Over 700 restaurants have opened in D.C. over the past decade, but the city’s new restaurant boom didn’t really hit a peak until 2013, when over 100 restaurants opened. Kathy E. Hollinger, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington, says that’s almost double the annual average of 60 from just a few years ago.
Of course, few except for professional restaurant critics and maybe non-working trust-fund heirs have the time and, especially, the money to hit them all. So at least twice a year RAMW offers the next best thing to an all-expenses-paid dining career or a lifetime of financial carte blanche — its winter and summer Restaurant Week promotions.
Kicking off Monday, Aug. 11, this year’s summer Restaurant Week reflects the region’s booming culinary riches, with over 200 dining destinations participating, each offering at minimum one three-course meal a day — with prices set for $20.14 at lunch and $35.14 at dinner. And the boom in new restaurants is also reflected in the promotion, with a whopping 25 new establishments participating. America Eats Tavern, Jose Andres’s newest addition to a renowned D.C.-based empire and located in McLean’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, is one of these newest hotspots. Other new heavy hitters — in more ways than one — include Joe’s Seafood Prime Steak & Stone Crab, the D.C. branch of the famous South Beach institution, and Rural Society, the Argentine steakhouse and first D.C. venture from famed Philadelphia-based master of Latin cuisine, Jose Garces.
“Competition is tough these days,” Hollinger of RAMW says, “and Restaurant Week gives all our member restaurants a chance to shine in front of a huge audience, to show what they do best, and at a price that not everyone can afford on a regular basis.”
Restaurant Week first started in October 2001, a post-9/11 Great Recession time when people were eating out less regularly. The promotion has proven to be an enduring success even now that D.C. is a veritable economic and epicurean boomtown, full of self-described foodies. “I think Restaurant Week has remained popular because diners in our region are more sophisticated than ever,” Hollinger says. “They better understand the value involved in choosing when and where to dine out.”
Beyond the fixed prices for three courses, RAMW doesn’t set any guidelines for what participating restaurants offer. As such, you’ll always find a few restaurants who seem to regard the promotion as an afterthought, or even as a kind of bait-and-switch — drawing newbies in the door with a prix-fixe Restaurant Week menu offering only a couple options per course, and tempting them to spend a lot more for a lot more options by ordering from the regular menu. But many more venues offer more options and greater values, viewing Restaurant Week as Hollinger does, “as an opportunity to put their best foot forward as it relates to menu, ingredients, service and experience.” Among these this year is Central Michel Richard, the playful fine dining venue on Pennsylvania Avenue. Central offers “Dinner ‘Lux’ Menu Items,” or additional options, for a few dollars more, available during each course. This allows diners, say, to upgrade to a hanger steak for only $5 — though at least someone at your table must order the divine Michel’s Fried Chicken, a standard option all week long.
Another restaurant going beyond the bare minimum is Capitol Hill’s French-inspired Bistro Bis, which offers Restaurant Week diners eight options from which to choose for dessert alone, and 10 each for the preceding appetizer and entrée courses. Meanwhile, Chinatown’s Daikaya Izakaya, focused on Japanese-style small plates, has upped the game with more than twice the number of dinner courses, offering seven. Some establishments even decide to run the Restaurant Week promotion for weeks on end, including Glover Park’s Slate Wine Bar + Bistro, which offers the promotion next week until just before Labor Day.
In her nearly two years at the helm, Hollinger has ramped up RAMW in appreciable ways, from expanding its membership base by over 20 percent across the region, to making the organization a stronger player in both community advocacy and governmental policy. The organization has also created other promotions similar to Restaurant Week, such as the Spring Wine Fling, offering wine pairings, tastings and flights, which first launched in March of this year. Hollinger, while admittedly biased, calls restaurants “Metropolitan Washington’s greatest assets.” And she says the restaurant industry holds plenty of riches still largely unexplored.
“I can confidently say there is so much more than most diners could ever imagine right here in our fantastic region.”
Metro Weekly’s Top Picks for Summer Restaurant Week 2014:
Restaurant Week runs Monday, Aug. 11, through Sunday, Aug. 17, at over 200 restaurants around the region. For a full list and to make reservations, visit www.ramw.org/restaurantweek.