Penny Pinching: Cheaper Eats Around the Area

February 18, 2009


SINCE MONDAY, D.C.’s diners have been stuffing their faces with high-end delights, thanks to twice-yearly Restaurant Week. But wouldn’t it be great if Restaurant Week lasted all year?

Wish granted. Sort of.

Tastings Journal gives diners Restaurant Week-style menus year-round. Every two or three weeks, there’s a new restaurant and a new deal. Recent dinners included a Valentine’s meal at Left Bank with filet mignon, creme brulee and champagne; an Italian feast at Odeon Cafe, with lobster ravioli, calamari and tiramisu; and an inauguration dinner at Stars Bistro and Bar.

Tastings Journal’s creator, James van Wynen, says the meals he organizes are worth $80 or more. The price a diner pays for a four-course Tastings Journal dinner, with wine, is usually $45 to $50 — not cheap but often still a bargain.

Like Restaurant Week’s special menus, some are better deals than others. A peek at the — admittedly fine — Odeon Tastings Journal event late last year (five courses for $45) proved that fixed prices might not be much cheaper than ordering a la carte.

Lobster ravioli, for instance, costs $17 on a regular day, leaving a diner with $28 to spend on appetizers, salad and dessert. With a cheap bottle of wine, your tab might not be much more than $45 a person.

And some restaurants — such as three-time Tastings Journal participant Uni a Sushi Place — offer a prix-fixe menu similar to the Tastings Journal specials every night.

On the other hand, the Tasting Journal’s New Year’s Eve dinner in 2006 cost $65 per person and included unlimited champagne.

Van Wynen is a D.C. architect who works on luxury projects, and he started Tastings Journal claiming “architects are notoriously underpaid.”

How it works: Van Wynen and the restaurant du jour work out a menu and price. “I squeeze them as hard as possible to get the most food and the best price,” he says.

Once it’s settled, he promotes it in exchange for a per-plate fee. “I think it’s a fair amount,” says James Tan, owner and chef at Uni, of the fee. “For the results he brings, it’s a fair price to pay him.”

So, who wins here? Van Wynen, certainly, and restaurant owners — while they aren’t getting rich off budget-conscious diners, they’re attracting 300 or more people who might not normally set foot in their restaurants. And the average person with an eye on their wallet is spending less than they might have otherwise for a fine meal.

» Valentine’s Day specials run through Feb. 28; go to tastingsjournal.com for more information on the next event.

Written by Express contributor Rachel Kaufman
Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar

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Clinton Yates · February 18, 2009