Restaurant Week, Madison's twice-yearly celebration of eating at upscale restaurants with fewer choices but (often) lower prices, returns Jan. 19-24 with nearly 50 establishments participating.

Held during many restaurants' slowest time of year, Madison Magazine's Restaurant Week is highly anticipated by some for the chance to eat a three-course dinner at a place like Harvest or Lombardino's for $25, a substantial savings. Yet it's good to note that portions are often smaller during Restaurant Week and choices are limited.

For years, Restaurant Week dinners cost $25 for three courses — generally, a starter, a main course and dessert. That jumped to $30-35 at some restaurants in January 2013.

At the time, Madison Magazine explained the price hike was due to cost of food and petitions from restaurant owners, who claimed they were losing money.

Some of the best deals can be found where the food changes the least. At Samba Brazilian Grill, for example, the usual $36.95 churrascaria experience, with the grilled meat on skewers and huge salad bar, is just $30 during Restaurant Week.

Fresco offers similar savings. A meal that would normally cost $37 costs $30 during Restaurant Week, and the dishes, like cheddar risotto cakes, short ribs and divine ricotta gnocchi, are all on the regular menu.

Lunch at Osteria Papavero during Restaurant Week is usually simple, hearty and delicious, and at $15, it's like getting a salad and pasta off of the regular menu with dessert for free. Merchant, too, has a huge variety of options for a RW lunch.

Restaurant Week is an excellent time to try new places, like Plate & Barrel, open since mid-October in Sun Prairie, as well as old favorites — both Quivey's Grove Stone House and Stable Grill are participating. Maybe you haven't been to 43 North since the chef changed, or sampled Nostrano's Italianesque take on Wisconsin winter cuisine.

Though some restaurants like Inka Heritage and Brocach Irish Pub have been participating in Restaurant Week for years, others drop off the list. Umami, Plate & Barrel and Nonno's Ristorante Italiano are new additions, but former participants Graze, Dayton Street Grille, Nau-Ti-Gal and Pasqual's are not in the January lineup.

For all Restaurant Week dining, it's best to make reservations well in advance. That's doubly true for popular spots like Restaurant Muramoto or Sardine, which does its famous cassoulet during RW only. 

Also keep in mind that Restaurant Week can be very crowded. (One year, lunch for six at a participating restaurant took nearly three hours.) 

For participating restaurants and menus, visit Madison Magazine's website. Follow the magazine on Twitter at @madison_mag; they've been giving out free vouchers. 

Since 2008, Lindsay Christians has been writing about fine arts and food for The Capital Times. She loves eating at the bar, going to the theater, fine wine and good stories. She lives on the east side with her husband, two cats and too many cookbooks.

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