HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >


Elegantly eating economically - at home or at a restaurant

Sure you can eat on the cheap at the mom and pop or the local taco truck.

You can live on chili, lasagna and peanut butter or bologna sandwiches.

But what do you do to live like a king on a pauper’s budget?


I’ve been thinking about this occasionally since someone posted on the SF board about vacationing in Napa on a budget but not wanting to miss the Napa experience. That poster didn’t get any response (sorry poster).

There are a number of ways to dine at the better restaurants without taking out a loan
- Drink beer instead of wine or cocktails
- If you must buy wine, ask for half glasses. Many places have them
- Look for happy hours that have discounts on appetizers and then have dinner after
- Make a meal of appetizers (nice when combined with happy hour)
- Check for off-hour prix-fix dinners
- Be aware of restaurant week promotions
- Put together a picnic using the same suppliers to the top restaurants
- Eat breakfast, lunch or brunch rather than dinner
- Take out
- Look for unusual dining options
- Look for entertainment books, promotions, etc
- Check out restaurant websites and get on the mailing list


Well, sure all the usual stuff, sales, coupons, etc. But there are a few things that might seem illogical.

- Buy the top of the line products (olive oil, cheese, meat, etc)
- Shop at the top markets (cheese shops, farmers markets, butchers, etc)
- Look for discounts at even the most expensive place.
- Shop at places that give samples of pricy items

The details (blah, blah, blah) for all of the above are in the first reply.

I have friends who like the theater or opera and volunteer as ushers to see shows for free. Are there any restaurant strategies like that … offering to help when some of these places sponsor charity events?

Any other tips for top-class dining on a dime … or a at least a few bucks less?

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)

    Ordering beer instead of cocktails or wine is a good tip. One SF poster always eats at the best restaurants but has never ordered wine as far as I know. Gaining expertise in beer can be as fun and interesting as various wines but a lot less expensive.

    With prix-fixe deals and restaurant week promotions be careful. Sometimes that three course dinner isn’t much less expensive than a regular meal.

    The Napa visitors could have stopped at a few cheese shops, markets, wineries, farmers markets and bakeries and enjoyed food from many of the same suppliers to some of the top restaurants at a substantial cost saving. Checking a restaurant menu online will sometimes list some of the vendors a restaurant uses.

    If you want to check out the fancy-dancy restaurant without the fancy-dancy price consider eating breakfast, brunch or lunch which are usually less expensive. The problem with that is usually the star chef isn’t working those hours.

    Many upscale restaurants offer take out. OK, you don’t get served or soak up the ambiance but you get to sample their food, skip the tip and provide your own libation. Often you can zip in and out saving on parking.

    The problem with entertainment books, coupons and other deals is that they tend to feature chains or lesser restaurants but it never hurts to look.

    Opentable.com gives out points for booking reservations through them that translates to dining checks.

    I just learned about restaurants.com which seems like such a deal though the fine print must be read. You can buy a $10 restaurant gift certificate for $3 or $25 for $10. Watch out for 50 % off coupons. Sometimes that $25 gift certificate is $5 instead of $10.

    However, an automatic tip may be added or there is a minimum food purchase … still saving $15 on a meal is not bad. And there are some good places on that list … in SF there are places like Colibri, Destino, Cafe Majestic

    As to looking for unusual dining options, one I can list may not have elegant ambiance, but is a killer deal. The Napa Whole Foods has a wine bar (as do a few other WF’s around the country). They buy up rare bottles of wines at estate sales and offer tastes at the bar. A friend of mine who is really wine-savy was floored by some of the wines available and the prices. They are not inexpensive by any means, but the chance to sample a $600 bottle of wine for $25 is a little of the good life on the cheap.


    I mainly buy top quality in terms of groceries. HOWEVER, it must be worth the price.

    Shopping at a cheese shop rather than buying pre-cut allows me to sample what I’m buying and buy the portion size I’ll use.

    The snootiest, most expensive places often have discounts. Even Thomas Keller’s Bouchon bakery has a special at the end of the day. Another Napa bakery has half-price day old sandwiches and salads and their day old baked goods are a real steal … what … you think that prepackaged sandwich or loaf of bread at Safeway is fresher?

    Buy from the best but at a discount.

    Buy from Farmers Markets. In a little experiment I did last year, I found that even the priciest farmers market was less expensive than the mainstream markets. The food lasted longer. There are samples so I know what I’m buying is delicious worth the bucks.

