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Tips for eating out less expensively in a bad economy?

There are the usual tips

- Look for early bird specials
- Use promotions, coupon books (but only if they have decent restaurants)
- Plan dining out on off nights when restaurants often have promotions instead of prime time on Friday and Saturday
- Take advantage of restaurant week promotions. Currently SF there is Dine About Town where there are three-course prix-fix lunches and dinners at special prices. You have to watch to make sure it is a deall, but I just had a $47 meal for $22 that was by a top area chef.

There was a good tip, I thought on some talk show. If you have children, instead of hiring a babysitter, get together with other parents and child-pool. Parents take turns of watching the kiddies instead of hiring a babysitter. It saves one cost on an evening out.

Every little bit helps, IMO. It doesn't cost anything to book on opentable and eventually you get back some dining dollars.

If you must eat out on Friday-Saturday, eat at lunch where many times the same dishes are a few bucks less.

I'm a little distressed by this discussion on the chain board where it seems people would rather eat at chains like the Olive Garden because they know what to expect and don't want to take a chance on a bad meal at an independent restaurant

This astounds me, especially since they are saying this on Chowhound and only have to ask on their home boards about what is good and bad. Why settle for mediocre, though it is reliable mediocre. IMO, it is better to eat out less frequently than squander the little money there is on a blah corporate meal.

Anyway that link is there to discuss the charms of chain dining. I hope this thread will be about strategies for eating out at restaurants that are not chains.

This seems like a good opportunity to explore those mom and pops and expand food horizons.

Also, IMO, don't stiff a good server to save a few bucks. If you have to cut the tip, don't eat out or eat out less frequently.

Anyway, any other tips for keeping costs down?

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  1. Don’t order alcohol out!

    Sometimes I will order just an appetizer and salad

    2 Replies
    1. re: bermudagourmetgoddess

      Or order beer instead of wine or cocktails.

      There was one SF poster who was alway going on about how little money he had and yet was always eating at great restaurants. He ordered beer instead of wine and was quite the knowledgable person on beer. Also, he and the Mrs. often split the entree.

      1. re: bermudagourmetgoddess

        There are several places in D.C. that have 1/2 priced bottles of wine specials on certain nights of the week, for those who like to have a couple of drinks with dinner. However, it's very true that alcohol generally raises the bill significantly.

      2. Yes, cook at home. It's literally a multiple of 4-5 times more expensive per meal to eat out.
        I don't think people realize yet how much this economy is going to change and affect people. Eating out used to be something you did on holidays, and to celebrate personal occasions, not every weekend. The other use for eating out was for business relationship building purposes.

        Seriously, I don't think telling people how to waste money more slowly is much help for them.

        So back to your original inquiry, I would say the best way to save money on eating out would be to use it appropriately, and save it for special occasions. If you need to socialize, host and attend dinner parties at your friends' homes - again, that was done much more in the past, rather than going out to restaurants.

        2 Replies
        1. re: softDiner

          I cook at home all the time, living in Bermuda we do not have a great selections of restaurants and I HATE going out and spending at least $300 per couple for a meal I KNOW I could have cooked better.

          We have lots of Dinner Parties / Themed nights with our friends and it gives me the opportunity to try new receipes!

          Matter of fact we are having a 70's night this weekend we having fondue and for cocktails Harvey Wallbangers and White Russians

          1. re: softDiner

            I like your comment about eating out appropriately.

            I think if anyone is stepping into any restaurant these days it should be to make your food dollars count.

            Say you get just one Starbucks specialty drink a week and one fast food meal. That's $4 for the drink and about $7 for the meal. If you just cut those out, at the end of the month you would have over $40 for a really nice splurge somewhere. And many people spend way more than that each week.

            Why throw money away on thoughtless food that pretty much just fills the belly. Delay instant gratification and use those dining dollars for true deliciousness

          2. Accept that every meal out doesn't have to be elaborate or expensive. Lower your price point. One of the great things about Chowhound is finding delicious meals at a taco cart or grocery store food court.

            1 Reply
            1. re: viperlush

              Oh I understand not that every meal has to be elaborate or expensive, but I living in Bermuda we have not choice except for expensive meals.

              We have no chains, except one KFC and it's no deal like the states.

              That is why we save up for when we travel off the island.

