Restaurant Week keeps cooking cheap and haute

restaurant weekGood news for foodies on a budget: Restaurant Week is gaining new converts.

As the discount promotion winds down nationwide, new-member eateries are giving mostly positive reviews to the 18-year-old tradition.

"Last night we did 95 guests; we had under 50 on the same night last year," Dan Prentice, the general manager of Sonoma County's Dry Creek Kitchen, told WalletPop on Thursday. "It's given us incredible exposure."

Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New York and Denver are among the last gourmet paradises participating this winter. So if you're hankering for haute cuisine at a digestible cost, you better hustle.

Restaurant Week, organized by OpenTable, an online reservation service, allows diners to indulge in low-cost meals from high-end restaurants. Restaurant Weeks are often held during slow times for eating out.

Yours truly gobbled up a $24.07 three-course lunch this week at Nobu, a chic Japanese stalwart in lower Manhattan. I had rock shrimp tempura in a tangy cream sauce, a generous slab of miso-infused black cod, and tofu cheese cake. The same would have cost at least twice as much a la carte. It was no accident that the place was nearly packed during a snowstorm.

"Patrons can and should use the special menus as ways to check out restaurants they might normally consider too pricey," said Bob Paine of Affinity Solutions, an organizer of loyalty programs for restaurants. "While the Restaurant Week price might be a deal at restaurants with high-priced menu items, it's less so when the normal menu runs $12 to $15 an entree."

Russell Klein, owner and chef of the French brasserie Meritage in St. Paul, Minn., held out from Restaurant Week previously because it conflicted with heavy opera traffic. But not this year. He said his bookings for Sunday have already doubled. Ironically, he added, Meritage was already offering a cheaper three-course deal ($24) on Sundays than for Restaurant Week ($30). But the program has drawn additional attention.

"I don't want to overlook middle class diners," he said to WalletPop. "We do everything we can to give people options."

Klein did have a few beefs, however: He said Restaurant Week needed to be publicized more, and he complained that all reservations for Restaurant Week were routed through OpenTable (a partner of AOL CityGuide), which charges him $1 for every patron.

Capital Grille in Chicago, which usually charges $40 at dinner for a sirloin steak, welcomed Restaurant Week as a cross-promotion for its weekday lunch special, $24.99 for three courses plus $5 glasses of wine. "We were using this to let people know we have Restaurant Week every day," manager Michael Mason said.

All restaurants aligned with Restaurant Week face a similar conundrum, Mason added: How far do you lower the prices to lure people in versus how much preparation and resources do you invest to wow them once they sit down? "You're striking a balance," he said.

The following is a partial list of ongoing or upcoming Restaurant Weeks from OpenTable's schedule. Bon appetit!

Denver, Feb. 20 – March 5; Atlantic City, Feb.y 28 - March 6; Twin Cities, Feb. 28 - March 5; New York City, extended to Feb. 28; Chicago, Feb. 19-28; Sonoma County, Feb. 22-28.

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