    Sometimes restaurants have discount coupons on their websites ... though not likely for the more upscale. But getting on the mailing list of a restaurant you like occasionally will result in a special little-publicized discount even for top restaurants.

    1. Don't forget "early bird specials" at a lot of places.

      1. If you are dining at home, I would set a beautiful table. Get out the good dishes and glasses. This is not the time for your well abused Corelle ware!

        1. All good tips.

          At the risk of being flamed from the people on the wine board, don't drink alcohol with your meal when you're out. Beverages have huge mark-ups in restaurants. I love drinking NY's finest with my gourmet meals. The only instance where I have to make an exception for is to have a good red wine (only a tiny bit) with a nice juicy steak. It doesn't take me a lot to get tipsy, and when I get tipsy, I can't taste food as well. It's such a shame to spend so much money on a meal if I can't taste it. About the appetizers, I like to make a meal out of them because I generally find appetizers a lot more creative than entrees. But I think you get more value from ordering an entree. So my tip would be to either share an appetizer or just skip it all together, especially if you're not a large eater.

          At home, stock up on things when they are on sale. And if they're perishable, get a food saver. My aunt is one of the thriftiest people I know and never buys anything unless it's on sale. She's got a freezer full of prime beef and is able to save a lot of money. Try some ethnic shops for certain items. Trumpet mushrooms at Whole Foods were about $10/lb. At a Chinese vegetable store in Flushing, NYC -- $1.79/lb. Huge difference.

          10 Replies
          1. re: Miss Needle

            Due to my profession (and the fact that the wine is equally as important to some people as the food), I could never advocate not drinking wine with dinner. However, I DO recommend looking for places that feature free corkage nights, 1/2 price wine nights, places attached to wine retail shops and places with smaller markups. Let's give these places our support and drink smarter!

            Also, avoid eating out on Friday and Saturday nights if you can help it. Any of the previously mentioned wine deals usually only happen earlier in the week. Plus the weekend nights are so crowded, there's more of a "turn and burn" mentality by the staff. Earlier in the week I'm more apt to take my time, and make it a dining experience, instead of just another meal.

            1. re: invinotheresverde

              Interesting view on being able to take your time, and make it a dining experience by going out earlier in the week. I am the complete opposite, I cannot relax, and totally enjoy a meal out at a restaurant Sun - Thurs. The thought of going to work the next day always makes dining more rushed, and less relaxing for me. I am able to totally unwind, and relax at a dinner, or lunch on a Friday night, or Saturday.

              I agree the prices, and specials are in place earlier in the week vs the weekend.

              1. re: swsidejim

                It's all good. I'll use your empty seat earlier in the week and you can have my weekend one. :)

                PS- Your opinion on Milagro has been requested on the Spirits Board.

                1. re: invinotheresverde

                  sounds like a deal.

                  I'll go check the tequila board. thanks.

            2. re: Miss Needle

              Miss Needle, before too many people flame you, I'll step in and second the suggestion. I was "on the wagon" for about fourteen years, and I can assure people that it is perfectly possible to enjoy fine dining without alcohol. And it makes dining out so much cheaper. Once, I even had a romantic date in Napa (subject of the original post - Napa, not the date), where we toured wineries and dined on a restaurant's lovely sun-lit patio. And I didn't have a drop to drink all day. It was still fascinating to tour the wineries and learn about their technology, to have a relaxed and tasty lunch, and enjoying the gorgeous architecture of places like the Mondavi winery set against the Napa landscape on that beautiful sunny day. If I had spent the day sampling wine, it would be a blur. As it is, it rests clearly in my mind as a fond memory.

              1. re: weem

                Thanks weem. Actually, I wasn't offended by what the other posters said. That's their view on alcohol and I have mine.

                Not drinking definitely makes dining out a LOT cheaper. And I was also in Napa two years ago. As I was the designated driver, I rarely tasted but enjoyed my experience there, not from the drinking side but from the educational side as did you. And your comment about having it rest clearly in your mind as a fond memory made me smile as I definitely know what it's like when things are a blur. While it sounds fun at that moment, I don't remember much and feel quite sh*tty the next day.

                1. re: Miss Needle

                  The designated driver role it totally underrated. Thanks for being responsible and taking care of those around you.

                  P.S. That must've been some serious willpower in Napa. Big Kudos!