            2. Eat at restaurants that feature local fare. My husband and I moved to the MS Gulf Coast nearly a year ago. Growing up in IN, seafood was a luxury and true creole and cajun cooking was unheard of, but here on the Coast where it is abundant, it is just about the most affordable dining out you can do.
              There is also a large Vietnamese population in my area, so if you're brave enough to go for one of the Viet places that appears to be a little hole in the wall, you'll quickly find you can enjoy one of the most authentic, delicious, AND inexpensive meals you'll have anywhere. The same holds true for Mexican food in this area. This is not to mention the dozens and dozens of little cajun/creole mom and pop restos/shacks that dot the area. It seems going for authenticity in food, rather than stellar atmosphere can mean a huge savings. I may be weird, but I prefer the quirk of an old laundromat repurposed into a Pho joint over the consistent sheen of manufactured Italy at Olive Garden any day.
              My Yummy Life

              1. "I'm a little distressed by this discussion on the chain board where it seems people would rather eat at chains like the Olive Garden because they know what to expect and don't want to take a chance on a bad meal at an independent restaurant..This astounds me, especially since they are saying this on Chowhound and only have to ask on their home boards about what is good and bad."

                I don't wish to digress from the title of your thread, but you might want to read or try to understand a little more before passing judgment. Not all of us live in a place so well populated or full of those who are chowhound/foodie types that we have the luxury of simply posting to ask where is good in their neighborhood only to be offered up a plethora of delectable choices. Where I live, we are surrounded by really, really, really bad restaurants. The decent places are at least a half hour away and are very expensive. The best, affordable choices in my neighborhood, believe it or not, ARE the chains.

                Edited to add: I'm sure many people reading a post like mine simply don't believe it. Today is a perfect example, let me run it down for you, for real.

                mr. rockandroller and I have to go to a specific store for an errand that is out in another suburb, not our neighborhood but one where we used to live (and we may move back there at some point, we still enjoy it there as it's very low crime, good schools, manageable traffic/commutes, etc.). We will probably be hungry after we go to the store we need to visit, and will want to get dinner out. These are literally our choices, I won't use the specific names of the restaurants but I'm sure you can figure it out:
                Steak chain
                Italian chain
                "American" chain
                BBQ chain
                Fish/seafood chain
                Sit-down burger chain
                ALL the fast food chain places
                Fast casual chains, such as giant burrito place, "homestyle" chicken and sides place, sub shops, salad/sandwich/bakery place.

                Indie restaurants include:
                Italian place - terrible, have been there twice
                Upscale asian place - way, way too expensive for a casual weeknight meal, reservations only
                Japanese place - very bad. Last time, my 2nd try, I left without even eating my entree.
                Pizza place - takeout only and mediocre pizza
                Greasy spoon/American breakfast place - absolutely awful, nothing but Sysco or lower products.

                I know *every* restaurant in this neighborhood. I can assure you there is no stone unturned. There is nowhere else to eat if you want a decent meal than the chain.

                1 Reply
                1. re: rockandroller1

                  Yes, I made my points in the chain thread (maybe too often) and would rather not digress here and instead shush out tips for eating on a dime, so to speak, at non chain restaurants here.

                  I think you offered the same and good arguments in that thread and I have been in areas like that. However, others in the thread were not in that same position. Anyone living in a major town like Cleveland or Cincinnati can do better than a chain. Anyone interested in discussing this further I hope you'll use this link ... and convince some of those lost culinary lambs that there are better choices.

                2. Find out what the BYOB policy is, the corkage fee may be reasonable and you get to drink your favorite budget bottle of wine.

                  Restaurants also have happy hour and usually it includes food as well as drinks. In my neck of the woods, there are promotions from half priced appetizers to a specialty happy hour menu.

                  Just to expand on one of your points rworange, I've seen promotions Sun - Thurs that include: BOGO entrees, half priced entress, kids eat free and prix fixe menus.

                  Lastly, mix it up. If you are going to your favorite place try the shrimp salad you have never ordered but always thought looked good. Order a couple of appetizers instead of an entree. If it's not on the menu, ask if they will make you a half portion. Or you could just give it up, don't order an appetizer and/or dessert.

                  1. Plan. Go out once a week. Never go out just because you're too lazy to cook.
                    That's the time to fix an omelet or some saimin noodles or clean out the leftovers that will be growing mold by the weekend.

                    When we were growing up, even when times were tough, my family went out every Wednesday night to a local family owned restaurant. We got to use our rudimentary reading skills on the menu and Daddy taught us to read that menu from right to left so that we had an appreciation for cost.
                    Even years later when my brother went through his scary Hells Angels look-alike phase, he had the best manners in the crowd.
                    My parents had a cocktail, the kids had real food, and we behaved.
                    Before long, we were trusted enough that they took us with them to the best restaurants in town for special occasions several times a year.
                    Daddy always tipped well.
                    That restaurant was always crowded and it's still in business today - 50 years later because of people like my family. Regulars.
                    Without YOU, they die.

