It’s cold outside, but this time of year, local restaurants are on fire. It’s Restaurant Week season. Restaurant Week is a semi-annual or annual event that takes place in different locations all over Maryland, and it’s just what it sounds like. A group of restaurants, often organized by a local tourism organization, gets together and agrees to offer “prix fixe” menus—a multi-course menu for a set price— for dinner and/or breakfast and lunch, for a week or more.
The first “restaurant week” was in New York City in 1992, when Tim Zagat (of Zagat’s Guide fame) and restaurateur Joe Daum dreamed up the concept to encourage diners to get out and try someplace new. Before long, other cities took notice, launching weeks of their own. Baltimore City’s week started in 2006; Annapolis has hosted its Restaurant Week since 2009.
“After spending the winter indoors, it’s time to get out and have a date night with the special people in your life,” says Erik Evans, Executive Director of the Downtown Annapolis Partnership, Inner West Street Association and Annapolis Arts District. “Restaurant Week gives you that opportunity.”
January is sizzling with restaurant weeks from the Eaastern Shore to Northern Baltimore. With special menus available and tons of participating restaurants to choose from, dining out during Restaurant Week can be intimidating. But with a little advance planning—and these tips—it’s also a fun adventure.
Embrace the Prix Fixe
During Restaurant Week, participating each restaurant offers a multi-course prix fixe option; some will also make their regular a la carte menu available. The prix fixe option will usually be priced at a competitive rate, so dinner will cost a little less than it normally would.
Do Advance Research
Every local Restaurant Week has a dedicated website. Many restaurants share their Restaurant Week menus there or on social media, giving diners an opportunity to check them out to see what sounds good.
When perusing menus, look for restaurants doing something interesting suggests Willy Dely, a restaurant industry veteran and owner of the hospitality consultancy Au Jus Solution. “Don’t go to a place that’s just offering a Caesar salad as an appetizer. Go to places that really want to feature what they do.”
Try Someplace New—or a Whole New Cuisine
Restaurant Week is “the best way to discover new places,” says Dely. “So many new places are opening, you can have a hard time keeping track of what’s the new trendy place.” He personally uses Restaurant Week as a time to check out not just new restaurants, but even cuisines that are new to him; because the special menus are often pared down versions of restaurants’ complete menus, they’re easier to navigate. “I like to try new cuisines because I know that a Restaurant Week menu will help me see a sampling of the whole menu and get an idea of what the concept is about,” he says.
Revisit an Old Favorite
Restaurant Week isn’t only about the new and different, either: it’s also about revisiting places you know and love. “You might go someplace to try a new dish you haven’t had before, but it’s already your favorite restaurant,” says Erik Evans.
Save the Hot Spots for Later
Dely warns that some newly opened, high profile restaurants will likely be crowded during Restaurant Week. He suggests skipping those in favor of smaller places that might have been open longer, and saving the hot spots for a later date.
“I don’t know if you want to go someplace that’s going to jam-packed,” he says. “But Restaurant Week also helps you build a ‘database’ of places you might visit later. You can get an idea of places you want to visit soon.”
Think Beyond the Restaurant
Restaurant Week offers diners a good excuse to check out not just new restaurants, but whole new parts of the region. “I encourage folks to pick a spot in a neighborhood they don’t usually visit,” says Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore. “This method can turn a meal into a whole adventure experiencing a new community.”
—Kit Waskom Pollard