                  1. re: invinotheresverde

                    I needed all of my senses intact to avoid all the tipsy/drunk drivers out there! : )

                    1. re: Miss Needle

                      Dang! I tip my hat Miss Needle! I have always wondered about the safety of driving while wine tasting. I always hope that everyone is showing the same good judgement that you and your party did.

                      1. re: moh

                        I'll join in a round of applause for Miss Needle. I have a memory of a family trip to the Finger Lakes region of NYS - known for its many good wineries. My father tasted - not a lot, but had had a low tolerance for alcohol. On the way home we drove around Keuka Lake several times before finding the road home.

            3. All good recommendations.

              We eat alot of lunches out at the expensive places we want to try to save $$, as well as bringing our almost 2 year old daughter is more accepted at lunch time over dinner time.

              I like to drink top shelf tequilas, and beer when we go out for a nice meal, so we skip appetizers, and deserts to cover a few of those drinks. Entree sizes are typically large enough I dont need an appetizer, or desert.

              1. Nobody has mentioned those Entertainment books that sell for about $25 for a year and have many "2 fers" in all levels of restaurants.

                2 Replies
                1. re: yayadave

                  The OP mentioned them, as did rworange.

                  1. re: yayadave

                    "2 fers" are fine if you are two, but as a single diner, they are virtually useless. Wish they would just go with a half off coupon.

                  2. Years ago I traded homegrown tomatoes for a few meals at a very good local restaurant. The scary part was asking, but it turned out that they were more than happy to make the exchange.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Glencora

                      That's a brilliant idea! I would have never thought of that.

                      1. re: Glencora

                        I'm a window washer and I've traded my services a couple of times. It always ends up being not worth the time, though, because restaurant owners are cheaper than homeowners. So now I just wash windows in homes and spend the money in the restaurants, the way g-d intended.

                      2. Ancient global peasant tips:

                        Generous use of herbs and spices whether dried or fresh. Marination and/or slow cooking of cheaper/tougher cuts of meat. Create sauces from cooked liquids/juices. Save and freeze raw vegetable and meat trimmings: use to make stock once accumulated in sufficient quantity: beats a flavoured cube of salt every time. There's more and I'm sure others will chime in.

                        1 Reply
                        1. Two or three nights a week:

                          1. Cook like a chef (doesn't need to take more time than usual)
                          2. Set a beautiful table
                          3. Carefully and artfully plate the food
                          4. Select a nicely matched pour

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                            I have to confess not to be the greatest about eating economically at home or out, but, I do agree with Sam's points. I always use nice dishes and silverware, and often use our sterling silver since, why not? Cloth napkins, placemats, some candles. We live in an NYC apartment, so our "dining room" table is the only table we have at which to eat. I have a dish in the middle that I use both as a centerpiece and to store produce.

                            One big tip - always put condiments in their own dishes - don't put the jar, etc. on the table. Makes a huge difference. Yes, a little more to wash or put in the dishwasher, but really changes the "mood" of the table.

                            P.S. We do usually eat next to each other, not at either end of the table!

                              1. re: MMRuth

                                How lovely ... and it makes me smile because it looks so Manhattan. I guess some things don't change over the years. Now I'm missing NYC.

                                1. re: MMRuth

                                  Yes! Exactly! And if the meal includes asparagas and or artichokes with home-made mayo--doesn't take more time or fuss. Little saffron rice (toss in a pinch of cumin). I fillet of steamed salmon or trout. Little mixed green salad. So easy. Addnice setting and plating and a matched pour....

                                  1. re: MMRuth

                                    Nice, Ruth! We generally eat on our coffee table because our dining room table's got a laptop, our fruit stand and some photography lights on it. But it would definitely be nice to arrange a nice place setting a couple of times a week. Thanks for the inspiration.

                                    1. re: Miss Needle

                                      We use our dining room table for many things as well, but I clear it off quickly for dinner. Often the laptop just gets put "below" onto one of the chairs, out of site. You can actually see the printer on the chair to the left I noticed - with the cord dangling down.

                                      Eating this way is such a pleasant way to end the day - some nice music on, etc.

                              2. Wow. I like Sam's idea, though honestly, I am so disorganized during the week that even making dinner is an accomplishment on weekdays. . ..

                                Somehow, having food with friends always seems more elegant. I think you just enjoy the food more or something, so when I can, I try to either have people over or invite myself over (with food). People reciprocate back, too. We also swap food (e.g. I make a stew and bring half of it over to someone; another friend makes something else and gives me a share), which is a nice way to have variety.