                    Ask not what this economy can do for you but what YOU can do for this economy.
                    Eating in restaurants makes you a creator and preserver of jobs.
                    Don't think of the "unemployment" rate.
                    93% of Americans HAVE jobs, likely including you, so do YOUR part to help others keep theirs.
                    Pick a regular night and go out.
                    Ask for tap water. Keep those plastic bottles out of landfills.
                    Don't run up the bar tab.
                    Order from the middle of the menu.
                    Maybe the special of the day.
                    Share a dessert.
                    Tip well.
                    Be nice.
                    You have a job.
                    You eat out.
                    The restaurant stays open and they have jobs.
                    Their suppliers have jobs.
                    It all trickles down and out and all around.
                    Then get your car washed and the oil changed.
                    Get a manicure. Maybe a massage.
                    Tip all the people well.
                    You have made sure that a lot of people keep their jobs.
                    Oh, even the kids at the Olive Garden need their wages for college so don't be too hard on the chains.

                    It's all going to be OK.
                    PLAN to eat out at LEAST once a week.
                    It's your PATRIOTIC duty.

                    6 Replies
                    1. re: MakingSense

                      For one of the few times on the board we agree :-)

                      Except ...

                      >>> Oh, even the kids at the Olive Garden need their wages for college so don't be too hard on the chains.

                      Eat out for deliciousness., This is the time to keep the great places in business. Don't shortchange yourself on the best and plot how to get it. Don't settle. Those kids will find jobs at the more delicious restaurants. OG ain't the only job in town.

                      And again, I hope everyone to stick to tips to eating less expensively but deliciously when eating out ... even if for you that means OG to you.

                      Good tip about eating out regularily ... planned eating ... take a little time to choose a good place. The time I'm most likely to waste my food dollars is when I'm rushed.

                      Sharing dessert is a good idea too. At least in my area, often dessert is half the price of an entree.

                      Why the middle of the menu? What is the usual advantage?

                      I'm looking at my Bouchon menu which I keep forgetting to toss and in that particular case the most expensive dish is smack dab in the middle and the cheapo stuff, so to speak, buried at the bottom or off to the side.Unless you mean stick to the entrees and forget about those pricey desserts and salads.

                      Given Bouchon is pricy, it might be an abberation and this restaurant is expensive ... the type that if you have to ask, don't go ... still ... consider the less expensive dishes if you want to eat high on the hog.

                      Looking at the Bouchon menu reminds me of another tip ... ask how big servings are if you are not familiar and when scanning other dishes in the restaurant you don't see other tables with the dish you want. The Croque Madame I ordered that came with a mountain of those frites was $15.50. I had a cup of coffee with it and got to eat at a Thomas Keller restaurant for less than I'd pay for a dinner at Cafe Macaroni. Sure, I'd get some Syco entree there ... but why not eat quality if a little less.

                      Bouchon's fries are a heart-stopping $7 ... but ... there are literally three McDonald's super size servings on that plate. It is meant to be shared by three or four people ... and using that parameter ... each serving would come to about $2 or less ... which is what you'd pay at a fast food joint for a similar portion.

                      Which leads to ... take some dinner home if the portions are big. That makes two meals and lessens the pain.

                      1. re: rworange

                        Speaking of Sysco, you might be interested to know that Bouchon uses Sysco fries.


                        1. re: Humbucker

                          Yeah, I know that. IMO, tastes it.

                          But I ranted about the fries before even trying them. Now I can bitch about it with some authority having had the fries. They are good, but before McDonald's screwed with the oil, those were good too.

                          I was actually there for the croque. Sort of hate using Bouchon as an example but it was fresh in my mind and most people regard it highly. IMO, it is just another chain ... an top of the heap chain, but none the less ... chain. If I go to the Bouchon in Las Vegas and didn't look out the window, there would be no difference.

                          The real point was that I've often been surprised that if you go with the lower-priced items of top restaurants you can dine less expensively than going to most chains.

                          I guess a better example would be Chez Panisse. It has a three-course prix-fixe for $26. The lowest priced entree there is $18 When I look at the menu for Olive Garden $18.50 will get me Pork Filettino or I can choose the Steak Toscano Served with Tuscan potatoes and bell peppers.for $22.75

                          For $2.25 more at Chez Panisse tonight I can get Braised Becker Lane Farm pork shoulder with roasted butternut squash, rapini, and spicy black olives $25

                          Of course CP doesn't offer a choice of soup or salad with that, but I will get a basket of Acme bread with wonderful butter rather than the Pillsbury-like bread sticks from Olive Garden.

                          The absolute least expensive entree on the Olive Garden menu is $11.50 for a sad looking plate of Linguine alla Marinara. For a few bucks more at Chez Panisse I can get Winter greens ravioli with salsa di noci.

                          If I add $6.95 for dessert at Olive Garden along with the highest priced entree selection that brings my tab up to $29.70 ... for three courses ... salad, entree, dessert

                          The $26 three-course prix-fix at Chez Panisse tonight is
                          Garden lettuce salad
                          Winter greens ravioli with salsa di noci
                          Lime sherbet with candied mint leaves and langues de chat

                          Chez Panisse is the top quality organic ingredients made fresh that day by top chefs served in a lovely dining room.

