How to Eat at a Swanky Restaurant Without Blowing Your Monthly Food Budget

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.

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There are 72 comments to "How to Eat at a Swanky Restaurant Without Blowing Your Monthly Food Budget".

  1. plonkee says 12 October 2007 at 05:21

    I usually find that vegetarian food is cheaper, so I often eat that. It helps that I really like vegetarian food.

  2. Daniel says 12 October 2007 at 05:43

    My wife & I do several of these things: we order appetizers, split entrees, or – our favorite – just take a bunch of it home. Whenever we go out for Mexican, I get a 2-burrito (+ rice & beans) meal, and I go home with 1 burrito and half the rice and beans, effectively halving the cost of my part of the meal.

    Also, she drinks water most of the time. I drink water unless we’re going out for Mexican or pizza, which both require soda to me. That cuts down the cost by quite a bit.

    And, yeah, sharing a dessert is a great way to save money – and it’s a nice fun romantic thing to do. 🙂

    Another thing we do is go to a swanky restaurant just to get dessert. That way we get the experience of dining there, but at very low cost.

  3. AnnieJ says 12 October 2007 at 06:09

    Great tips! We do most of these when we go out to eat.

    Buying a cocktail out is so expensive; I usually won’t do it. Drinking water is both cheap and healthy, but I don’t hesitate to order a soda if I want one. We don’t often have it at home, so I figure a soda out occasionally satisfies my craving for it, without spending grocery money to have it at home. I drink far too much of it if it’s on hand.

  4. SG says 12 October 2007 at 06:28

    If you’re a wine drinker, it helps to check in advance to see if the restaurant in question has an uncorking fee. If the fee is low enough, it’s far more economical to bring your own bottle of wine, rather than order by the glass or by the bottle and pay the mark-up costs that restaurants use to make a profit on the alcohol.

    (If the fee is more than about US$10, it’s probably not worth it if you’re walking in with a bottle of plonk. But if you’re willing to pay a little bit more for a nicer bottle of wine, you can save about $10-$30 depending on what kind of wine you’d normally order.)

  5. Dave says 12 October 2007 at 06:32

    Oh man, read the book American Psycho for an awesome and funny critique and satire on swanky restaurants … there’s a great scene in the book where the main character steals a urinal cake from a swanky restaurant bathroom, coats it in chocolate, and has it delivered to his girlfriend as they dine together. The girlfriend gags the whole thing down her throat, but because she’s in a swanky restaurant, she acts like she loves it and exclaims, “Mmmm, that was soooo good … it was just so … *minty.*

  6. Cat says 12 October 2007 at 06:47

    Mmm, Bluehour is lovely (you make me miss my hometown on a regular basis, J.D.!). My rule for swanky restaurants is only to order things I can’t or won’t make at home, due to equipment required, allergies of the people I cook for, etc. I’ve had some incredibly memorable meals that way.

  7. m.g. says 12 October 2007 at 07:01

    I do this at Ruby Tuesday’s (not swanky, but still). The unlimited salad bar meal is I think around $8 or so, and one salad plate is plenty of food for me. Or you can add it to any entree for an extra $2. So I’ll order a burger or some grilled chicken for $10, tack on the salad bar to eat in, and take the actual plate home for later. Then I get two (or sometimes even three) meals out of $12, when just one or the other should cost $8-10.

  8. bozemblem says 12 October 2007 at 07:03

    JD, I’ve done these types of things before and ended up eating only around $30 for my meal. However, there have been times when my dinner companions have eaten upwards to $100-$200 worth of food (each!!) and they expect to split the bill evenly between everybody. Without being a jerk, do you know of a good way to tactfully to get out of paying too much?

  9. J.D. says 12 October 2007 at 07:09

    There have been times when my dinner companions have eaten upwards to $100-$200 worth of food (each!!) and they expect to split the bill evenly between everybody. Without being a jerk, do you know of a good way to tactfully to get out of paying too much?

