He’s got a great poker face.

Twice a year since November of 2001, the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and the DC Convention & Tourism Corporation have teamed up to present Restaurant Week.

For participating restaurants, it’s officially a chance to boost sluggish sales during historically slow periods (mid-August and mid-January).  But Restaurant Week has come to take on a number of additional meanings as we approach the Thirteenth Washington Restaurant Week August 11th – 17th.

For diners, it’s a way to test-drive new restaurants at a manageable price ($20.08 for a two-course lunch, $35.08 for a three-course dinner).  This single dining experience, despite being conducted under less-than-ideal conditions, can cement our opinions for years to come.

For restaurateurs, consequently, it’s an opportunity to show off the best they have to offer…or else it’s a burden that forces them to cater to bargain-hunters who aren’t likely to come back anytime soon.  It’s pretty easy to tell which way the establishment sees things as soon as you take a look at what’s on their Restaurant Week menu.  Lots of choices selected from their regular menu?  A very good sign.  Numerous upcharges, poor selection or ‘specials’ that aren’t part of the normal repertoire?  They’re not exactly out to blow you away.

We here at Capital Spice humbly offer a bit of advice for everyone who is eagerly awaiting the announcement of the participating restaurants…after the jump.

DON’T WAIT!

Allow me to elaborate.

If you’ve given any thoughts at all to Restaurant Week, it’s likely they have included at least one or two ideas about which restaurants you’ve been dying to try but have thus far refrained.  You’re holding your breath, hoping that they show up on the list of participating restaurants when it’s finally released (probably not for another week or so).  When (if) you learn that they ARE participating, you’re ready to do battle with all of the other folks who have had the exact same thoughts in the hope of securing a precious Restaurant Week reservation.

Thanks to the wonders of the internets, you needn’t subject yourself to this!  There are two tools at your disposal that can greatly increase your chances of landing a reservation at one of your top choices:

1.  Ghosts of Restaurant Weeks Past – Like everything else that has ever been posted online, the lists of participating restaurants dating back to the third Restaurant Week (July 2002) can be found with a little bit of looking around.  Since January of 2005, DC Foodies has been the Go-To source for lists of participating restaurants, reports on menus being offered, and recommendations by writers and commenters based on their personal experiences.  You can still access their archives and benefit from those who have gone before you.  To go even deeper, visit the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine and check out the historical record for the Restaurant Week page, www.washington.org/restaurantwk.  With a little investigation, you’ll have a much better idea of the likelihood of your favorites’ participation.

2.  OpenTable – If you don’t already have an account at OpenTable, you owe it to yourself to stop reading now and go set one up.  With 374 participating restaurants in DC and the surrounding suburbs searchable by neighborhood and cuisine, OpenTable allows you to find the ideal spot for that four-person dinner you’re planning for next Tuesday at 7:45.  The points you accrue from actually using the reservations you make can be redeemed for dining checks (gift certificates) that are accepted at any restaurant in the OpenTable system.  Why not be rewarded for being too lazy to cook so often?

Each is useful on its own, sure.  But if you really want to tip the odds in your favor, you need to do what we do – combine the two and speculate.

Generally speaking, the dates of each Restaurant Week are known long before the list of participating restaurants is announced.  Rather than sitting around with our fingers crossed, we take a more proactive approach and select two or three restaurants from our wish list and make tentative reservations during Restaurant Week.  If our selections make the list, we can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that we’re already set.  If they don’t, it’s a simple enough matter to cancel the reservations.

A word to the wise, however – like all great discoveries, this has significant potential for abuse.  Don’t be that guy.  Don’t ruin it for the rest of us.  Don’t go making two and three reservations per night to hedge your bets and then cancel all but one of them – limit yourself to the few restaurants you REALLY want to improve your odds of getting into.  Be respectful of the system and cancel your reservations as far in advance as possible (preferably as soon as you know you won’t be using them).  And remember that OpenTable tracks all of your reservations, whether you use them or not.  Limiting your cancellations and using the service throughout the year help you remain a member in good standing.

With these tools in hand, you’re now ready to jump to the head of the Restaurant Week line.  We’ll see you there (like we’d offer advice like this before we already had our own reservations set?).