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May 20, 2008 07:29 PM

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?

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

    I just learned about 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.