The semiannual arrival of Charleston Restaurant Week, which counterintuitively unfolds over 12 days, starting today, is the starting gun for local diners to book tables at restaurants they usually dismiss as too fancy. But many of the event's best deals are available in the humblest of eateries, according to a menu analysis.

If you go

What: Charleston Restaurant Week

When: Jan. 8-19.

Where: 142 restaurants in the greater Charleston area.

Cost: $20, $30 or $40 for a multicourse dinner. The price doesn't include beverages, unless otherwise noted; tax or tip (and servers work especially hard during the promotional event.)

More info: Reservations are highly recommended. For a complete list of participating restaurants, including menus, visit www.charlestonrestaurant association.com/charleston- restaurant-week/

Of the 142 restaurants participating in this season's edition of the Greater Charleston Restaurant Association promotion, about two dozen offer $40 three-course menus. Since many of those restaurants list $36 entrees on their standard menus, that understandably sounds like a steal. And in some cases, it is: At Hall's Chophouse, the prix fixe menu includes she-crab soup, an 8-ounce filet and dessert, a meal which would typically sell for $57 without sides. During Restaurant Week, the beef is accompanied by corn and collards. (Granted, the Restaurant Week menu doesn't specify the size of the soup; the provenance of the steak or the nature of the dessert, but even a $9 savings is enough to cover a glass of Central Coast Cabernet, which should help the ambiguity go down easier.)

Yet very few high-end restaurants are so lavish with their discounts. It's difficult to determine exactly how much $40 Restaurant Week meals are worth, because many fine restaurants devise dishes especially for the occasion without standard menu corollaries. And Hall's filet is one of the very few Restaurant Week menu items with an advertised portion size. But a spot check of $40 menus shows most ritzy restaurants mark down the bill by 5 percent to 10 percent during Restaurant Week.

That's not too shabby, but it's often difficult for diners to parlay that discount into real savings. Drinks are pricier in upscale restaurants, and the cost of ordering just one more plate to quell untamed hunger isn't cheap. At The Ocean Room, for example, appetizers are priced at $15-$19.

Other restaurants in the $40 category don't offer any markdowns. Fat Hen's Restaurant Week menu consists of fried green tomatoes or a house salad; shrimp and grits, fish or butcher's steak; and dessert. If a diner ordered fried green tomatoes, shrimp and grits and dessert off the regular menu, the tab would be $34.15. That amounts to a 17 percent fee for the privilege of dining during Restaurant Week.

In many cases, diners would be better off experiencing restaurants beyond their budgets by having a few fairly priced snacks at the bar on any other night of the year. But Restaurant Week appeals partly because its price is announced in advance: The prospect of shamelessly spending no more than $40 (or $52.08 with tax and tip, assuming you're satisfied with water) at McCrady's or Peninsula Grill is undeniably attractive. And even if the calculations aren't in the diner's favor at every restaurant charging $30 or $40 for a three-course meal, the food's likely to be delicious.

But if you're wanting to trade your buck for bang, it makes the most sense to enjoy your Restaurant Week at establishments serving up $20 prix fixe menus. The average discount in the $20 category is 18 percent, which means your tip cost is covered. While the deal may not amount to more than a dollar or two, it's reason enough to think beyond the "name" restaurants when planning a Restaurant Week itinerary.

Best of all, every restaurant but one in the $20 category is a verifiable deal. Only Morgan Creek Grill, a restaurant associated with the Isle of Palms Marina, charges its Restaurant Week patrons more than its regular customers: The standard price for calamari and a burger is $18 (Morgan Creek is running a two-course special.)

Morgan Creek's peers are considerably more generous, as the list shows. To determine Restaurant Week savings, we tallied up the usual cost of assembling the offered prix fixe meal. If the available choices were differently priced - perhaps the Restaurant Week menu offers a $3 soup or $5 salad for the first course - we went with the more expensive option, assuming most savvy Restaurant Week diners would do the same.

The system isn't infallible. In some instances, there was no obvious standard menu equivalent to what's being served for Restaurant Week. And we didn't fuss with chain restaurants or restaurants that haven't yet posted their Restaurant Week menus online. Still, the moral of the exercise is clear: Don't overlook the little guy this week.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.

What your $20 buys

Restaurant Standard costfor meal offered Restaurant Week savings
Sushi 101 $30.97 35%
Al Di La $29.00 31%
Cherrywood BBQ and Ale House $29.00 31%
Virginia's on King $28.98 31%
The Alley $28.85 31%
Yokoso $27.98 29%
A.W. Shucks $27.97 28%
J. Paulz $27.00 26%
Sparian's $27.00 26%
Toast $26.00 23%
La Fontana $25.40 21%
Katsu $25.23 21%
Locklear's Lowcountry Grill $24.98 20%
Nirlep $24.98 20%
Southend Brewery $24.90 20%
Baroni's NY Pizza $24.22 17%
Saffron Cafe $23.95 16%
Old Towne Grill and Seafood $23.85 16%
Rutledge Cab Co. $23.50 15%
CO $23.00 13%
Crust $23.00 13%
Basil $22.90 13%
The Wreck $21.98 9%
Home Team BBQ $21.70 8%
Mosaic Cafe $20.98 5%
Joe Pasta $20.88 4%
Basico $20.00 0%