    That’s an awesome question. I don’t have an answer off the top of my head, but I’ll think on it. Most of the time when we split the check in a restaurant, things are pretty even, so I don’t worry about it. But in a case like the other night, I’m not sure how I would have phrased it. Actually, these are all close friends, so I’m sure I could have said something like, “Whoa — we didn’t have very much this time. We’re not comfortable splitting it.”

    Great question. Maybe somebody has a better answer…

  10. DJ says 12 October 2007 at 07:35

    I love reading financial blogs but I always feel like the camaraderie involved is a whole lot of “I’m making better decisions than you” attitude.

    I don’t know that I would say the other couples aren’t being frugal just because they spent three times more than you. My boyfriend and I often spend a lot on dinner but dining out and the food scene is our biggest hobby. We don’t live in a fancy apartment, don’t wear expensive clothes and don’t have a comic book collection. On birthdays we would be very likely to spend $200. We make sacrifices elsewhere because it is something we enjoy. How do you know those other couples aren’t doing that? (well, I mean besides the fact that you are close friends with them.) I like to think we save our money so that we can enjoy it at certain points, instead of nickel and diming ourselves through every meal, pointing out that others are making poor financial decisions so we can feel better about eating cheese for dinner.

    But I do understand the gripe about people who often want to split checks equally. Luckily no one I know is that annoying. In fact, I have the opposite problem. Good for those who are watching their dollars but I’ve often noticed that unless I count every penny too, I’m often paying $2-3 on top of the amount I should be paying because they continually point out that I got more. God bless any waiter/waitress who will split checks. Has anyone dealt with that before? For example if we go to breakfast and we get the same dishes and I order an extra side of toast, I’ve ended up paying $5 more instead of the actual $1.50 for toast somehow. I guess I’m just a wuss who won’t speak up, but the cheapies can be equally annoying as the spendies. I guess the solution is to drop that side of toast. But it doesn’t even come with the eggs and bacon! I need to find a new brunch place.

  11. Xias says 12 October 2007 at 07:52

    Admittedly I tend to just avoid drinks altogether. Still, great job overall with escaping with only 52$ for a bill. I hadn’t considered appetizers as a meal..I’ll look into that!

  12. J.D. says 12 October 2007 at 07:59

    I love reading financial blogs but I always feel like the camaraderie involved is a whole lot of “I’m making better decisions than you” attitude.

    Hmm… I’d never considered that before. That’s certainly never my intention. This isn’t a competition. It’s a slow, steady personal journey. If it sometimes feels like I have an attitude of “I’m making better decisions”, it’s more that I’m proud of myself for making better decisions that I used to make for myself. Most of the time I consciously try not to judge anyone. Who am I to judge? I’ve made some of the stupidest mistakes with money of anyone I know.

    I don’t know that I would say the other couples aren’t being frugal just because they spent three times more than you.

    Oh, I agree. In fact, I know that for one couple, this was a Big Deal. They saved money so that they could do this. They *were* being frugal. I don’t mean to imply that the others weren’t being frugal. But if *we* had elected to pay $150-$250, we wouldn’t have been frugal. It’s not my intention to say, “Ha ha, these other people spent too much.” Not at all. My intention is to say, “Aha! Look at another way I found to save some money.”

  13. Betsy Teutsch says 12 October 2007 at 08:16

    I think restaurant portions are absurdly large, and they correlate to 2/3 of Americans being overweight. We don’t know what healthy portions look like. I almost always split an entree or order an appetizer as my main meal.
    I call this the waist/waste approach
    http://moneychangesthings.blogspot.com/2007/08/restaurants-waistwaste-challenge.html
    I do think there is some discomfort in spending much less than the people you are out with, and it takes conviction/self-security not to be embarrassed or worried about being perceived as cheap. Since I’m likely to order less than a typical customer, I try to be generous with tipping. Since tips are based on a %, the wait staff comes out way behind in these situations…. especially since tips are a significant part of their compensation.
    lastly, isn’t it interesting how you say you were “unintentnionally parsimonious”? SOunds to me like you have created new habits in yourselves and it’s become habitual. You two have a bright future!

