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Chicago Restaurant Week – Tips and strategies to get the most from your reservations

BY ANTHONY TODD | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

The happiest time of the year for Chicago restaurant lovers is almost upon us.

Chicago Restaurant Week (which is something of a misnomer, as the event now lasts a full 14 days) begins on Jan.30. It ends right before Valentine’s Day and includes more than 250 participating restaurants from all around the Chicago area.

The basic rules of restaurant week: Lunch is a fixed $22, while dinner is either $33 or $44 depending on the level of fanciness. Expect some serious crowds, and make reservations in advance — or be prepared to suffer the consequences.

I’ve known some serious (some may say crazy, but I reserve judgment) foodies who arrange their entire month around Restaurant Week, trading spreadsheets with their friends and reserving at a different spot every night. While that’s probably overkill, it’s an event that rewards research and preparation. Why? Because not every Restaurant Week menu is actually a bargain, and you may have very limited choices.

The bacon-wrapped dates at Mercat a la Planxa.|COURTESY OF THE RESTAURANT

Bacon-wrapped dates at Mercat a la Planxa. | Courtesy photo

How can this be, you might ask? Well, because depending on what a restaurant is serving, the fixed menu might not save you much money. That, combined with a reduced selection at many places, can make restaurant week a bad deal for the unwary. On the other hand, some restaurants have released exciting-sounding new menus – including themed menus – just for Restaurant Week.

One piece of solid advice for the bargain hunter: Be wary of any restaurant whose offerings are based around small plates. Take, for example, Arami — a wonderful restaurant that I can wholeheartedly recommend to anyone at any time other than restaurant week. Arami falls in the $44 dinner category and offers a four-course meal with two choices per course. I created a random, delicious-sounding meal from their restaurant week choices (a spicy tako spring roll, some Japanese mushrooms, Arami ramen) that, according to the prices on their regular menu, should only cost me $32. While their dessert menu isn’t online, the last course of green tea ice cream is not going to make up that extra $12.

To reinforce my “small plates are dangerous” theory, I checked out the menu at another absolute favorite of mine, Mercat a la Planxa. Using their restaurant week menu, I managed to create a tasting that should have cost $34 (gambas al ajillo, bacon-wrapped dates, patatas bravas and chocolate croquetas) on the regular menu. The problem? They’re charging $44 for the restaurant week menu. On the other hand, if I aim for the more expensive dishes on the menu, I can get a real value — a $50 meal for only $44. The moral: Know what you are ordering before you go, and aim high.

Sepia | COURTESY OF THE RESTAURANT

Sepia | Courtesy photo

The corollary of the “avoid small plates” tip: Head for places that do traditional appetizer/entrée/dessert service, and get a really nice piece of meat. Sepia, for example, is a Restaurant Week dream. First, you can choose whether you want a $33 or $44 menu. Second, almost the entire restaurant week menu is specials that aren’t on the regular menu, meaning fans of the restaurant get to try something new and price comparisons aren’t on the table — just enjoy yourself. Third, you can get a solid piece of roast chicken or cod on a full-size plate that you know is going to be worth your dining dollars.

If you’re looking for a culinary adventure, go to one of the places doing something really special for Restaurant Week. Ada Street is going to a dark place with a menu entirely inspired by the dishes that executed criminals requested as their last meals. There are dishes inspired by KFC fried chicken (John Wayne Gacy), Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream (Timothy McVeigh), or a flatbread inspired by killer William George Bonin, who had pizza. The prix fixe is $44.

My last tip? Be on the lookout for extensions and deeper discounts. Every year, around the last three or four days of restaurant week, my inbox floods with announcements that restaurants are extending their special menus (sometimes with added inducements) for an extra week or even the entire month of February. It’s a slow time of year, so if the special menu is packing them in, it might not end. Just something to keep in mind if you lose that perfect reservation to the geek with the spreadsheet.

The complete list of restaurant week participants (and menus) can be found here.