Kris and I joined some friends last weekend for a 40th birthday celebration at Bluehour, a swanky Portland restaurant. While the other couples spent $150 to $250 for their meals, we escaped paying only $52, including tip. We hadn't planned to do this, but our unintentional parsimony taught us a few ways to save the next time we dine out at a fancy restaurant:
- Eat a healthy snack before you go to take the edge off your hunger. Kris often does this — I do not. It enables her to look at a menu and order reasonably. I, on the other hand, get carried away when I feel ravenous, and order too much.
- Order something that takes time to eat. Some foods — such as pasta — are easy to eat. You can scarf them down quickly. At Bluehour, we ordered a couple of fiddly things: a cheese fondue and a plate of cheeses, olives, and meats. While everybody else was finished with dinner, we were still working on ours. Eating slowly allows you to reach a feeling of fullness.
- Order appetizers as your meal. We've begun to do this more often. Last weekend's fondue and cheese plate were considered appetizers, but they were delicious and filling. The fondue for two with artisan bread and apples cost just $12. An alternative on the menu was six-bites-worth of bacon-wrapped scallops for $16. The scallops would definitely be an appetizer, while the fondue could actually serve as a meal.
- Watch what you drink. We each had one cocktail on Saturday. They were expensive: $10 each. (It was a very swanky place.) Imagine how quickly our expenses would have increased if we'd had more than one drink. Better yet, imagine how much we could have saved if we'd only had water. Decide which you'd enjoy more: a cocktail starter, a glass of wine with dinner, or perhaps dessert and coffee. Choose one rather than splurging on all three.
- Order in sequence. If the restaurant will allow, order and eat your appetizer before you place your order for an entree. If, as is usual, you order everything at the same time, it's easy to order more food than you need. Be patient if you try this technique, the kitchen will need time to prepare your entree once the order has been placed. (Also consider increasing your tip if you order in sequence — you're displacing the table for a longer period of time.)
- Share food. At Gino's, our favorite restaurant, the portions are enormous. Splitting an entree gives us enough food for two. Many restaurants charge an extra few bucks for doing this, but it's much less than paying for a second unnecessary entree. At Bluehour we were able to share our food without extra charge.
- Take food home. An excellent way to stretch your restaurant dollar is to actually plan to take home leftovers. Kris and I have done this for years, yet I don't know how wide-spread the practice is. If you do this, keep it in mind when browsing the menu; some foods keep and reheat much better than others.
- Skip (or share) dessert. I've heard of people keeping a bar of dark chocolate (or other sweet treat) in their purse or car. Often, you crave just a bite or two of something sweet — so satisfy that craving on your way home. Or, if you can agree on a choice with your dinner companions, split a dessert.
Many of the same tips for saving money at a restaurant will also help to keep your calories in check. Restaurant portions are huge. There's nothing worse than blowing both the budget and your waistline, only to be filled with regret later. By making smart choices to split meals, skip courses and limit alcoholic or sugary beverages, you can relish the experience while keeping your frugal self-respect.