The Ultimate Guide to New York City Restaurant Week, Winter 2020

NYC Restaurant Week for early 2020 approaches (Source: iStock / mgturner)

Every year, New York City welcomes some 60 million tourists — swarms of fashion-loving, entertainment-seeking, big city-reveling, wide-eyed interlopers who want nothing more than to savor a quintessential Big Apple experience.

Come Restaurant Week, however, their focus is wholly on food. Twice each year, New York City chefs cook up their finest prix-fixe lunch and dinner menus for what most fine dining aficionados would consider a song — $26 for a two-course lunch and $42 for a three-course dinner. As Forbes travel writer Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner explains:

The biannual, multi-week celebration of New York’s extensive dining scene fills restaurant seats at particularly slow times, allowing New Yorkers and visitors to taste through their bucket list of eateries, often at a steep discount. $26 two-course lunches and $42 three-course dinners (often with add-ons, like sides and wine pairings) create a good deal for diners and restaurants alike, who want to introduce potential regulars to their offerings.

Here’s the (potential) snag, though: While it is ordinarily a challenge to get a reservation at your favorite brasserie or chef-driven enoteca, it becomes virtually impossible to do so during Restaurant Week. That’s why you need to plan ahead. Before you get lost in the rabbit warren of available reservations on OpenTable, chew on the wisdom below. It will make your Restaurant Week experience much more satisfying.

History of New York City Restaurant Week

Few Restaurant Week write-ups spend any time on the backstory of this delicious fête, and it’s hard to know why. While we all want to hurry up and eat, it’s worth understanding how this seven-day celebration of dining grew from nothing to a world-class affair.

It all started in 1992. The idea was considered just quaint at the time — despite being the brainchild of restaurant review maven Tim Zagat. Prix-fixe menus were available for lunch only and cost curious diners a whopping $19.92. The public’s response was lukewarm.

Truthfully, that might have been the end of it had NYC surgeon and community advocate Emil William Chynn not sent a letter to The New York Times praising the event and urging the city to make it a mainstay. He even proffered some suggestions for sponsorship: Get American Express and Coca-Cola on board. Zagat wavered, uncertain that such massive corporate entities would ever sign on to underwrite a relatively minor food event.

Fortunately, he was wrong. These days, NYC Restaurant Week boasts backers like MasterCard, The James Beard Foundation, Wine Spectator magazine, and Woodford Reserve whiskey. It’s also worth noting that 27 years after its inception, Restaurant Week features almost 400 participating restaurants across the city, attracting millions of eager diners from every corner of the globe. What’s more, the success of the NYC Restaurant Week has had ripple effects: Upwards of 50 have popped up in cities from California all the way to the UK.

That deserves a toast, wouldn’t you say?

Where not to go for Restaurant Week: Times Square (Source: Shutterstock / Josef Hanus)
Where not to go for Restaurant Week: Times Square (Source: Shutterstock / Josef Hanus)

How it works

Part of the reason for the success of NYC Restaurant Week is its simplicity. Restaurants sign up to offer prix-fixe menus for lunch and/or dinner at set prices. Diners then make reservations specifically for Restaurant Week menus and enjoy world-class dining at a fraction of the usual price.

Most cities have dedicated websites for their Restaurant Weeks; for NYC, head to NYCgo.com. Here, you’ll find details on what restaurants are participating, guidance on how/when to make reservations, and fine print details on what’s included in the fixed price for your meal. Be sure to read it all so you aren’t surprised when you show up at your restaurant of choice.

It’s also important to note that reservations for the upcoming winter Restaurant Week open on January 8 (Restaurant Week itself runs January 21-February 9). Those in the know suggest browsing restaurants’ prix-fixe menus prior to making a reservation so you know where you want to dine early; just visit each restaurant’s website for this info.

When you’re ready to claim your seat, use the restaurant’s native booking tool or go mainstream and make your reservation with OpenTable. In either case, make sure you clearly note you are interested in dining for Restaurant Week; this will ensure the restaurant is adequately prepared for all diners.

Where to go

Ultimately, where you choose to dine depends on your preferences and interests. However, there are a few notables worth looking into, both because of their culinary prowess and the cost savings you’ll enjoy with Restaurant Week dining. Here’s a peek at our favorites:

Italian: Ai Fiori

This one makes for a top-notch lunch destination — if you enjoy wine with your lunch. Carnivores will love the short rib and boschetto sheep’s milk cheese ravioli. Suckers for seafood will talk about the truffled scallops for days.

Sushi by Masaharu Morimoto (Source: iStock / Lev Radin)
Sushi by Masaharu Morimoto (Source: iStock / Lev Radin)

Sushi: Morimoto NY

Are Morimoto and his “Iron Chef” celebrity overplayed? We don’t think so. In fact, Restaurant Week might be your one shot to understand why the Japanese maestro is so beloved. Go for dinner and spend some calories on the Vegetable Hotpot with yuzu, miso-tinged sea bass, or nigiri that’s lovingly hand-crafted the world’s best sushi chefs.

