Thursday, January 14, 2010

How to Winterlicious! Jan 29- Feb 11

Winterlicious reservations started this week! I was among the eager and started making phone calls on Tuesday thanks to American Express Front-of-the-Line (sidebar: it is a great AMEX benefit!). Reservations opened to the public today, and sure, many of the most popular restaurants might be full already, but there is likely still a good-value foodie opportunity for you.

When we first moved to Toronto, we were excited by the bi-annual promotion of dining out via Summerlicious and Winterlicious; however, we were also overwhelmed by the number of participating restaurants! In both Vancouver and Calgary, I had a really good sense of what was a good deal and which restaurants were worth booking; but here in Toronto, there are so many restaurants I am unfamiliar with that it was simply daunting to review all the menus and decide which were worth calling. I figure others out there might share my experience, so here is how we do Winterlicious, after 3 seasons of taking advantage:

1. Look for value: We like Winterlicious, and any good variation in other cities, because it is a good opportunity to try restaurants at an affordable price. Restaurants offer a mix of lunch and dinner menus at different prices. Some restaurants are worth the $35/$45 menu, others are simply re-packaging the regular menu at normal prices - I believe that misses the point of Winterlicious and we generally avoid these offerings. Restaurants should create menus that highlight the character and flavours of their food to visitors at great value - this is the opportunity to entice loyal patrons! Knowing a restaurant's regular menu (which is often available on-line) can help you find worthwhile experiences.

2. Filter: There are over a hundred restaurants - the keen may look through every menu but I simply don't have the patience. I look for well-known restaurants that I may not have tried before, those that have been recommended by friends where I have not had a chance to visit, and sometimes I simply "judge a book by it's cover" by randomly viewing menus of restaurants that have interesting names. I always look for at least one item that I would LOVE to eat - if there is nothing that excites me immediately, I move on.

3. Be flexible: Certain restaurants are exceptionally popular (Canoe, North 44 etc), so be flexible with your dates and times if you are dying to try it out during this period. It may also be hard to book a table for 6 of your friends - if you MUST check a popular place out, you are probably better off trying for smaller parties. There is a wide array of restaurants participating in Winterlicious that you may have never heard of or intended to try so be open to new experiences and you may surprise yourself.

4. Be social: We always leverage Winterlicious as an opportunity to meet up with friends - it's always better to share food with others! With prix fixe menus, it is easy to manage expectations with food costs - no one will be surprised by menu prices and everyone takes part in the experimentation so no one has to be responsible for finding the "right food" for everyone. The downside, however, is that there are limited selections, and as I mentioned, large parties can be hard to come by. We've always managed to make reservations for 4 so pair up!

5. Timing: This really depends on your style, but I recommend spacing out your reservations. Dining out should be a fun, social experience - the last thing you want is to pack your schedule and barely recall the meals you have had. We normally target 2 to 3 restaurants based on quality and value vs maximizing # of restaurants. This also give you flexibility over the week to secure reservations at popular venues.

We love to eat so we have enjoyed both Summerlicious and Winterlicious. Even if you are not into scouring the menu or researching best deals, check out the site if you just need a place to eat from Jan 29 to Feb 11 - we've often landed on some good restaurants just by chance. This year, we'll be checking out Toula (at the Westin) , Trevor's Kitchen (we have been before, but the menu was enticing), Auberge du Pommier, and possibly a return to North 44. Check out menus here and let me know of any great places you find!

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