  14. Modern Worker says 12 October 2007 at 08:39

    10 buck cocktail? Yowza!

  15. rstlne says 12 October 2007 at 08:43

    I save money by not going to high-end restaurants because I never thought the experience was worth the markup. However, knowing what I know now, I should’ve tried Windows on the World at least once before 9/11.

  16. Velvet Jones says 12 October 2007 at 08:52

    Some of these ideas translate well across the board, like limiting alcohol consumption while dining out. However at many high-end resto’s, just ordering an appetizer for your meal is NOT going to cut it. It’s literally just a taste, not a meal. Same thing with splitting an entree. That might work, but again, depending on how high-end it is, the entree might be three bites bigger than that one-bite appetizer!

    If the high-end resto has a bar, I might go there for an app and a drink to side-step spending a lot of money. However if I want to eat and enjoy a meal, I’d just save up the money so like DJ says, I’m not nickle-and-diming my way through it. That would take away from the whole experience for me.

  17. Laura says 12 October 2007 at 08:58

    My husband and I almost always bring leftovers home. Last time we ate out with a group, we ordered an appetizer platter and 2 salad bars. It was cheaper than having 2 entrees and we had a variety of foods. ( I love spring rolls.)

  18. Fox Cutter says 12 October 2007 at 09:12

    Taking good home is also a good way to lose some weight. We get way to much food in the country, talking half of it home to eat later is closer to what you should be eating then the full meal.

  19. jay s says 12 October 2007 at 09:19

    I disagree with this approach for high end restaurants. A high end restaurant is the entertainment and not just a source of calories.

    Taking food home, splitting entrees, and apps as entrees are great for average restaurants (although apps usually have higher fat/calorie content per nutritional unit). I will frequently take food home when my wife and I go to a BBQ joint, a bento place, etc. There is too much food usually. But when you go to a swanky place, your food unit cost is higher, and it is never as good the next day, so why pay for the premium.

    Splitting, apps as entree, at a high end restaurant disrupts the experience. I live in vegas, and when I go to Bouchon, Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon, Spago etc, I go for the full experience. I don’t drink, so that cuts down my costs, and I don’t order the most expensive thing, but I go with the experience.

    The best way to cut your costs dining at a swanky place can be to go during lunch, or order off the prix fixe menu.

    Also local places will sometimes offer coupon specials. Two of the best local places here do this, Rosemary’s sells gift certificates at costco, Table 34 does as well.

    Price doesn’t necessarily indicate the pleasure you will recieve, but there is a time to be cheap and a time to be frugal.

    I love fine dining, but can’t afford it every night. I am willing to compromise a little on the experience, but do want to experience it. Thus I would rather go half as often. To me its the same analogy as flying to paris, but not going up the eiffel tower.

    My favorite tho is eating at non-fine dining places with great local and fresh food. When I was in portland last, we had an amazing lunch at Pok Pok in SE. Awesome flavors, very affordable. And nearly as enjoyable as the lunch I had at bouchon the week before.

  20. ClickerTrainer says 12 October 2007 at 09:38

    @DJ
    I frequently end up kicking in a little more at lunch with work-mates. We have some folks who do indeed think frugality is a competitive sport. I’ve ordered a $5 lunch and had to kick in $10 so that there would be a least some tip.

    I used to work with one woman who would work the split out to the cent. Literally.

    My solution: I quit going out to lunch with the cheapskates, now I go to the gym and work out at lunch instead.

  21. Patrick says 12 October 2007 at 09:46

    I sign up for as many restaurant newsletters as possible in our area. On a weekly basis, I get several coupons for free appetizer or dessert. Just add a dinner salad and you have a complete healthy meal. Start by eating the dinner salad and take the appetizer home to eat later.

