Best restaurant week experience
For the winter version, I have to say that Stanhope Grille at Jury's Hotel was so much better than I could have hoped for. Service was wonderful; they have a drink called the South Manhattan or the Southern Manhattan that was to die for; food was so good. I personally like going home in a food coma!
Worst was Brasserie Jo's - uninspired and uninspiring and the maitre d' made several off color remarks to me and my female friend.
Locke Ober for lunch last summmer was great and Lydia Shire was working her way, stopping at every table and talking to people. You might not agree but it was thrilling for me.
Davio's gave an unbelieveable amount of food and the server was friendly and fun without being obnoxious.
Even at cheap Restaurant Week prices we've stuck to lunches, especially last summer when I unexpectedly found myself out of work for what turned out to be an 8-month stretch. However, we've had some great lunches.
Last year we tried Antico Forno (very nice indeed, though we actually preferred the roast lamb sandwiches we got when we accidentally went a week early - don't ask!) and Lala Rokh - outstanding, and really pleasant service in spite of a fairly busy afternoon. In 2004, we had a wonderful lunch at the Brookline Elephant Walk that remains the benchmark of the experience for us.
The best I've had was actually Hamersley's. They offered a full dinner portion of their roast chicken for lunch. Throw in a small version of their mushroom "sandwich" appetizer or a decent mixed green salad, add one of the very large desserts, and it's tough to beat on value. Getting the same stuff for dinner would cost about $75, but for $20.05 it was perfect. I really like the food there, even if it's very tame, but the dinner prices are insane---30% too high.
The worst was No. 9 Park, just because it was so disappointing. They served up laughably small portions, including a dessert that was (I'm not exaggerating at all about this) smaller than a Milano cookie, and it wasn't even as tasty. The duck confit was very tasty, but left my stomach grumbling.
What killed me though was the inattentive and uncaring service. Really turned me off from going back and dropping $150-200 for dinner. The Palmyra was outstanding, however.
I had great RW experiences at Lumiere, Radius, Blue Room, Harvest, and Icarus.
Mediocre ones at Rialto (amazing food, atrocious service), Grotto, and Upstairs on the Square (Been there a few times, and I still maintain that far and away the best thing about that restaurant is the decor).
I have mixed feelings about Restaurant Week. Having talked to some industry folks about it, I sense it has become like airline frequent flier programs: there's no differentiating value in them anymore, but most still feel obligated to offer them, so they simply work to make them as low-cost as possible.
As a former waiter, I can completely understand why servers might hate it: they have to really hump it for the crowds it attracts, yet end up earning much lower tips (a combination of lower average check totals -- wine orders usually fall way off -- and an inordinate number of miserable penny-pinching cheapskate lousy tippers).
I've advanced the idea here that maybe the whole thing is broken, ruined by hordes of diners who *only* visit a place during RW, and never return, defeating the loss-leader rationale, spurring the "Let's milk the rubes" mentality that I see from many RW restaurateurs.
All that said, I ended up getting dragged to a couple of RW meals this spring, at Union and Caffe Umbra. In both cases, the kitchens put their best foot forward, but the staff was clearly harried and not having fun. The Caffe Umbra crew were more gracious about it; my Union server looked like he wanted to kill everyone in the room. That's a big step down at a place where service is usually amazing. Some friends whose opinion I trust loved their RW meal at Mamma Maria. Rialto a couple of years ago was pretty good, with no service issues, but it cheaped out badly on the dessert course.
I suspect I'll end up at a couple more RW venues this time around, but I frankly prefer Limster's idea: use RW as an opportunity to support places that don't do RW. To paraphrase Limster, many venues will be quieter than usual at that time, and with luck it will be like sharing a well-regarded private chef with a few other people for an evening.
re: MC Slim JB
One more thing to add...
A lot of restaurants (pay the fee to) do Restaurant Week beacuse if they don't, they will be absolutely dead. East Coast Grill is the only exception to this. It is a total lose/lose situation with restaurants trying to not get hosed on food costs while offering a great meal.
Lastly, in regards to service... this is not the greatest week for servers in that they work a lot harder and make way less on tips.
Worst - Via Matta lunch a couple of years ago because the choices were so boring - though I ended up ordering off the regular menu and that was great. We usually only do RW lunches (except for dinner at Taranta which we do every year), or when friends invite us for RW dinners.
Taranta, Bambara, and Davios - best dinner RW experiences.
Top of the Hub, Domani, Locke-Ober, Umbria, Spire - best lunch experiences.
I had a GREAT Bambara experience back when Tom Berry was in the kitchen (was that - yikes - 3 summers ago!?)
Last summer -
Best: the unmentionable place in Harvard Sq., La Morra
Good: Union, Bistro 5
Absolutely most horrible experience after RW had just ended: Umbria. ICK.
Two summers ago I had a lovely meal at Via Matta, maybe last season was different?
I absolutely agree with MC Slim (and Limster's idea of supporting places that don't participate), but still find myself out during that week. Often we will order extra apps, or a nicer bottle of wine. Servers know we're eating/drinking -- AND tipping.
Best in the last 3 years have been Julien, and... Hmm, I've had lots of okay meals but that was surprisingly nice in that wonderful room. Great Bay, Harvest, Rialto, others all fine.
Wasn't thrilled with Restaurant L, Mistral & Tremont 647 who maybe shouldn't be part of the week if they want to change things so much. Parker House had very dull choicee.
BTW, the Icarus menu for their July $28 3 course dinner is MUCH more exciting than the times I went 2 and 3 years ago.
A few years ago at the erstwhile Ambrosia on Huntington (why Tony Ambrose stopped doing what he did masterfully and switched to mediocre seafood/chops is beyond me but I digress) is still my RW dinner to beat. Lumiere is a close second. Perhaps it helps that they regularly do a weeknight prix fixe.
The only real disappointment I've had was last year at Harvest. Overcooked veal, uninspiring options. And a general complaint: I realize that kitchens need to keep their costs down but if I see another heirloom tomato salad..
I understand what a previous poster was saying about restaurants being in a no-win during that week but really there are some of us who, though we don't return, it's not because we are trying to "milk the rubes" but because it is really the ony way we can access those restaurants with a certain price point (yes, even for lunch). I can say that even though I'm not able to return regularly, if a kitchen and its service staff put their best foot forward for RW, when I do have a very special occasion I'll likely choose them again. I do; however, tip the waitstaff on what the bill would have been at regular price.
Sorry if I wasn't clear, but the "milk the rubes" mentality I was referring to was of restaurants suckering unsuspecting patrons during Restaurant Week with substandard fare, not the other way around.
Your approach is exactly how RW is supposed to work: diners take a low-cost chance on unfamiliar places they'd be unwilling to gamble on at full price, hopefully are favorably impressed, and then, confident that they like the place, return later for an occasion dinner at normal prices, and meanwhile tell all their friends about it.