant's promotional menu to the menu posted on their website. This will inform you whether the plates truly reflect their day-to-day menu and if the Restaurant Week menu is actually offering you a price-advantage. 
  4. Make a Lunch date. It costs significantly less than at night, it's worth the risk, and provides another perspective of a restaurant's kitchen. 
  5. Consider other variables such as Setting, BYOB, and Extra Value (i.e., more than 3 courses).
  6. Make reservations as soon as possible. Many of the Stephen Starr and Jose Garces spots will likely book faster than others due to their prestige and following. Consider that many diners who likely do not eat out often will be flooding the city. More Demand=Less Supply of seats.
  7. Utilize the Year in Bells by Craig LaBan, the restaurant critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, to provide insight into the top-ranked and unique places to dine. Note that these will be highly sought after, so remain flexible on dining times and availability, especially for locations that are highly-rated.

Setting:

Philadelphia is a city filled with historical and grandiose buildings that boast impressive interiors, romantic ambiance and inventive design. When considering a restaurant, setting is an essential factor that can make your experience more memorable. Consider the following:

>Former Banks make for a lasting impression. The city that is home to the First and Second National Banks of the United States lists former grand banking establishments as dining spaces, which add drama, height and a coolness to the dining experience typically centered around steak and dollar signs.  Here are three:
  • Davio's, the Northern Italian steakhouse located on the second floor of the historic Provident Bank Building off Rittenhouse Row whose classic food is matched by haute-service from black-tie clad stewards.
  • Butcher & Singer, the Stephen Starr homage to Old Hollywood where Prohibition-style cocktails are poured and you may feel like an extra on the Mad Men set. Formerly the acclaimed Striped Bass restaurant, the National Bank and the Butcher & Singer brokerage firm, it's where steaks and chops are highlighted.
  • Delfrisco's, the multi-leveled steakhouse in the former First Pennsylvania Bank draped in red and marble elicits a "Wow" response once you enter. Expect everything Big: the wine list, the cuts of meat, and the style.
>High-end hotels with high-end dining rooms. Classic hotels that offer dining in a luxurious, elegant setting.
  • M Restaurant at the Morris House Hotel. Housed in a boutique hotel near Washington Square Park that was built in the late 18th century and is a National Historic Landmark, M Restaurant  boasts a colonial and romantic setting that oozes ambiance.
  • Lacroix at Rittenhouse. Located in the prestigious Rittenhouse Hotel off of Rittenhouse Square, the restaurant opened by famed chef Jean-Marie Lacroix offers cuisine rooted in classic French technique from a pedigreed kitchen that produces stunning tasting menus that reach $120. This is an opportunity to dine in a space where affordability may have been a concern.
>Colonial dining. Philadelphia was founded in the 1600s and is steeped in the history of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers, its architecture harkening back to and reflecting a colonial time. 
  • City Tavern. Located on 2nd Street with Independence Hall as a backdrop, City Tavern produces dishes using 18th century cooking techniques. Chef Walter Staib is all about authenticity in his preparations. Servers are clad in colonial dress and the decor allows you to feel the spirit of Benjamin Franklin. 

BYOB:

The Philadelphia dining scene is defined by its unique Bring Your Own Bottle (BYOB) policy. During Restaurant Week, it's an added cost benefit to the diner. Here are three not-to-miss BYOBs:

  • Russet. Located on 15th and Spruce in a beautiful 19th century townhouse, chefs Andrew and Kristen Wood practice a farm-to-table philosophy whose dedication to sustainability shines. Expect food that speaks naturally, with a focus on in-house charcuterie and Italian/French inspired dishes.
  • Bistro 7. Helmed by Chef Michael O'Halloran, the restaurant is an elegantly-appointed, minimalist-designed jewelbox in Old City with a focus on modern French-bistro inspired dishes. Tasting menus are usually ten courses, so Restaurant Week gives the diner a small peek into the kitchen window.
  • Pumpkin. The restaurant was recently renovated into a natural, inviting space with butterscotch banquettes and wooden features. It's a perfect setting for chef Ian Moroney's warm, modern, New American dishes that emphasize local, fresh and seasonal. Expect an amuse bouche of mushroom toast with hollandaise to kick off your dinner and your taste-buds!