    Often the daily special is a good choice for a lot of food for a reasonable price.

    In case of doubt, I look at the plates from other people when I walk to my table so I know what portion size to expect by ordering certain dishes. If the plates show a lot of food, I don’t order an appetizer.

  22. NormalDude says 12 October 2007 at 10:04

    I would never eat out with a cheap dork like you. Friends split the bill evenly. While you’re sitting there with a calculator, your friends were making fun of you. Don’t expect another invite.

  23. Daniel says 12 October 2007 at 10:07

    Those of us who work in the service industry, especially in the high end sector, love it when people sit in our station, and don’t spend money! Just a little hint for you, do you know why you couldn’t find your server after you split a salad and an appetizer for your entree? It is because you were stealing from him/her. Just like the idiot who hits on 19 at the blackjack table, you took the 9 that would have given me 21. I assume you also think that a 15% tip is adequate. Thank God my landlord takes good advice in lieu of actual money.

  24. MonkeyMonk says 12 October 2007 at 10:11

    I agree that eating out with someone who is overly frugal can often be difficult and it’s a hard topic to discuss delicately.

    We had a friend who always ordered the cheapest entree on the menu and then put out exactly the amount of money that this entree cost right down to the cent. Not only did he not take tax into account but he never left a tip either. It got awkward the first time we called him on this and as a result we stopped going out to eat dinner with him.

    I think if you suspect there’s going to be a large bill inequity, it’s best to agree on a split check at the start of the meal. Many, even high-end restaurants, will accomodate these requests nowadays.

  25. Mariette says 12 October 2007 at 10:13

    “There have been times when my dinner companions have eaten upwards to $100-$200 worth of food (each!!) and they expect to split the bill evenly between everybody. Without being a jerk, do you know of a good way to tactfully to get out of paying too much?”

    This often happens to me as I’m vegetarian and don’t drink. I have always found that if I point it out nicely to the others that I didn’t drink (or I only had an appetizer) and therefore the cost of my meal is far less than theirs, my dinner companions are fine with splitting the bill fairly. Usually in their tipsiness they are just thinking of what’s easiest and don’t realise that it isn’t fair (also, it’s usually habit to split the bill evenly.) We’ll figure out how much my bill was (or I will) and then they will split the remainder evenly.

    I’ve never had any problems with this approach, I know it can feel weird, especially when you first start doing it, but so long as you’re not obnoxious or rude about it, just pointing out the discrepancy in a kind way, then it’s fine. After all, why should you (or I) supplement their meal?

    “I love reading financial blogs but I always feel like the camaraderie involved is a whole lot of “I’m making better decisions than you” attitude.”

    I don’t ever feel that from reading financial blogs, I get inspired to do better and to stay on track with making better decisions when I read them. I also pick up some great tips!

  26. mahalie says 12 October 2007 at 12:12

    I would hate to wait on you guys!!! As a former waitress I can tell you: spend-thrift + no drinks + monopolizes table for a long time = make no money. That said, skipping drinks is #1 for saving money in my book. I’m careful not to dilly-dally in a busy restaurant unless I am spending big (sometimes it’s fun), but on a weekday or slow night, yeah, take hours, fiddle with cheap apps. Have fun! But on really busy nights your choice to be cheap and take a long time is also a choice to prevent your waitperson from making much money. Just something to consider.

  27. SR says 12 October 2007 at 12:29

    I completely agree with DJ.

    I also think that when it comes to splitting a bill, it depends on the situation. Certain friends and I regularly split bills — and sometimes I end up paying a few more dollars than my share. Other times, it’s the reverse. Generally though, someone will say “oh, I had an extra drink/an appetizer, so I’ll pay more/cover the tip” and that’s that. We also generally order similarly-priced items, by the virtue of having similar tastes or by the selection of restaurant we go to. However, when it comes to celebratory dinner or drinks events, unless you *really* can’t afford it, everyone should order the same and split the bill. And yes, if someone gets the lobster thermidor (other than the birthday person), then they need to pitch in more money. I’ve generally found that people are pretty honest about their share when they’ve ordered more.