                                Aside from eating with friends, somehow trying recipes I want to try (especially involved ones) always feels like fine dining, though admittedly, I'm only organized enough to try this on the weekend.

                                As rworange mentioned, I also try to buy fresh ingredients. My weekly farmer's market jaunt is itself a "splurge", but I trade it off by hardly ever eating out. I'm trying to remember the last time I ate out. . . ok, I was in the city for shopping and kaboom, so we had a quick meal at a Thai chain noodle place-- but that was more of a "grab and go" deal for convenience. But before that, I think the last time I ate out for the sake of eating out and enjoying the food was maybe March?

                                Today I bought a fig balsamic vinegar, so I can drizzle it over berries, make a balsamic strawberry gelato (posted elsewhere on this board), and make a vinaigrette with it.

                                So I guess it's all stuff that rw mentioned, but I do agree that special ingredients (really good vanilla extract, a fig balsamic, very good olive oil, etc.) are worth paying extra for, b/c they add so much to a dish.

                                On another twist, I hardly ever buy processed, but I might buy a convenience food and dress it up with fancy other stuff--e.g. an ordinary jar of pasta sauce-- add sundried tomatoes and basil, and voila.

                                Also, again, this is another psycho-somatic (but the food equivalent of that word) thing, but eating outdoors and somehow transporting food, no matter how simple, always makes it seem more elegant and special. So I try to do picnics in the summer.

                                Oh and a hot baguette with a cheese. That is all I need to be happy. :)

                                1. Date a chef. :-)

                                  My father made decent money, but my mother was nevertheless the queen of thrifty shopping. Always clipping coupons and so forth. Before the proliferation of warehouse stores like Costco where you can buy in bulk, she would go into the local grocery store and ask the manager if she could buy things by the case to save money. The answer was usually yes. My favorite story of her thrifty shopping was the time she bought half a cow (cut up and wrapped in standard cuts of meat) from the local veterinary college. It was a healthy cow they'd used in a dissection lecture, and was sold at a huge discount.

                                  Another thought, grow stuff yourself if you can. Even if you live in an apartment, as I do, a windowbox can save you some money on fresh herbs. Not to mention, you pick what you need, rather than buying bundles that go bad in your fridge in a couple days.

                                  4 Replies
                                  1. re: weem

                                    I live in a Condo, window boxes are a no no. I bought some 6 x 8 x 2 ziplock containers. I buy my fresh herbs and wrap loosly in a paper towel, and place each bunch in a seperate container. Seal and stack in my fridge, and they last at least a week.

                                    I do "take out" as very good restaurants as well!

                                    Some great tips, thanks.

                                    1. re: mcel215

                                      I've also heard (but haven't tried) the tip of putting your unused fresh herbs in a little jar or glass of water in the fridge, like you'd put fresh-cut flowers in a vase of water, to keep them fresh longer.

                                      1. re: weem

                                        In my experience, it works better if they aren't in the fridge. Trim the ends off and keep them on the counter, out of sunlight.

                                        1. re: weem

                                          I have tried putting herbs in a water, in the fridge and on the counter, but they do seem to last a bit longer with the paper towel in the ziplock container. It takes up less room also.

                                          My last batch of fresh cilantro, lasted well over a week and a half.

                                    2. This thread is great! I agree with many of the ideas already listed.

                                      Re: eating out

                                      I find that the lunch special is a great boon. It is so much cheaper to eat at lunch, and the portions are much more reasonable too. High-end restaurants are the best deal, even if the main chef isn't necessarily there, because the quality of the ingredients and the execution of the dishes is at a high level. As well, because it is lunch, there is much less pressure to order wine or alcohol with your meal.

                                      I love BYOB restaurants, and we are lucky to have many fine restaurants that serve wonderful food that matches well with wines. This makes eating a fine meal much cheaper.

                                      I also keep track of restaurants that have an excellent selection of "importation privee" wines, wines that are privately imported and not available in our regular state liquor stores. These restaurants have made a significant effort to source interesting wines, and I don't mind paying for a bottle that I would otherwise have no access to. Because these wines are less well known, I also find that they tend to have better QPR than some of the brands that are well known.

