It’s easy to get cynical about Center City’s Restaurant Week. It was created, in part, with rookie foodies in mind — the curious but hesitant diner who’s willing to give new places a shot thanks to lower set-price menus. But this biannual rite of discount eating can alter the standard dining experience at participating restaurants, stretching dining rooms and staffs to capacity, often leading to less-than-enthusiastic service and assembly-line cooking. And a lot of restaurants feature variations on their bottom-menu choices — the inevitable dance of chicken and salmon — that put the whole value proposition into question. So it helps to approach the whole enterprise with at least some moderately adjusted expectations.

I’ve had plenty of past disappointments, like a noontime foray last year to Butcher & Singer, where I discovered the swanky steak house wasn’t even offering a steak on its RW lunch menu. (This year’s lunch offering makes the same flub.)

A successful Restaurant Week should be about building new long-term relationships with potential new customers, not making a quick buck by filling empty seats in an otherwise-lean month. And I’ve begun to sense that many restaurants are investing a bit more effort in making that happen.

Here’s a list of restaurants that intrigue me this season, either as places I’ve long meant to explore or old standbys that reliably do a good job, despite the promotion:

  • Valerie Safran and Marcie Turney’s many restaurants around 13th Street always combine style and approachable value, but they excel at RW menus, with Barbuzzo (110 S. 13th St.), Little Nonna’s (1234 Locust St.), and Jamonera (105 S. 13th St.) being my favorites. Only catch is getting a reservation. (Strongly advised: Always reserve RW tables ahead.)
Barbuzzo at 13th and Sansom Streets is one of a growing number of restaurants staying open late.
STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer
Barbuzzo at 13th and Sansom Streets is one of a growing number of restaurants staying open late.
  • I’ve enjoyed the bright space and veg-forward Mediterranean flavors at Spice Finch (220 S. 17th St.), and this pretty dining room near Rittenhouse Square is also large enough to accommodate a crowd. Try the broccoli tabbouleh, peri-peri shrimp, and chocolate-tahini cake.
  • Chef Yehuda Sichel is one of Philly’s must underrated chefs because Abe Fisher (1623 Sansom St.) is often overshadowed by its older sibling, Zahav. RW is a great opportunity to be reminded how good creative updates to Ashkenazi cooking can be with white fish croquettes, cacio e pepe kugel, and veal schnitzel tacos.
Chef Yehuda Sichel spoons some bitter-greens gnocchi onto a plate for serving at Abe Fisher in Center City.
TRACIE VAN AUKEN
Chef Yehuda Sichel spoons some bitter-greens gnocchi onto a plate for serving at Abe Fisher in Center City.
  • Forsythia (233 Chestnut St.) in Old City was one of the most delicious newcomers of 2019. I’m curious to see if chef Christopher Kearse can convincingly translate his inventive modern French cuisine — truffled ham hock beignets, melt-away short ribs, panisse with foamy raclette — to Restaurant Week’s budget constraints.
  • The generic name has long deterred me from visiting Entrée BYOB (1608 South St.), but with the same owner about to take over the original Dmitri’s space, plus positive recs from friends and RW items like lobster rangoon and branzino with zucchini-potato latkes, I may be tempted to finally try this lively bistro on South Street West.
Customers eat dinner at La Famiglia Ristorante in Philadelphia's Old City.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer / TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Customers eat dinner at La Famiglia Ristorante in Philadelphia's Old City.
  • Restaurant Week bargains are, in a perfect world, made for luxury destinations like La Famiglia (8 S. Front St.), a pink-marble Italian relic of opulent Old World dining gone by that still knows how to cook well, even if tastes like 1976. A bite of gnocchi ai quattro formaggi and tenderloin with truffled porcini mousse can be like vacationing in another era.
  • Elaborate omakase spots have gained traction, but Kinme (1117 Locust St.) proves that neighborhood sushi spots have stepped up their game, too. This sleek corner room in the Gayborhood is a sleeper pick I’d revisit for mushroom gyoza, madai carpaccio, and crispy tuna rice.
Polipo (roasted octopus and heirloom potato, spicy paprika bell pepper purée) at Melograno.
Polipo (roasted octopus and heirloom potato, spicy paprika bell pepper purée) at Melograno.
  • Melograno (2012 Sansom St.) is an old favorite I’ve long considered a cut above most of the Italian BYOB field, and chef Gianluca Demontis’ expansive Restaurant Week menus never skimp. This year’s offerings of wild boar pappardelle, lamb ossobuco, and roasted octopus are worthwhile.

Center City District Restaurant Week runs through Jan. 24. Participating restaurants offer a three-course lunch for $20 and three-course dinner for $35. Go to centercityphila.org to preview menus.