The idea behind Restaurant Week (in addition to filling seats at a traditionally slow time, of course) is to acquaint diners with local restaurants they haven’t before tried, giving chefs a chance to win over new regulars with their culinary aptitude.
But that’s a fairly lofty way to look at it. Most Charleston Restaurant Week goers are more interested in bangs and bucks, and many of them view the prix-fixe promotion as their biannual steakhouse shot.
Six traditional steakhouses are participating in the current edition of the program, which starts today and runs through Jan. 20. And all six of them are charging $45 for three courses, not counting tax and tip. So which of their deals represents the best value?
Putting aside service, ambiance and other elements which make dining out rewarding, there’s a quasi-mathematical way to show why Restaurant Week diners ought to consider making a reservation at Grill 225 – and why they might want to rethink a meal at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. (Burwells Stonefire Grill was omitted from this analysis because it hadn’t posted its menu at press time.)
If restaurateurs had their druthers, every Restaurant Week menu would consist of high-margin items such as a root vegetable starter; slow-cooked piece of meat and crème brulee. While many Charleston area restaurants have admirably come up with more creative lineups for the discount period, diners who eat at a succession of places during Restaurant Week may bore quickly of roasted beets and short ribs.
So if a diner wants to outsmart the menu, he or she needs to focus on the corners which haven’t been cut. In the case of a steakhouse, that means looking for seafood-enhanced appetizers; measuring the amount of red meat on offer and insisting on desserts that aren’t merely a dollop of chocolate or cream.
In fact, why not formalize that process? Let’s say we allot one point for each appetizer choice that features seafood in a perceptible way: No points for clam stock here. Then, let’s award a number of points equal to the weight of the largest cut on the menu, meaning a seven-ounce filet would yield seven points, and another point for each included side. Finally, we’ll give the restaurant one point for each dessert that’s more than mousse.
Here’s how that looks in practice, alphabetically:
Grill 225: The only steakhouse with three steaks listed on its Restaurant Week menu, Grill 225 picks up one point for blue crab chowder; 12 points for its rib eye; zero points for side dishes (those are sold a la carte) and one point for banana bread pudding. TOTAL: 14 points
Halls Chophouse: Halls plans to serve creamed corn and green beans with every Restaurant Week entree, so gets two points for sides, plus one point for she-crab soup and eight points for a filet mignon. Dessert is listed only as “chef’s nightly dessert feature,” so no points there. TOTAL: 11 points
Michael’s on the Alley: Another she-crab soup supplier, Michael’s is also serving smoked salmon salad, so gets two points for its appetizers; eight points for its filet mignon and one point apiece for the roasted potatoes and creamed spinach served with it. The dark chocolate and cherry tarte’s good for another point. TOTAL: 13 points
Oak Steakhouse: Of the five steakhouse menus available for previewing, Oak’s is the most cryptic. It doesn’t specify the “soup of the day” or the size of the filet. But assuming it’s a standard eight ounces, Oak earns eight points, along with two more for the whipped potatoes and asparagus. And while it’s impossible to award more than one point for a single dessert, the Nutella Brownie Crunch Bar sounds semi-substantial. TOTAL: 11 points (with a steak size caveat)
Ruth’s Chris Steak House: There’s no telling how much shrimp is actually in Ruth’s Chris’ gumbo, but it wins one point for it, as well as six points for its very petite filet (which is served with a shrimp topping, in case the gumbo’s underpopulated). Bread pudding’s good for another point, but the restaurant only gets a half point for side dishes, because it's providing just one serving of potatoes au gratin for every two guests. TOTAL: 8.5 points
Obviously, these calculations don’t take quality into account. Nor are they any kind of substitute for personal preferences: If Oak is your all-time favorite steakhouse, that’s probably where you should eat. But assigning numbers to menus is at least one way to show that deals aren’t all perfectly equal: Even during Restaurant Week, it’s always worth considering what you’re getting for your money.
After all, $45 is no small sum. Fortunately, Yokoso Japanese Steakhouse is offering a hibachi steak-and-shrimp dinner, appetizer and drink for $20, which amounts to approximately $10 in savings. (And if you want to warm up for a hibachi meal, I wrote about the restaurant genre and white sauce here.)
The complete list of Restaurant Week menus is at restaurantweeksouthcarolina.com.