                                      This may be controversial, but... I usually avoid ordering chicken in fancy restaurants. I often find the chicken dish is a little blah, placed on the menu for people who only like chicken, and tend to be less adventurous. Rarely, a really great restaurant can get past this (I fondly recall a capon dish at Per Se that was the opposite of blah!) but more often than not, I think to myself "I could roast a chicken at home that would be waaaaay better then this dish". When I go out, I want to splurge on an ingredient I couldn't easily cook well at home. Sweetbreads, elk, a beautiful piece of fish (I have trouble sourcing really great fish in my city), something unusual.

                                      Eating at home:

                                      I agree with the excellent suggestion of Sam to set a beautiful setting and plate the food creatively. The eyes are important in the perception of a meal as a special occasion.

                                      I also love Anzu's suggestion to eat on the patio. We have a lovely rooftop terrace that overlooks the mountain (well, the glorified hill we call a mountain, but it is still beautiful!), and any meal up there has a very special atmosphere. It is well worth the effort to lug everything up to the roof.

                                      When the mood takes us, and the meal is right, we are not shy to open up a fancy bottle from our wine fridge, even if we have nothing special to celebrate. It gives then whole meal a festive note.

                                      I love buying a special ingredient to experiment with, something I've never tried, or something very seasonal or rare. Recent ingredients include Jerusalem Artichokes, fresh salsify, microgreens, live crawfish, piquillo peppers, fresh cherries (just made the first cherry clafouti of the year, wow I love making those things), goat cheese balls bathed in olive oil and herbs made by a group of young Greek nuns near the island here. When you are excited about an ingredient, it makes the whole meal seem very special.

                                      1. I don't know if these count or not, but when we go out to a nice dinner, we've started to do this thing where we only order one course at a time. It feels really luxurious. We're big fans of the European pace of life where dinner is a 3-hour affair, so we leave a lot of time between courses for conversation and we even end up ordering less food because we're aware of what our bodies are telling us as the night goes on. The only drawback to this strategy is that wine goes really, really well with it. Any chowaccountants should bring their own. (for the curious: we do tell the servers before that that's how we're ordering. They're usually uncomfortably hovering after the appetizers, then they get into it and spend more time at our table just talking. And we won't do it on busy nights.)

                                        Another way to save money is by simply eating less and sharing courses. When my girlfriend and I are traveling, we'll often split both an appetizer and a main. It works out for our health, wallets and almost always appetites. (and even if it doesn't completely satisfy the appetite, it means we can go taste a dessert at that other place we were thinking about going).

                                        This last thing is about finding simple luxuries more than anything else, but if you can create a good variety of tastes, textures and presentations, then pass the dishes around the table after a bite or two, it feels like you're living like a king. It's the perfect combo of anticipation and satisfaction. Over and over and over again.

                                        1. There are a bunch of Berlin restaurants that have good lunch deals, whereas at dinner time, and appetizer can cost you 28+ €...

                                          The thing is I can never enjoy a multi-course meal at lunch time, for a number of reasons. a) I like the atmosphere at night, and I don't generally have *big* plans for afterwards, b) a multi-course meal during the day would make me practically useless for the rest of the afternoon. I'm simply not used to eating much except for dinner, so it's tough to do that. Though, because of the incredibly expensive evening prices, I may just have to bite the bullet.

                                          As for eating well at home, or elegantly I guess was the phrase -- I do take advantage of the relatively affordable seafood offerings back home at Wegmans. So, once a week or so, I make a seafood pasta with scallops, shrimp, and crab, and that's a pretty luxurious dish -- one which might run $15-20 for the both of us, but in a resto would cost a lot more...

                                          1. So many good ideas. The thing about buying whatever is in season and less expensive is that you really enjoy it when you have it. Recently I saw morels for $45 a pound and remembered last year when I bought them for $8. We ate well that night.

                                            We tend to eat lunch out more than dinner. Or go to happy hours. We also get takeout and enjoy it in the backyard. Right now there are thousands of roses blooming out there -- well, hundreds, anyway. How many restaurants have that? We have a table-top heatlamp on the picnic table and it always feels special to eat outside on a cool evening.

                                            Sometimes we get Indian takeout and add our homemade chutney. Or I make sushi and then buy a few fancy rolls to add to the meal. Or takeout pizza with homemade salad and icecream. And of course we spend less on wine or beer when we eat at home.

                                            I grow lots of food, too. It's not hard to make stir-fries or pasta sauces from the garden. We buy good meat and cheese, but use it sparingly. Tomatoes and arugula with a bit of bacon on pasta. Or anchovies, capers and olives for puttanesca with homegrown tomatoes.

                                            Off now to defend the cherries from the evil robins.