No one can top Charles Robinson's experience of Charleston Restaurant Week. Maybe equal it, but not exceed.
Robinson, 38, and his partner, Myron Pstrak, 58, have eaten out every single night of all four previous weeks to date. And those "weeks" are never seven days; they go up to 12.
They are working on a matrix -- yes, it's real -- for the fifth installment of Charleston Restaurant Week from Jan. 12-22. The matrix lists the places, times and friends who will be joining them each night for dinner.
"Yeah, it's a little absurd," says Robinson, a software developer who lives in Wagener Terrace. He estimates the couple spend $800 to $1,000 together.
In just two years, Charleston Restaurant Week has quickly become one of the most popular dining-out times of the year. It has tripled in size to include 100-plus restaurants that offer specially priced menus for the duration.
The Charleston Restaurant Association organizes the week for its members. They are held in January and September, when business tends to be flat.
Restaurants take different tacks with their menus, but they are priced in one of three ways: three (occasionally four) courses for $20, $30 or $40.
It's only the second appearance for the $40 category, which includes several of the area's higher-end eateries.
As a graduate student at The Citadel, Bridgette Niepoth has limited funds for fun. But she wouldn't miss Restaurant Week.
The 25-year-old requests money at Christmas and on her birthday in May to go toward her Restaurant Week budget. She typically eats out three or four times and drops $175 to $200 total.
Niepoth loves every minute and would go more often if she could.
"Restaurant Week here makes all the five- star dining experiences within our means," she says. "The restaurants are so beautiful inside, the wait staff is perfection and the food is to die for."
At least a dozen restaurants are participating for the first time, such as Peninsula Grill and its sister restaurants, Hank's and Mercato.
Peninsula Grill executive chef Graham Dailey thought it was time to get on board. "We had seen the potential over the years. It's grown and grown."
He sees an opportunity to give diners a taste of his cuisine that he hopes will whet the appetite for more. "It generates people ... and they might return later on down the road."
That is exactly what has happened with Robinson and Pstrak.
"We really enjoy dining and fine dining," Robinson says. "This is a way to go to a lot of places we haven't necessarily been to see if it's somewhere we might want to go back. We've found some real gems through this."
"It's a great way to bring people out in a slow time of year," says Steve Kish, owner of 82 Queen. The longtime downtown restaurant will triple its business during this promotion compared with a typical January week, he says.
Kish also says locals outnumber tourists during those weeks. That's partly due to seasonal dips in visitors, he thinks, but mainly because many hospitality employees themselves are getting out.
He says 82 Queen won't offer its regular menu at all during Restaurant Week. Instead, it's created a 3-for-$30 menu of multiple choices, such as seven first courses and eight entrees. More than half of the items also appear on its regular menu, Kish says.
Both Robinson and Niepoth have tips for novices.
"Look at the menus before you go, and match the restaurant with your dining style," Robinson says. "Know yourself and don't try to get overzealous. Stick with something you're going to enjoy."
"I would make that reservation as soon as possible because they certainly fill up," Niepoth advises.
Then make an event out of it, she says.
"When I go with my girlfriends, we always get together before, have a drink or two at the house, get dressed up and kind of make a big night of it."
Robinson himself loves to cook and even went to culinary school. Restaurant Week is an extension of that interest, he says.
"Some people go to baseball games. I go to restaurants. It's a different kind of theater."