“Value” is a word seldom found in the Washington, D.C. diner’s vocabulary — it is rare to find a restaurant that satisfies both the palate and the wallet. In light of these unfortunate circumstances, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington organizes a semi-annual Restaurant Week, with prix-fixe lunches and dinners set at $22 and $35, respectively. On paper, these prices advertised an offer we could not refuse.
This year, about 250 local restaurants participated in the week’s promotions, from Michelin-recommended fare to trendy, up-and-coming eateries. Collectively, we dined at 10 of the participating restaurants, scouting out what we thought would be the worthiest contenders. Instead, we encountered disappointment after disappointment.
Considering the usual price tag of some of the restaurants where we dined, the promotions did present a more economical option. Yet, what was gained in value was lost in quality.
Most disappointingly, many of the dishes we surveyed were subpar. Flavors were lacking, ingredients were uninspired and presentation was nonexistent. Although this problem may not be emblematic of Restaurant Week itself, surely no business is incentivized to deliver excellence when its prices are capped at predetermined ceilings. Rather, businesses need to do just well enough that patrons will return during the other 50 weeks of the year.
Even at the finest establishments, we found Restaurant Week offerings paled in comparison to the usual repertoire of dishes. At Kingbird, an American restaurant at the Watergate Hotel, the short rib ravioli was a textural tragedy, with mushy meat wrapped inside an exterior of thick sauce. Our meal at Convivial, a bistro in the Shaw neighborhood, suffered from an identity crisis, with dishes spanning the American South with fried chicken nibbles, Alsace, France with sauerkraut and sausage choucroute garnie then back to the States again with key lime pie. In addition to the absence of a consistent narrative, the dishes lacked character.
Taste aside, some of the kitchens seemed to be tightly rationing the portions for Restaurant Week dishes. At Fabio Trabocchi’s Del Mar, which was recently selected by the Washingtonian as D.C.’s third-best restaurant of 2018, the jamon dish — the sine qua non for any tapas restaurant — consisted of a few flimsy pieces of bland serrano. At Fiola Mare, another of Trabocchi’s restaurants, we finished each dish within minutes and were left wanting more. Granted, the promotional nature of the week does not ensure generous portions. Although delicacy is one thing — stinginess is another.
Even the establishments of restauranteur extraordinaire Jose Andrés fell victim to a severe lack of options. The taco selection at Oyamel was limiting — a shame given the usual menu’s creativity and abundance. At Fish, one of Andrés’ most recent openings, we were unimpressed with the lackluster options available on the Restaurant Week menu; none of the items featured the restaurant’s namesake seafood. Our party ended up ordering the tasting menu, which is always a safe bet with Andrés.
It goes without saying that some of the Restaurant Week promotions were indeed quite delightful. The “Balkan experience” at Ambar — an all-you-can-eat option complete with grilled meats, vegetable spreads and flatbreads — was a feast for all senses. By far, the most for-value meal we had during the week was at Bistro Cacao, where a bountiful lunch set featured escargot, steak-frites and tartes aux pommes. Given our small sample size, we expect there were also other terrific deals we missed.
But to readers anticipating the next Restaurant Week, we offer this “caveat eater.” Not every Restaurant Week promotion was created equal. A few of the promotions we sampled were enjoyable, but the majority were unsatisfactory and did not do justice to the vibrant restaurant scene of the District. It is with this unfortunate consideration that we award Restaurant Week 2018 a shrug.
Daniel Almeida is a senior in the McDonough School of Business. Toby Hung is a senior in the College. Table for Two appears in print every other Friday.