Steak: Delmonico’s

If you’ve ever ogled Hollywood’s black-and-white greats, you likely saw them patronizing NYC’s own Delmonico’s — an undeniable fixture in the city’s culinary landscape. After all, this is where comfort classics like Baked Alaska and Lobster Newberg were born. Come for dinner to experience old-school sophistication, complete with a Wedge Salad, Filet Mignon, and, of course, Baked Alaska.

French: Café Boulud

If you don’t know the white-aproned culinary powerhouse that is Daniel Boulud, you’re doing dining wrong. Seriously, though, Boulud is a French transplant who has earned nods from the James Beard Foundation and The Michelin Guide for his exemplary fare. Try it on for size at Café Boulud, one of his original concepts, by savoring the Mushroom Pâté, Braised Beef with polenta, and silky-smooth Chocolate Mousse.

Filipino: Pig and Khao

Helming the kitchen at P & K is the vivacious Leah Cohen, whose many travels in southeast Asian inspire her menu. She also boasts a rich Filipino upbringing which subtly informs her creations. While the restaurant hasn’t yet posted a Restaurant Week menu, keep an eye out for dishes showcasing Cohen’s famed spicy pork ragù, red curry, chili prawns, and Malaysian fried chicken.

Central Park's famed Tavern on the Green (Source: Shutterstock / Leonard Zhukovsky)
Central Park’s famed Tavern on the Green (Source: Shutterstock / Leonard Zhukovsky)

New American: Tavern on the Green

This Central Park institution has been dishing up New American fare since the 1930s. Executive Chef Bill Peet took great care crafting his Restaurant Week menu, which nods to the storied location’s history and century-long fame. Lardon-studded Spinach Salad is a good way to start for lunch, followed by monkfish medallions. A special treat: Pair it with a glass of wine as part of your prix-fixe experience.

Chinese: Jue Lan Club

Braised Oxtail Bao Buns? Yes, please. Start there and slide into Miso-Glazed Salmon with a side of sautéed eggplant for your main and a decidedly un-Asian but undeniably delicious Vanilla Crème Brûlée for dessert. There’s even a rosé wine pairing available — at an eminently reasonable $50/bottle.

Wild card: Babu Ji

Nestled in the heart of Manhattan, Babu Ji is an Indian restaurant — by way of Australia. Yes, you heard that right. Chef Jessi Singh leans heavily on Indian flavors, though, so expect the likes of impossibly rich kormas, earthy-sweet dhal, veggie tikkas, and hearty chutneys. We’re still waiting on the full Restaurant Week menu, but word has it Singh and his team will have a special cocktail prepared to accompany lunch or dinner.

Remember to tip your server based on the actual price of your meal. (Source: iStock / Hispanolistic)
Remember to tip your server based on the actual price of your meal. (Source: iStock / Hispanolistic)

Tips for visitors:

  • Find restaurants close to your hotel (if you’re traveling). Or, book a hotel near your target restaurants. In short, avoid any dependence on public transit or ride shares. Walk if you can.
  • Don’t plan on enjoying your prix-fixe menus on the weekend; restaurants won’t be participating in Restaurant Week on Saturday or Sunday.
  • Review menus early so you know where you want to go before reservations are open. Most menus for the winter Restaurant Week are already available online; you can peruse them now.
  • To give yourself a better shot at getting a reservation, aim for times earlier in the week and during off hours.
  • Be clear when making reservations that you want to dine for Restaurant Week. Also, when you arrive at a restaurant for a meal, let them know you’ll be enjoying the Restaurant Week prix-fixe menu.
  • Keep in mind drinks are, for the most part, not included in prix-fixe pricing.
  • Tip your server based on the full value of the meal – not the Restaurant Week price.
  • Unless you’re dead set on it, avoid major tourist hubs like Times Square. Not only will getting a reservation at restaurants in the area be a nightmare, but getting there will likely be a headache.
  • Keep in mind that the price advertised for Restaurant Week is specific to prix-fixe menus. You can order from the full menu, of course, but be aware that you’ll be paying extra (and full price) for non-prix-fixe items.
  • You can make Restaurant Week reservations either for lunch or dinner, so keep this in mind when setting aside time for meals. Lunches are shorter (two courses) while dinners are longer (three courses).
  • If you like your meal, be sure to let you server know. Not only is Restaurant Week a great opportunity for diners to explore untapped restaurants, but it’s also a chance for chefs to get feedback on their menus. Be kind, but open, with feedback.

Learn more and plan your eats at NYCGo’s Restaurant Week page.