    If you’re going to someplace like Blue Hour (which I loved), I think you should just splurge for that, since it’s a fantasic restaurant, and something that you’re theoretically not doing on a regular basis. Even with close friends, getting the reputation of being “cheap” is dangerous, as they stop asking you to some things. I’ve seen this happen with people I know.

    I see frugal as cutting corners to enable splurging for other things, and cheap as just avoiding any luxury and sacrificing quality (which becomes more expensive in the end). I know some people who just budget for “entertainment” — and this is an expense that could be covered in that.

    As to drinks, what I like to do at posh restaurants, is to have a cocktail and then switch to wine. If there are enough people, a bottle of wine is vastly cheaper than cocktails or wine-by-the-glass, and wine generally is a better match to those kinds of meals.

    I don’t see the occasional trip to a posh restaurant as the time to be frugal. It should be treated as the splurge. It’s just when the splurges outweigh the “regular” expenses that there is a problem.

  28. speedwell says 12 October 2007 at 12:41

    Waiters: We do not eat at a restaurant so you can make money. Surprise! We eat out so we can enjoy ourselves. We are not obliged to order a certain amount of food. We are only obliged to order what we feel like eating. You are not employed to pass judgment on us. You are employed to serve food and drinks. If you serve our food gracefully and with a good attitude, then we will tip you for good service. If you’re surly and nasty and unavailable, we will tip you for bad service. If you don’t follow the rules of good service, we will not pay you at all because we will prefer to go to a place where we can pay the waiters who give us good service.

  29. Patrick says 12 October 2007 at 12:47

    For a typical restaurant, my wife and I usually split a meal for two reasons – because she eats very little and portions are generally too big for her alone, and to save money. Sometimes we will order 1 appetizer and 1 entree.

    If we are celebrating or going to a nicer restaurant, we each order a meal. But we usually skip the appetizer, alcoholic drinks, and desert. This is partially to save money, but also because quite simply – we both can’t eat that much! We typically spend a lot less than our dinner companions.

    For all of you waiters, I usually tip around 20%. So even though my bill was smaller than some of your other customers (because I hate waste and spending on something I don’t need or won’t use), I think I a larger tip helps make up for that.

  30. Sam says 12 October 2007 at 13:20

    On check splitting –
    I’m in a dinner club (group of girlfriends goes out for an upscale (generally) dinner every couple of months to try out different restaurants). We normally split the check equally if each total is within about $10-$12 of each other’s total (this is a club so we have some actual ‘rules’). If someone has ordered something to eat (or drink) that rises above about $10 then we break out the calculator and figure out what is fair.

  31. Sam says 12 October 2007 at 13:25

    Another suggestion, here in Florida you can get some great lower cost meals during the off season (summer) and during season if you go early (yes, the early bird special) at super yummy high end places.

  32. J.D. says 12 October 2007 at 13:35

    Yo, tense food-server types!

    Kris and I both worked several years in food service. We’re well aware of the implications to monopolizing a table, having a small bill, etc. When we receive good service, we tip well. If we receive good service on a busy night when we haven’t ordered much, we tip very well.

    That said, it is your job to serve your customers. It is not your customer’s job to order what you want them to order. It seems pretty arrogant to expect that every customer is going to be able to order big meals. It crosses from arrogance to outright rudeness to intentionally give poor service to people just because they have a small check. That’s pretty damn short-sighted.

