Dine About Town, SF's answer to Restaurant Week, kicks off tomorrow (it runs through January 31), and for the second year in a row, we're offering our picks for the restaurant deals that fly high or fall flat. Though the $18.95 two-course lunches and $36.95 three-course dinners are designed to draw diners to spots they might not otherwise try, many restaurants use DAT as an excuse to push tired product and boring dishes. (Thankfully, no one we found was actively cheating customers, unlike last year.) So, who's bringing the heat this year, and who's coasting? We crunched restaurants' regular offerings and their DAT menus to bring you five restaurants that are worth the effort—and five that are probably better avoided.
Roka Akor: If you've been meaning to check out this lavish (and pricey) sushi and robata spot, DAT would be a good time to do it. The lunch deal isn't particularly impressive, knocking down the $22 lunch prix fixe to $19 by taking away the steak option and replacing it with yawn-worthy salmon teriyaki, but dinner offers the option of beef filet (which is usually $39 all by itself) with a starter of butterfish tataki or a hamachi serrano chili roll ($12-13), plus dessert (usually an absurd $12-13). Order correctly, and you could easily knock $28 off the sticker price.
The Cavalier: Snaps to the Cavalier for eschewing the typical "choose from two apps, choose from two entrees" format and just opening up six items to be paired in any two-item configuration at lunch. The cheapest duo, a bacon sandwich and a beet and farro salad, will save you $3, but if you really want to go for the gusto, pair up the fish and chips and roast lamb sandwich, which normally run $38 together—a savings of $20, and likely enough food for two people with moderate appetites to share. (This assumes, of course, that portion sizes for the items will be per usual, which is always a risk with DAT.) Bonus: it's convenient to a lot of offices, and the power-lunching people-watching is probably pretty good.
Radius: Listed on our 20 Most Underrated Restaurants roundup, Radius definitely flies under the radar in the Folsom corridor, but it's a solid pick for seasonal cuisine all sourced from within 100 miles of SF. Thanks to DAT, it's possible to knock $12 off the typical cost of a meal here by ordering the squash and kohlrabi, pork chop, and dessert. Vegetarians should probably take a pass, though, as they'll only save $1. The atmosphere is lovely and placid, too, unlike the more bustle-y downtown milieu of a lot of DAT spots.
Pesce: Pesce has joined the DAT fray in its new home in the Castro, and it gets our props for offering three savory courses for the $37 price, instead of blowing one of them on a cheaper dessert. Pair up the hamachi crudo, one of three pastas like duck and porcini pappardelle, and an entree of braised lamb shank over fingerling potatoes, and you'll save $8.
Luce: People often forget that this elegant hotel restaurant has maintained its single Michelin star nearly three years after Dominique Crenn split for Atelier Crenn (where she became the only American woman to notch a second). Luce usually offers a three-course "Sunday supper" for $48, but their DAT menu offers the opportunity to try a similar menu (with two options per course, which the Sunday supper doesn't provide) for $11 less. It's a good trial run to see if Daniel Corey's $95 tasting menu is worth a shot.
Spruce: With a Michelin star in its pocket and moneyed Pac Heights regulars, Spruce probably doesn't feel the need to attract many new customers, but even by that standard, their DAT menu is weak. A beet and citrus salad and a tagliatelle with short-rib sugo are the only offerings, meaning there's nothing for vegetarians and people who don't eat red meat. The menu on their site is down, but based on their typical lunchtime prices, we're guessing you won't even get much of a discount, either—maybe $5 or so.
Chez Papa Bistrot: Every day is Dine About Town at Chez Papa, which offers its exact DAT menus at its exact DAT prices year-round, at both lunch and dinner. Nice for people who want to save money, but not exactly in the spirit of the whole promotion. Reserve somewhere else; this one will be waiting whenever you're next in Potrero Hill.
Bisou: Bisou normally charges $31 for its prix-fixe menu, which contains almost all of the options available on the DAT menu (escargot, chicken ballotines, creme brulee). With careful ordering (get the filet), it's possible to save a few bucks, but those who order incorrectly could just as easily be out both an extra $6 and one of their few shots at DAT dining. Any day of the year, the pairing of bottomless mimosas or bloodies and a truffled duck-confit Benedict at Bisou's brunch will run you $10 less, and is probably a better bet.
Chaya Brasserie: This Embarcadero restaurant specializes in sushi and sashimi, but DAT diners won't see any of it on their plates, as the lunch deal offers a dull citrus salad and the choice of either a fried chicken breast or petrale sole with lemon beurre blanc. Compared to those options, the $22-26 Chaya Medley, which includes three or four bento items and always has at least one sushi or sashimi element, seems like a much better deal for $3-7 more. Or go to their all-night happy hour (anytime after 5 pm), where $21 will buy a couple of spicy tuna rolls and a cocktail.
Penthouse Club and Restaurant: Does the low DAT price pique your curiosity about this strip club, whose restaurant once publicly aspired to a Michelin star? Resist the urge. The menu is just as much of a ripoff as the strippers, with some dishes that look like they cost $2 to make (who offers a pile of roasted vegetables and fingerling potatoes as an entree?) Even a heartier combo of mac and cheese, a chicken "cordon blue," and a dessert go for $30 (that's $7 less than the DAT menu) on the regular menu, and that's before even considering whether a restaurant that spells it as "cordon blue" has any capability of making a decent one. Your $37 is better spent as singles in the dancers' G-strings.
And a final condemnation: DAT makes it easy for participants to post a menu on their site, and most restaurants have their own, too, as well as a Facebook page. So why are over half of the participating restaurants not posting them in either venue? Cowardice? A desire not to have anyone actually take advantage of the deal? Faced with the prospect of spending $36 on an unknown dinner, most people will give up; why sign up for the program at all if you don't want guests to come in?
Had a great DAT experience, or one that made you question the whole enterprise? We await your tips in the comments or over the wire.