Charleston Restaurant Week returns today with a ballyhooed pricing shift: Whereas restaurants in past years were required to offer three courses for $20, $30 or $40, they're now free to design their own meals and charge accordingly.

While the vast majority of the more than 140 participating restaurants are sticking with the established prix-fixe format, a few restaurants are exercising more pricing creativity during the Sept. 3-14 event. That doesn't always translate to a better deal for diners. Al Di La, for example, is again offering a three-course menu, with selections including beef Carpaccio, fettucine Bolognese and tiramisu. But now the meal costs $22 instead of $20.

Still, if nothing else, the new system is another reason to carefully read the menus at charleston

When I checked out what's on offer, the following specials piqued my interest:

Basico is a steal at $20. Check out this week's Sum of its Parts column (one of many columns this week devoted to Charleston Restaurant Week menu items) for one reason why. In addition to the good-looking baby octopus confit, the menu choices include a sweet corn cake, which is a welcome departure from the standard dessert choices of creme brulee and chocolate cake.

Sweet corn cake is also an optional finisher at The Drawing Room, which has assembled an attractive menu in the $40 division. (And if you drop by the restaurant for a pre-dinner drink, don't miss the spiced popcorn and scorched shishito peppers, currently one of downtown's best bar snacks.) I'd go for the pan-roasted grouper with braised field peas.

Restaurant Week is a great opportunity to catch up on new restaurants. In addition to The Drawing Room, consider The Granary, where diners have a choice between three courses for $30 or four courses for $40. Fried Charleston gold rice with Berkshire pork cheek and a cioppino with local shrimp look to be pretty emblematic of how the Mount Pleasant restaurant finesses local ingredients. And assuming Swig & Swine isn't downsizing its portions, this is an excellent time to check out the West Ashley smokehouse, which is selling a three-meat platter with two sides and dessert for $20. The same meal is usually priced at $24.

This also is prime time to visit restaurants that aren't new, but are perhaps new to you. A few restaurants beyond the peninsula should see their share of Restaurant Week customers, including High Thyme on Sullivan's Island. Since I'm not sure any commercial establishment in the area cooks grits better, I'd suggest choosing the shrimp-and-grits on the $30 menu. And don't be dissuaded by the Restaurant Week tropes on Long Island Cafe's $30 menu: I bet the Isle of Palms restaurant will nail she-crab soup and fried green tomatoes. Reservations are always a good idea during Charleston Restaurant Week. For menus and more information, visit

Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.