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The Baltimore Sun

On the surface, Baltimore Restaurant Week is every foodie's dream come true, but that's not necessarily so. You're most likely to have a positive experience if you map out your strategies in advance.

Winter Restaurant Week will run from Monday through Feb. 3. The places that are signed up will offer a three-course meal for $30.08, and some also will offer lunch for $20.08. The list can be found at baltimorerestaurantweek.com.

Before you jump in, fork in hand, here's my advice - with the help of people who ate out during the last one and posted on my blog, Dining@Large - on how to get the most out of Restaurant Week.

Reservations

Don't wait until the last minute to make reservations. The best places will be booked, even at lunch. Take a look at the list, pick your restaurant or restaurants right now, today, and then check out the online menus. The offerings vary wildly and won't necessarily be filet mignon and lump crab meat.

Here's what blog poster Regina Shah had to say before all the restaurants had signed up: "After looking at some of the menus I am not sure that it would be such a great experience. How much salmon and tilapia can you eat and is it truly representative of the establishment?"

Still, many places (particularly new ones) use Restaurant Week as a way to introduce themselves to a wider audience, so you'll find some wonderful fixed-price options. Expect places to be crowded, so make your reservations for an off-time if possible.

Picking a place

You may be wowed by a particular prix-fixe menu, but your companion might not be. The best bet is to look for restaurants that offer a choice of appetizers, entrees and desserts.

It may seem like a no-brainer to choose places that would normally be too expensive. But judging from comments about the last Restaurant Week, many people had great experiences at places where they might normally spend around $30 anyway, so don't write those restaurants off.

Restaurant Week is also the time to try a cuisine or style of cooking you aren't sure you'll like because the investment is relatively small.

Also, don't limit yourself to dinner. Although $20 may be more than you usually spend for lunch, some people reported that the best deal they had during the last Restaurant Week was lunch at an expensive steakhouse downtown.

Substitutions

It's good to remember that the menus online aren't set in stone. Don't be shocked if there are substitutions. Several people found that was true this summer. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, although one poster complained that grilled beef filet had changed to grilled flank steak at one restaurant, and another was disappointed to get stuffed turbot instead of the promised stuffed sole.

Price creep

At all these restaurants the regular menu still will be offered, and may be your downfall.

"Others might have more self-control than my husband, our friends and I do," said Kit Pollard, "but we've learned to count on spending about twice what we'd originally anticipate. We order off the prix-fixe menu, but are inevitably drawn to just one or two more appetizers or a different dessert we have to try. Next thing we know, we've polished off half the main menu - and are presented with the bill to back it up."

One poster found that no sides came with the entrees at an upscale restaurant, and the server hadn't suggested anything when she and her husband were ordering. If you have to order a la carte potatoes and vegetables, you may end up with sticker shock.

Drinks not included

Even if you stick to the Restaurant Week menu, drinks may drive up the check. Darlene Townsend reported $11 mojitos at one restaurant this summer, while another poster complained about paying $11 for less than a quarter of a glass of wine elsewhere. Some owners, in other words, feel that they need to recoup some of the money they've lost offering a $30 dinner; others feel that the potential for future business is worth the cost.

About the tip

More and more restaurants have started adding a hefty serving charge to the bill. From a server's point of view, I can see why. It's the same problem waiters and waitresses face anytime a place has special deals. Restaurant Week must result in a lot less in tips for the same amount of work. If you're feeling generous, tip more than you normally would.

On the other hand, I can understand the argument for still tipping based on the amount of the check. In the long run, the server will benefit, just as the restaurant owner does, if a good experience results in the customer's coming back. I would probably end up tipping generously but not as much as on what the check would normally be if it weren't Restaurant Week.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

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