Extra Value:

While Restaurant Week dictates 3 courses for $35, many restaurants are offering an additional or even two more courses that highlight an embedded value to the diner. The following spots are worth visiting for the extra bites:
  • a.kitchen. This sleek, sexy spot housed in the AKA Hotel offers up innovative, flavor-driven small plates from Chef Bryan Sikora, formerly of the famous Django and Talula's Table. The Restaurant Week menu is a true reflection of its daily menu. Don't miss the spaghetti cacio e pepe or the memorable roast chicken with ricotta gnocchi. The extensive wine list is an added bonus.
  • Time. Chef Sean Magee has recently released his Winter menu, and it thankfully screams innovative, modern comfort cuisine. Time is offering a 5 course menu, which begins with a selection of hors d'oeuvres. The oxtail pot pie should be on your radar.
  • Salento. This Italian cousin of South Philly's L'Angolo hidden away on 22nd & Walnut is offering 4 courses, which are true depictions of the kitchen's nightly output. Diners have the choice of a pasta midcourse in addition to an array of apps, entrees and desserts. Don't miss the carciofi to start or the pappardelle with oxtail ragu. Bonus: It's a BYOB.
  • Percy Street BBQ. Part of the Cook & Solo mini-empire that recently brought Federal Donuts to Philly's fried chicken/donut-starved citizens, Percy Street is a fun, welcoming spot on 9th & South whose craft can beer selection is unmatched and Texas-style 'cue is authentic. Chef Erin O'Shea also makes a ridiculously decadent Pecan Pie. Percy is offering 2 apps, 2 entrees, and 2 desserts for a total of $35, which is a coup for the diner. Don't miss the mac & cheese, BBQ fries or the brisket. Note: On Thursday, January 24th, Percy is celebrating National Beer Can Day, when its 100+ canned beers are being offered at Half-Price. Another big value for the diner.

Top Overall Recommendations

While Restaurant Week touts a multitude of winners, there are a few places that should be at the top of your list. I'll call these "No-Brainers." Make reservations NOW!
  • Zahav. Michael Solomonov's ode to Israeli cuisine is also one of Philly's top restaurants. Its menu is an exploration of chef Solomonov's homeland. The hummus selections are tear-inducing, while the mezze are flavor-packed plate bombs exploding in your mouth. During Restaurant Week, diners can get Zahav's Tayim tasting menu for $35, which reflects a savings of $4 from the normal cost. But the cost-saving is secondary; dining at Zahav is always a shake-your-head-at-how-transporting-this-food-is Moment. As the name implies, the result is Gold. Added bonuses are a wine-list featuring many Middle Eastern and Israeli wines, plus a cocktail list that is quite innovative and well-constructed. 
  • Chez George. The subterranean bistro housed beneath the iconic Le Bec Fin is a comfortable hideaway from the formality upstairs, serving classic French comfort food staples from the same kitchen where Chef Walter Abrams is producing sophisticated tasting menus for the restaurant above. Grab a seat at the bar and order escargots and cassoulet de canard (duck). Splurge for a glass of top-growth Bordeaux and toast to a legendary space and Georges Perrier. 
  • Barbuzzo. A feather in the cap worn by 13th Street pioneers Marcie Turney and Valerie Safran, Barbuzzo serves up rustic Mediterranean food that will undoubtedly lead to a 'full belly.' It's an energetic spot, pulsing with a vibrant buzz. Housemade pastas and pizzas shine, as do the variety of small plates, many of which are finished in the wood oven. The Restaurant Week menu is kicked-off with a choice of two crostinis from the Chef. Do not even think about leaving Barbuzzo without trying the salted-caramel budino, a layered play on Italian pudding that arrives in a charming jar. It's butterscotch pudding with vanilla bean caramel and chocolate cookie crumbles with a sprinkle of sea salt...and a whole lot of love. Pair it with a bourbon or a Troegs Java Head Stout and you will find yourself in Heaven. I'd pay $35 for the dessert alone.

You now have the tools to build a well-constructed dining experience in Philadelphia over the next two weeks. Arm yourself with knowledge to make informed choices, and you will dine like a King on a commoner's budget. Cheers!

*Attached is a video interview I did with Zach Lashway of WPHL 17's Eye Opener Philly to kick-off Restaurant Week. Enjoy!



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