Research, Plot, Then Dine

Get Ready To Define Your Strategy For Baltimore Restaurant Week

August 05, 2009|By Richard Gorelick | Richard Gorelick,Special to The Baltimore Sun

The official Web site for Baltimore Summer Restaurant Week is like an online dating service for diners in search of the perfect restaurant match. Ultimately, diners hope, the time invested in exploring the possibilities will be worth it.

At last count, some 120 restaurants had agreed to participate in this summer's version, which runs Friday through Aug. 16, and most have published their Restaurant Week menus on the Web site (baltimorerestaurantweek.com). The basics are the same as in previous years: Participating restaurants offer a fixed-price, three-course dinner for $30.09 or lunch for $20.09, to draw in patrons during a slow time and give diners a reason to check out places they haven't been before. This year, more than ever, there are exceptions to the format, with some restaurants offering more courses, and a few setting a higher or lower fixed price.

Diners who take advantage of Restaurant Week fall into two major, somewhat opposing categories: The first type, in the clear majority, hopes to experience something as close to what a restaurant offers the rest of the year and expects the fixed-price menu to comprise only regular menu items.

The second type are frequent diners like Bolton Hill's Angela Guarda and Jeff Gilleran, who look for a restaurant that uses this week as an opportunity to create an original fixed-price menu that still conveys its essential nature.

"We're more interested when the restaurant decides to go a little beyond what it normally does," Guarda said. "That's exciting."

Based on the menus posted online, restaurants catering to diners expecting regular-menu items outnumber the original-menu restaurants by about a five-to-one majority. But even in the menu-in-miniature category, there is an enormous variety of approaches. At one end, there are restaurants like Tabrizi's in HarborView and Meli American Bistro in Fells Point that are making their entire menu available for the fixed-price dinner.

Kenneth Petty, Meli's managing partner, says, "This approach works especially well for us because the $30 per person price happens to be set very closely to what customers would normally spend here."

Other restaurants offering impressively large selections include Mount Vernon's Indigma, the Ambassador and its sister restaurant Carlyle Club, and, notably, La Tosca in the Inner Harbor, which is offering a large menu of unlimited tapas, provided the whole table agrees to the fixed-price option.

On the other end are restaurants offering very limited options, sometimes as few as two entrees. Sometimes, there's not really a choice, and everyone at the table will be eating the same salad or dessert. The limited approach sometimes makes perfect sense, say at a steakhouse, where many will be satisfied with the steak or salmon.

Some restaurants choose to offer a menu of new items because owners don't want to offer diners a diluted version, either in size or quality, of its regular fare.

Sergio Vitale, owner of Aldo's Ristorante Italiano in Little Italy says, "We're more concerned that the Restaurant Week menu items themselves reflect our philosophy: that ingredients, foods and preparations are seasonal and should be enjoyed according to a standard."

Among the other restaurants offering original-item menus are Marie Louise Bistro in Mount Vernon, Abacrombie Fine Foods in Midtown Belvedere and Federal Hill's new Taverna Corvino.

All of this planning and research will help diners find their ideal restaurant match. But to a restaurant owner like Sascha Wolhander, whose fixed-price menu at Sascha's 527 is a selection of favorite menu items, Restaurant Week is simply a "win-win situation. It's that little extra impetus for diners to get out of their routine and check out a restaurant they have been thinking about."

Tips

Dessert: : At many restaurants, dessert is one of the three courses. But if you don't have a sweet tooth, some participating restaurants have taken a different approach. The Elkridge Furnace Inn lets customers choose one item from any three of five courses. The City Cafe, Nick's Fish House and Chiapparelli's are among the restaurants offering four courses, including dessert, while Ryleigh's Oyster House, Ze Mean Bean, and the Crossroads restaurant are sticking to three courses but doing away with dessert in favor of a salad or an appetizer.

Vegetarian options: : Indian and Mediterranean restaurants are most likely to have veggie-friendly options, but other menus have some choices. Gertrude's has a roasted stuffed eggplant entree and the Gin Mill in Canton, will be serving a wild mushroom and arugula ragout over polenta.

Reservations: : Make reservations as soon as possible; spaces fill fast.

Parking: : Check out the Baltimore Restaurant Week Web site for a printable parking voucher, good in Baltimore City Parking Authority garages.

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