Center City District Restaurant Week has come a long way since its premiere in 2003, when 40 restaurants offered $30 fixed-price dinners over six nights.
The restaurant week now actually spans two weeks — Sept. 23 to Oct. 5 — and this time, 123 restaurants are offering dinner for $35. Some even serve on the Saturday between the weeks.
The $5 rise over 15 years suggests that many of these specials are true bargains.
Many restaurants also offer three-course lunches for $20. Municipal lots and garages offer discounted parking, too.
Perusing the list to seek out the bargains, you may encounter frustration: Even with less than a week before the start, many restaurants have not released their menus. But it's a good idea to get a reservation on the books, especially for dinner.
It's a given that the big-name, bigger-ticket restaurants — such as the Stephen Starr places like Alma de Cuba and Buddakan, Michael Schulson's Sampan, Osteria, and Harp & Crown, Jose Garces' Volver and Amada — will deliver value.
But the list is studded with unsung restaurants — joints that have been around without big marketing and PR budgets.
Here is just a sampling of restaurants worth a second look.
In its former life, Tom Lau's Aki was a plain-Jane Center City BYOB on Walnut near 12th known for its all-you-can-eat sushi special. Earlier this year, Alan Su of Nom Nom Ramen across town joined Lau to create a new restaurant. In comfy, contemporary digs, Aki Nom Nom retains the AYCE option ($28.95), while adding appetizers (gyoza, shumai, takoyaki) and ramen — the familiar tonkatsu and chicken chashu, as well as ton-toro, a pork-base soup that includes slices of pork jowl to add to the ramen. Aki Nom Nom's restaurant-week menu offers four courses — raw and cooked selections — capped with tempura ice cream.
Capofitto, 233 Chestnut St.
Stephanie Reitano, whose uncompromising approach to gelato led to the creation of Capogiro, applies the same passion to Italian food at her homey Capofitto in Old City — namely some of the most critically acclaimed Neapolitan pizzas in the city. Capofitto's restaurant-week menus start with appetizers such as the rich arancini, include one of 11 pizzas, and finish with Capogiro gelato.
Casta Diva, 227 S. 20th St.
After 16 years, Stephen Vassalluzzo's snug, charming Italian BYOB up a few steps from 20th Street in a Rittenhouse storefront is the epitome of "unsung" — despite, of course, the name, derived from the first act of Bellini's Norma. For its first restaurant-week menu, Vassalluzzo offers plenty of dinner choices, including a few salads, entrées including flat-iron steak, wild boar shank, branzino, and octopus with fusilli, and cannoli, flourless chocolate torte, or tiramisu for dessert.
La Peg, 140 N. Columbus Blvd.
There's high-ceilinged, industrial atmosphere aplenty at Peter Woolsey's brasserie inside the century-old FringeArts building beneath the Ben Franklin Bridge. The restaurant-week dinner menu, which starts with a chilled coconut-red pepper soup and wraps with a choice of four desserts, is a slice of Americana. Second- and third-course choices include cheese curds with marinara, crab cakes, heirloom tomato salad, half-chicken, pot roast — even oven-roasted cauliflower steak for vegetarians.
Malbec, 400 S. Second St.
The tango soundtrack sets a romantic air at this Argentine steak house across from Head House Square — which you old-timers may remember as the Artful Dodger. The house-specialty empanadas are offered on both the lunch and dinner restaurant-week menus, and the dinner menu includes churrasco (a 10-ounce skirt steak), two chicken preparations, and grilled salmon. Tres leches cake and flan are the dessert choices.
SuGa, 1720 Sansom St.
Susanna Foo set the city ablaze back in the 1980s and 1990s with French-influenced Chinese cooking in a polished setting at her long-ago Walnut Street destination. Nowadays in her sleek Center City bistro on Sansom, across from the Sofitel, the cuisine is far more global. Her popcorn pork raviolis — offered on the restaurant-week lunch menu — are addictive. Menus offer plenty of choices, including Vietnamese beef carpaccio, Peking duck, and Sichuan chili monkfish. Warm chocolate cake is for dessert at both lunch and dinner.
Trattoria Carina, 2201 Spruce St.
Fitler Square/Rittenhouse Square locals regard this airy trattoria at 22nd and Spruce Streets from the crew from Pub & Kitchen as a drop-in and a good dinnertime value. But can a good everyday value truly also be a good restaurant-week value? I'd say yes, given the selection and the fact that even though there's a liquor license, you can BYO. Start with antipasti and a salad, segue into a main dish such as the shells with spicy crab, the grilled branzino, or tagliatelle Bolognese, and wrap with olive oil cake, gelato, or chocolate torte.
Veda, 1920 Chestnut St.