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15 years later, is Restaurant Week still a brilliant idea?

Few topics spur debate among foodies and non-foodies like Restaurant Week.

The semiannual event, actually two weeks in duration, when diners can nosh on prix-fixe deals, has been around since the Democratic Convention of 1992, when Bill Clinton was nominated for president in Madison Square Garden to the soundtrack of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop." The city was impressed by the boost to Gotham¹s economy, and Restaurant Week was born.

Some would say, however, that the city should stop, and that Restaurant Week, which begins Monday, should go the way of paisley vests and Dwayne Wayne sunglasses.

Restaurants are teeming with customers; service is harried; reservations at good spots are hard to come by. And with so many prix fixes in existence citywide, is $24.07 at lunch and $35 at dinner still a steal? How good can the food produced by a crazed staff doing triple its usual lunchtime business -- as Aquavit's executive chef Johan Svensson asserted --really going to be? Kimberly Spell of the city's tourism bureau declares, "It reminds New Yorkers of why they live here" and that "we really are the fine dining capital of the world."

To find out whether Restaurant Week is truly the string around the finger city denizens require to remind of us that notion, we canvassed critics, cooks, and restaurant world insiders to find out whether they agree, how to make the most of this dining extravaganza, and whether one should even leave the house during RW.

David Chang: Current "it" chef "What's the point?" are the first words out of Chang's mouth. The famously outspoken owner of the Momofuku mini-dynasty would never do RW with any of his current eateries and says that when he worked for other people he always tried to plan a vacation around that time. "You just have to cook like a maniac. Cooks are creatures of habit all of a sudden your room's full, and you have bunch of people that want stuff well done. It's not what you want to be doing."Most chefs will tell you that it's great. I guarantee you there's not one cook that is excited about restaurant week."

Chang has one prix-fixe soft spot: the lunch at Nougatine. "One of the best deals in town," he says. But he urges you to try it during a non-Restaurant Week day. He's right on the money: The non-RW menu is identical, and identically priced.

Francis Lam: Critic and contributing editor at Gourmet Lam warns to avoid eateries that are "only doing it because their owner wants them to" and "slopping their way through it." Is it fair to judge a restaurant based on its performance during this time?

He thought it over, and e-mailed us a follow-up, "I think it's perfectly all right to judge a place based on their RW performance. If you¹re going to half-ass RW, why would I trust you not to half-ass it when you get busy, when you get annoyed, when you get a non-VIP table? I get why you wouldn't want to put big-ticket items on the menu, but I still want to taste the care you put into the food."

Lam says Café Boulud - where chef Gavin Kaysen just snagged the coveted Rising Star James Beard Award - would be first on his list during restaurant week. "I'm a huge Daniel Boulud fan; his restaurants have integrity." Café Boulud may well be the under-the-radar bigshot of restaurant week; though they're not listed on the website, they are "absolutely" participating, a rep assures us, so call them directly.

Johan Svensson: Executive chef at RW mainstay Aquavit It's tough out there. Marcus Samuelsson's Swedish restaurant Aquavit has been hosting RW since '92, and executive chef Johan Svensson is honest about the attitude in his kitchen during that time. "Personally, as a cook, I don't really like it. You have to push into third gear" after a very quiet "first-gear" period of the prior summer weeks. "It's hard to be as refined."

He's proud of the spot's prix-fixe menu, however: "Meatballs, salmon, what we do best" is all available," including their herring plate four types of the fish. Sweet tooths, alert: Aquavit's RW may well be the steal you've been looking for. Though the restaurant offers a similar $24 two-course menu in its café during regular lunch hours, they leave off the sweets.

Ben Leventhal: Editor-in-Chief at NYC food blog eater.com It has been a widely-repeated rumor since a New York Times writer mused a few years ago that Danny Meyer's restaurants know how to do Restaurant Week right, and this was echoed by editor Ben Leventhal of Eater.com, a popular food industry blog. He visited Meyer's Eleven Madison Park a couple of years ago, and was impressed. We are, too, after hearing their RW lunchtime menu includes four appetizer and four entrée options such as a grilled apricot, goat cheese and prosciutto starter that had us drooling.

Leventhal asserts the key is to do some research. Check out the message boards (he likes those at egullet and chowhound) and see which menus have been well-received in the past, and which have been a flop. "Don't go in cold. And look on the restaurant week booking site; the good ones fill up quickly and the bad ones get filled up later."

"It's definitely a creative way to get new diners into restaurants," opines Leventhal, "but it can be very hit or miss."

There are 238 eateries participating in the Summer Restaurant Week, which runs for two weeks: July 21-25 and July 28-Aug. 1. Look for reservations and menus at http://nycvisit.com/RestaurantWeek/

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