The Dollar-Wise Gourmet: Isn’t That Special?


A special is a special. Right?
     Not in the restaurant world.
     Like other foodie words—peel and skin come to mind—special has a double meaning. And if you’re a dollar-minded diner, you need to know which is which.
     Sometimes, special means bargain, and in these fiscally challenging times, we’re definitely seeing an uptick in those. Earlier this spring, Slocum House was running a $22-off dinner-for-two deal. McCormick & Schmick’s recently promoted a three-course steak-and-shrimp meal for $29.95. And Megami Bento-Ya Restaurant came up with Stimulus Fridays, slicing 10 percent off your bill. The list goes on and on.
     These are good specials—the kind that can leave a few extra bucks in your pocket (if you don’t suck down too many cosmos or get carried away with the dessert tray). The specials to watch out for are those added to the regular menu—the ones that servers describe in such delectable detail that you are lured in like a fish on a hook, leaving you so breathless that when you open your mouth to speak, all that leaks out is a faintly whispered “yes.”
     This, dear reader, can get you in a heap of trouble. While the words pan-seared sea scallops with chocolate balsamic reduction or jasmine-tea-crusted tenderloin of beef with carrot and parsnip batons can cause your heart to go pitapat, they can also leave you penniless. The sticker shock on specials can be staggering. And servers don’t always reveal the price up front. So it’s up to you to get the facts.
     Problem is, you don’t always think of that in the heat of the moment. Or you’re too embarrassed to ask.
     A lot of local restaurateurs seem to understand that. Of the half-dozen or so restaurants I contacted, every one reported a house policy of having servers announce the price along with the dish’s description.
     “Our servers always inform guests of the price because nobody wants to have sticker shock at the end of the meal,” says Deneb Williams, executive chef at The Firehouse Restaurant in Old Sac. But his specials shouldn’t cause much shock anyway, Williams says, because he uses “hyperseasonal products, when things are at their peak. Things are usually cheapest when they’re in season, so a lot of our specials are either at current market value or below.”
     But at Ravenous Cafe, where dinner entrées run a reasonable $12.50 to $16.50, the numbers can nearly double for some specials, says chef/owner Mark Helms. “I do specials that have more to do with the quality of the product,” says Helms, whose restaurant is in Sacramento’s Pocket neighborhood. “If it’s a rack of lamb, it might be around $30.” But his servers tell customers up front, he says, and at lunch he flips the meaning of the word special to mean bargain, with a $14.95 daily deal including soft drink or coffee, soup or salad and a French cookie along with the main dish.
     Some chefs, such as Shawn Menard at G.V. Hurley’s in midtown, think special should take on a whole new meaning in recessionary times. “In today’s economy, I think if you call it a special, it needs to represent a bargain,” says Menard. Hurley’s, he says, runs a regular roster of daily specials, all designed to give the diner more bang for the buck. “In our case, the special is a deal,” he says. “We want to provide guests with value for their dollar.”
     These days, that kind of special is the best kind of all. But make sure you know what kind of special you’re getting. Otherwise, you might not be feeling so special when the bill comes.