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DC’s Restaurant Week, WHICH STARTS TODAY , is a mixed bag. We ran this guide last year, and we are rerunning it this year, since the rules remain the same. Comment away: For the under-funded, it’s a great way to enjoy a meal at a nice restaurant without racking up credit debt and for the occasional restaurant-goer, it’s a good reason to get out of the house or change the routine. For others, the specter of the bi-annual Restaurant Week filling their favored restaurants with the teeming masses, dumbing down menus and driving down quality sends them scurrying to those places not among the 200 participating in the promotion. If you decide to test the waters, a three-course lunch goes for $20.08 and three-course dinners run $35.08, plus drinks, tip and tax. The best spots fill up fast, so make your reservations now.

How to plan

Picking the right restaurant is critical – you can end up paying for a $35 Restaurant Week meal at a place serving $15 entrees, or walk into a place where the menu is littered with up-charges, turning your $35 meal into something much pricier.

The best tool for Restaurant Week is Open Table. Start plugging in times and neighborhoods, see what’s open and book a meal or two They have a dedicated page set up just for restaurant week.

This year’s $5 dinner price increase makes restaurant selection even more important. Focus on more expensive places to make your money at dinner stretch farther. If you can make the time, try taking advantage of the deals during lunch. Restaurant Week gives you a great opportunity to try some things around your work that you have wondered about and gives you a chance to do that lunch you keep talking about with your coworkers. At $20.08 the price is right and you won’t feel tempted to get all those add-ons that can boost your bill.

When planning for dinner, realize that Restaurant Week is a trying time for restaurants. Many of the kitchen and front-of-house staff are working doubles through the week, a lot of the diners are not experienced restaurant-goers, some menus are limited and later in the week some items will be unavailable. Use the opportunity to try new things and make sure to keep it simple. Restaurant Week may not be the best time to pull a really large dinner party together and it may not be the best opportunity to celebrate a special occasion.

What to watch out for

Many restaurants use Restaurant Week as a chance to get new customers. That’s great, but be a smart consumer. In some cases you may end up at a restaurant whose menus cost the same as the deal offered, or you may find yourself eating a moderate meal in a hotel lobby. Beacon Bar and Grill, we’re looking at you.

Given rising food costs and the crush of Restaurant Week, some restaurants end up serving reduced portion sizes. This is a shame as quality, less-expensive ingredients are readily available and so many restaurants are able to put together great plates for their diners. Be advised that if a menu claims a lot of luxury ingredients, you should probably speak with your server about portion size.

What the experts are saying

For the past four years DC Foodies has done a really comprehensive job of covering Restaurant Week.

They have some fantastic tips like:

Avoid “special” menus unless you know exactly what the restaurant is offering and it actually sounds interesting to you. Restaurant’s offering most, if not all, of their normal menu are the restaurants to go to as these are the best deals.

When choosing a restaurant, consider whether or not they always have a deal similar to the Restaurant Week offer. For instance, Cafe Atlantico always has a pre-theater menu for $30.07.

Definitely stop through the site and look at past recommendations and reviews.

Washingtonian offers a look at this year’s restaurant offerings. It looks like Ardeo, Circle Bistro, Dino, Liberty Tavern, Mendocino Grille, Tavern and Tosca are all letting patrons order off their complete menus. You can expect well-executed, non-Restaurant Week quality dishes at any of these establishments. Additionally, any of Jeff Tunks’ restaurants – DC Coast, Ceiba, Acadiana and Tenh Penh – offer a full menu and consistently solid Restaurant Week meals

Examiner (duly) noted that: Those that offer any small-plates/tapas/mezze, such as Zaytinya, Jaleo, Oyamel, all great, but already generally offer good deals year-round, so are generally not considered best RW picks.

The kids at Capital Spice offer a google map highlighting all the restaurants participating in Restaurant Week. And it’s color-coded, love it!

The best bets

PS7 has decided to give everyone an extra week. They are going to offer Restaurant Week deals from August 6th through the 18th. Booking next week will get you ahead of the crowd, and in years past Peter Smith has delivered great meals to his Restaurant Week patrons.

Vidalia is changing the game and offering a five-course tasting menu for $50.08 and three-course for $35.08. If you’ve never been, go. Vidalia is one of DC’s best restaurants, and this is definitely the one not to miss.

Several additional restaurants stick out as good choices as well. The Morrison-Clark Inn is off the beaten path and not a place people immediately think of. Rasika during Restaurant Week is a great way to introduce their amazing food to someone who may not normally eat Indian food or someone who balks at such expensive ethnic fare. The newly renovated Equinox should be worth trying out and this might be a good opportunity to trek out to Old Town’s Farrah Olivia and see just what celebrity chef Morou has to offer. Fyve at the Ritz Carlton in Pentagon City has just opened and would certainly be a great choice for someone looking for a deal. You won’t see another $35 dinner at that place for a while, at least, not until DC’s next Restaurant Week, in January 2009.