by Luke Tsai
Bargain hunters and appreciators of prix-fixe dining, take note: This month, Oakland and Berkeley are hosting their very own Restaurant Week. In other words, your favorite dining establishment — or maybe that new place you keep meaning to check out — might be one of a few dozen restaurants that will offer special two- or three-course set menus, priced at a slight (or, occasionally, a significant) discount, during the promotional period.
First up is Berkeley, whose very first Restaurant Week kicks off this Sunday, January 13, and will run for the whole week, through January 20. Meanwhile, Oakland’s week-and-a-half-long Restaurant Week will run from January 18 to 27.
The promotions have been organized by Visit Berkeley and Visit Oakland — each city’s respective tourism bureau — as part of a statewide celebration of California’s culinary scene that is taking place this month.
Dan Marengo, Visit Berkeley’s communications manager, said they decided to keep things simple for Berkeley Restaurant Week’s inaugural run. Each of the twenty participating Berkeley restaurants will offer essentially the same deal: $30 for a three-course prix-fixe meal, available during dinner only.
“Restaurants felt like that price offered good value, but they could still do some special menu treatments,” Marengo said.
Meanwhile, 42 restaurants will participate in Oakland’s third annual Restaurant Week, which makes this year’s iteration the biggest one yet. The promotions are slightly more varied, with participating restaurants offering either $20-, $30-, or $40- prixe-fixe menus. Some of the restaurants will offer a lunchtime prix-fixe, too, in addition to the dinner option.
Lindsay Wright, public relations manager for Visit Oakland, said that participating dining establishments often cite the ten-day stretch as their busiest time of year.
This year, Visit Oakland will also sponsor a panel discussion with various movers and shakers in the local food and beverage industry on Friday, January 18, from 3 to 5 p.m., in Hearing Room Three at City Hall. So far, the (somewhat beverage-heavy) list of confirmed speakers includes Linden Street Brewery’s Adam Lamoreaux, Numi Tea’s Reem Hassani, Peerless Coffee’s George Vukasin, and UC Berkeley geography professor Richard Walker (author of The Conquest of Bread. The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited, so if you're interested you should RSVP to email@example.com
In my experience, the problem with Restaurant Week in a city like, say, New York is that the list of participating restaurants is always overwhelmingly long (hundreds of restaurants), and mostly mediocre — heavy on tourist traps and places that had their heyday ten or twenty years ago. (The good ones will only offer the prix-fixe special at lunch, and you’ll never snag a reservation anyway).
In contrast, both Berkeley and Oakland have manageable lineups that include many of the area’s newer and often-buzzed-about dining establishments: Comal and Gather in Berkeley; B-Side BBQ, Hopscotch, and Nido in Oakland, just to give a few examples. Meanwhile, popular standbys round out each list: Cafe Rouge, Camino, Rivoli, and so forth.
Strategic diners will want to aim for restaurants that might normally be out of their price range — places where the frugal customer would rarely splurge and order three full courses. Look at the full list of restaurants — many of which have their promotional prix-fixe menus posted — at the Visit Oakland and Visit Berkeley websites, and make your own calculations.
A few that caught my eye: $20 for either lunch or dinner at Plum Bar; $20 for a three-course dinner at Nido, the new farm-to-table Mexican spot; and both the $20-lunch and the $40-dinner at Picán (whose price point has always been a bit too high for me to put it in the regular rotation, despite having had great meals there). Likewise, Berkeley's FIVE Restaurant is largely a $25-entree kind of place, so $30 for three courses seems like a deal.
It almost goes without saying that during Restaurant Week, making a reservation well in advance is a good idea. OpenTable has a handy dedicated reservation page for restaurants participating in Berkeley Restaurant Week, though this doesn’t include the ones that aren’t on OpenTable, or that don’t take reservations.