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Restaurant Week is coming—here's how to really get your money's worth

Chef Sam Adkins at his restaurant, Sally's Middle Name in Washington, D.C.
Scott Suchman | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Chef Sam Adkins at his restaurant, Sally's Middle Name in Washington, D.C.

If you're a foodie, you know how hard it is to stay frugal. And while dining out is often a treat for your taste buds — not so much for your wallet.

However, a few times a year (usually in the dead of winter or the dog days of summer), cities and towns across America offer consumers the opportunity to dine out for less, during what is often dubbed "Restaurant Week." The promotion typically offers patrons at participating eateries a three-course, prix fixe menu ranging from $22 to $44, depending on locale. In New York, for example, it's three courses at $29 for lunch and $42 for dinner.

But don't get distracted by all those divine looking dishes at seemingly deep discounts. Restaurant Week is sometimes criticized for limited menu options, sub-par entrees and skimpy service.

With Restaurant Week underway in cities like New York City, Chicago and Savannah, Georgia — and quickly approaching in other locations — it can be hard to figure out which participating businesses are actually offering a good deal.

Here's how to approach Restaurant Week, so you get the most for your money.

Compare the Restaurant Week menu to the general menu

The first step to hacking Restaurant Week? Doing your homework. Instead of following wherever your taste buds take you, spend some time looking at menus online.

Do a side-by-side comparison of the Restaurant Week prix fixe with what the eatery typically offers, food writer Sarah Zorn tells CNBC Make It.

"Ideally, the menu should be almost exactly the same," says Zorn, author of "Brooklyn Chef's Table: Extraordinary Recipes From Coney Island to Brooklyn Heights."

"To me, the red flag goes off when I see dishes offered during Restaurant Week that are entirely unreflective of the restaurant and what they're about, and the quality that they would otherwise hold themselves to," she explains.

Consider the entrees offered

As you're digging into all those prix fixe menus, look at the entrees and consider whether you could make the dishes yourself. If the ingredients are difficult to track down or the recipe is hard to replicate, then that restaurant's promotion might be worth it.

"In my restaurant, it's duck confit. It takes three days to make. You're not making that at home," says Nicholas Calias, the executive chef at Brasserie JO in Boston, which participates in Dine Out Boston in March. "That's something you're going to go out for."

As a chef, Calias, who has 26 Restaurant Weeks under his belt, also cautions against salads. Not just for their ease, but because it's a dish that's often over-priced.

"I'll look at the whole plate and say, 'Ok, this plate costs six bucks, that I just paid $42,'" he says. "You'll order a Caesar salad and they'll say $26. Well okay, I know chicken costs $1.39 a pound, and I know that romaine only costs you about 45 cents to put on the plate."

But, Calias says, it's important to remember that dining out isn't all about how much it cost to make the meal. "That salad may have cost me $14, but how the overall experience of dining was is what makes it worthwhile," he adds.

Zorn agrees. Even with simple dishes, you still want to make sure the restaurant is bringing something to the table (no pun intended). Keep an eye on how the chef is "presenting, re-imagining, plating," adds Zorn.

"Don't just give me a green salad. Don't just give me a bowl of soup. Don't just give me a plank of salmon with spinach on the side. I want to see their interpretation."

Spot the duds

Restaurant Week is often just as beneficial to the eatery as it is for the consumer. It's an opportunity for the business to bring in new customers, with the prospect of diners being impressed enough to come back in the future.

So steer clear of spots that have a bad attitude and service to match.

"The sense around Restaurant Week in the past [has been] that the people who take advantage are just in it to kind of scam the restaurants a bit," Zorn says. "They just want a cheap meal, and they don't have any intention of coming back.

"And I think it's really unfortunate, when you feel that from the restaurants."

Zorn says that type of attitude can be reflected in the eatery's Restaurant Week menu — "easy, assembly-line" dishes like casseroles, stroganoffs, soups, salads and sometimes stews can be a red flag.

And check out the sweets. "It's more glaringly obvious on dessert menus. When you see a slice of cheesecake…or a crème brulee — these kind of wishy-washy desserts that really don't say anything about a restaurant," Zorn says.

"You see them during Valentine's Day too, the heart-shaped chocolate cake. Cheesy, assembly line desserts, those are always a really easy tell."

Pick a pricier place

Restaurant Week is the perfect opportunity to try out that new eatery you usually can't afford. Go for the most expensive place you can, advises Calias.

That's because in most cities, the prix fixe menus are all priced the same, no matter whether the restaurant is usually budget-friendly or pricey.

If a regular meal at a restaurant costs less than during Restaurant Week, "Well, those are the ones you're going to tend to stay away from, because you can go at any time. So you always want to look at the more higher-end restaurants," says Calias.

Now is the time to save up and go to as many different eateries as you can. The chef says his friends in the culinary world will often make six to eight reservations during Restaurant Week and dine at a different place every night.

"That not only opens up your mind to different food," says Calias, "it also opens up the restaurants to different guests."

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