DOWNTOWN Restaurant weeks in San Francisco, New York and Boston are the foodie affairs of the year, letting people with refined palates and light wallets get out of restaurant Siberia and hob nob with the regulars. Now L.A. is in on the action.

The second annual Dine L.A. kicks off on Jan. 25, a nearly two-week event that spotlights the best restaurants in the L.A. area, including almost 20 Santa Monica eateries.

Restaurants offer a three course menu at a discounted price, encouraging people who normally couldn’t justify a dinner out at a five star restaurant to try out the best the county has to offer.

Santa Monica, fresh off its second consecutive year as Zagat’s best Southern California neighborhood for dining, is fielding 19 of its finest restaurants to satisfy the L.A. foodie hordes, more than any other city except L.A. proper.

“Santa Monica is certainly known for its restaurant offerings,” said Lara Chanlay, public relations specialist for the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau. “If you look at all the restaurants that are participating in Dine L.A., 19 restaurants is not too shabby since we’re only 8.3 square miles.”

Dine L.A. restaurants fall into three categories with corresponding price ranges, all strategically named to make you feel better about your splurge — Deluxe dining ($16 lunch, $26 dinner), Premier dining ($22 lunch, $34 dinner) and Fine dining ($28 lunch, $44 dinner).

Fine dining is new this year and is the only regulated category. Otherwise, restaurants assign themselves Deluxe or Premier rank based on the normal menu prices.

One such establishment is Drago Ristorante, a Zagat-rated Italian restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard. Though Celestino Drago, the executive chef and owner, didn’t participate in Dine L.A. last year, he’s excited for the prospect of opening the eatery up to new customers.

“I wanted to do what we’re doing here every day, dishes we had already in our menu so people can get familiar with and come back over if they like,” Drago said. “Some people don’t think about Drago because it’s expensive. We hope once they get here they become either a new regular customer or it refreshes the memory of regulars.”

Restaurants in the Deluxe dining category see Dine L.A. as a way to get mention with the upper-end restaurants. The Daily Grill, on Colorado Avenue, participated in Dine L.A. last year and is coming back with a new, higher-end prix fixe menu featuring braised lamb shanks and mahi mahi to leverage the publicity.

“My biggest thing is we want more guests,” said Ryan Handel, the general manager of the Daily Grill. “We’ve been open close to four years … but a lot of people don’t know we exist. We want people to know there’s a restaurant on Colorado and 26th.”

The expense of dining out in the challenging economic environment coupled with the competition amongst restaurants means that businesses are seeking ways to bring in customers just as customers are looking to save some cash. Restaurateurs see Dine L.A. as a way to do both.

“As times are right now with the economy, it’s a gesture to say we’ll do our part,” Drago said. “It’ll be good for everyone. Bodies for the restaurant and they get to save money on a nice meal.”

The gimmick succeeded in 2008. At least Ninety percent of restaurants reported new customers, and overall, restaurants reported a 25 percent increase in traffic.

Tammy Stephens agreed that cheaper meals at nice restaurants would attract her business.

“I spend a lot more nights at home cooking,” Stephens, 42, said as she left a Pinkberry on the Third Street Promande. “Sure, I believe it would get people out.”

Even with the reduced price menus, 84 percent of restaurants in Santa Monica who participated in Dine L.A. in 2008 reported positive financial impact, according to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

A complete restaurant list and reservation information can be found at www.dinela.com.

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