                          Olive Garden is bagged salad, a frozen entree heated with probably sad, overcooked slightly mushy and extremely salty potatoes topped with little bits of pepper that won't taste like much.

                          For me, the better value would be Chez Panisse. And if I want to go out full-out and order the most expensive items at CP, I;d rather skip two or three forgettable meals at the Olive Garden for one memorable meal at CP.

                          In other calculations, that $26 tab at Chez Panisse is four Whopper with cheese combo meals or 9 Starbucks grande specialty drinks

                          Make your food dollars count.

                          1. re: rworange

                            God! You're good!
                            Most people don't have your math skills and are intimidated by the Big Name restaurants but you're really right. We do it all the time but it takes some knowledge and confidence.
                            Eating wisely at good restaurants can be an excellent value.

                            I say "the middle of the menu" because we've always found that MOST menus start with the cheapest things (and the least creative) and end with the highest priced which are often the assumed luxury items. In that lovely middle is often where you find the goodies like rabbit, duck, unusual fish/shellfish, house specials, liver, etc. often at the best prices for what you get - value!

                            If we skip the stupid money-wasting stuff - stops at 7-11, thoughtless cups of coffee on the run, bottled water from convenience stores - the savings add up.
                            Lazy carry-out because I don't feel like cooking is the worst money waster.
                            Every meal SHOULD count.

                            BTW, I agree with you more often than you might ever believe.

                      2. re: MakingSense

                        Especially the manicure/pedicure/massage part :).

                        1. re: MakingSense

                          Lovely. And I will add to that, go out LOCALLY and help the little guys ride the storm. I'd rather get Mexican, BBQ or Italian from my local hole in the wall than a chain any day. Food's better, service is better. Often more open to BYOB, too.

                        2. I think it all boils down to living within your means....if dining out means you don't pay the phone bill.....well.....maybe you should be thinking twice about whipping out the credit card. (btw, i am not good at this one, i'm known to buy a fabulous pair of boots rather than pay a bill.....just not all the time ! )

                          I think one poster made a good point about not whittling away at the dining dollars with on the run take out / drive thru....it piles up. UNLESS of course, that is what you enjoy. If a morning Starbucks makes your toes curl, I say go for it.

                          I also agree with not right out discounting the chains....and i know this thread is not about that....but dining out is often just about socializing, you're there to catch up with friends etc...and some of those friends enjoy Olive Garden. IF that is what you can all afford this week, I also say go for it......who knows what tomorrow will hold, see your friends now. On a side note, I've noticed that if I do eat at a chain, i tend to order the more expensive or potentially interesting items in hopes that i'll have a little wow.....which kind of defeats the purpose...

                          Also agree with the special restaurants for special times. $$$$ restos won't be all that special if you're eating there every second night.

                          Again agreed to explore the mom and pops....roadside stands...up and comers....boost their economy. It'll keep things flowing.

                          HOWEVER....eating at home, especially if you're throwing a dinner party...is NOT cheaper for many Chowhounds.. I've a "horrible" tendancy to go a little all out if i have someone over for dinner.

                          ok, so really the only thing I can think of is stretching the wine dollars.....one great glass to sip...rather than several...or bring your own.

                          1. Before eating out, ask why you're eating out.

                            Have the cocktail hour before you leave the house.

                            Drink tap water.

                            Never eat at a restaurant unless the food is either (a) difficult / complex / time-consuming to prepare or (b) better than what you'd make at home.

                            Don't be embarrassed to go for the loss-leader (2-fer, discount night, Entertainment Card, BOGO, whatever), but tip the server like you paid full price.

                            And my favorite -

                            Go to more restaurants where the owners aren't already rich. The decor won't be as nice, but generally speaking you'll get better food for less money.

                            1. Go out for breakfast, or go for dessert. Find out which of your favourite places serve dessert, and go for something sweet and coffee or a great cheese plate and glasses of wine.

                              1. Eat out less.

                                But when you do eat out, don't change a thing. Enjoy like you've always had.

                                So, for example, if your typical tab is $50 and you used to dine out 3x a week. Cut back and dine out only 2x a week, but spend the same and you'll still end up saving $50 (not counting for the money you spend on the meal at home, of course).

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  Lose the booze and drink iced water instead of more expensive options - save the money (and the calories!) for more important things...

                                  Skip dessert unless it sounds really scrumptious... but if you've got a sweet tooth then share.

                                  Don't choose something that you KNOW you can make better at home... choose something more time-consuming or difficult or expensive, so you feel like you're getting your money's worth.

                                  And if the servings are big enough, don't hesitate to mentally divide your plate in half and take the other half home for tomorrow. (conversely, if you KNOW that a dish will not travel/reheat well and it's going to be far more than you can eat at one time, either share the dish with your dining partner, or choose something else instead.)