    Finally, for those concerned that Kris and I ought to splurge when we go to a nice restaurant: Trust me, we spend a lot on dining out. Too much, in fact. The fact that we were frugal on this one occasion does not imply that we are always frugal. In fact, I think it would benefit us to be frugal more often. Remember, I’m the one who spends more on dining out than on groceries. I have the comic books under control — now I need to focus on food! 🙂

  33. Tim says 12 October 2007 at 13:37

    Maybe it’s because I can afford to pay a few dollars more than what I should, but I’m totally with DJ on the matter of splitting bills.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really understand that someone ask to split the bill evenly if they pay attention to their budget and got a salad when the rest got the T-bone and wine. I don’t think splitting evenly is fair, it’s just convenient.
    But, in my experience, it has been common to see the taxes, tip and in a particular time the shared bottle of sake completely skipped of their subtotal.

    My point is that if you ask for separate amounts, do it properly and *fairly*. Being fair was the goal of detailing in the first place, wasn’t it?

  34. m says 12 October 2007 at 13:37

    ***While I appreciate that waitstaff need to make a living and I understand that they may not prefer those who try to be frugal while dining out, however I don’t consider that reason to change one’s approach, so long as it’s within the reasonable guidelines of the establishment itself.

    (Also, I don’t think one can automatically assume that those who spend less are also dominating tables for excessive time periods. That may or may not be true depending on the particular customer involved. Usually someone who orders just desserts for example is not going to stay anywhere near as long as one who orders a full meal.)

    Some places charge a fee for sharing, some won’t serve just dessert, etc. Some will seat you at the bar, if you are only having drinks and a salad, etc. Those places are making things a little better for their waitstaff financially.

    Some places only offer a many course tasting menu and no a la carte options, or have similar policies that will keep the final bill quite high. I think waitstaff who are incensed by those who are trying to eat out every so often and still live within their means may want to consider working at those types of establishments, where they are basically guaranteed larger tips and don’t have to deal with lingerers who have only shared one dish.

    I think one needs to take responsibility for the profession one is in and has presumably chosen and not hold those who are exercising their right to spend their own money as they see fit responsible for the pay policies of the field they’ve chosen. Of course customers should be courteous as well, as tip adequately, not “hog” the table, etc.

    Holding customers responsible for some of the downsides of the profession, which are known before one even enters the field, does not see fair in my eyes. The employers should be finding ways to make sure their staff is paid fairly, not the customers.

    For example as a teacher I was very lowly paid, worked close to round the clock and had supremely demanding, time consuming “customers” (parents and students).

    Rather than hold my students and their families responsible for my long hours and low pay, since they were demanding my time above and beyond just my regular hours, but in a way that aws reasonable given my job descr., I knew that it would really the system that so poorly compensated and inadequately valued teachers that was to blame, not the students and families. I see this scenario above as being a similar situation.

    In both cases, the pay policies are known before one enters the filed and the customers are following the procedures of the establishment, so the problem is with the field itself and the establishment policies, and not with the customers, who are simply trying to meet their needs in a way that is well within their rights.

    I left teaching when its policies no longer suited me. While I was there I knew that I had chosen to be in that field and thus had to take responsibility for finding a way to accept the policies I couldn’t change and not being resentful of those I was serving who had not created “the system.”

    ***To address another point, about splitting bills, I think this should be addressed among friends, if it’s an issue, before one ever even arrives at the rest.

    If you’re worried about it, I would bring it up before the actual meal. Let your friends know you can attend but can’t afford to if the meal is split evenly rather the by order. Offer to do something else together if this doesn’t work out and explain that you don’t expect people to change how they split the bill just for you but that you simply need to know in advance b/c your budget is tight and you’d like to go but only can if everyone pays for their own order.

    I think, unless it’s a more formal sit. where this conv. would be inappropriate, that’s a decent way to handle it. In a more formal setting where you don’t feel comf. discussing this beforehand, either skip the dinner or be ready to possibly pay more than your share, I think.

    The approach Mariette described can work too. In fact most people I’ve eaten with tend to divide the bill by order not by splitting down the middle. But I still think asking before hand when first making plans might be a way to avoid what might feel awkward if brought up at dinner itself.

    But depending on who you’re with either way can work. From what I’ve seen, most people are sensitive enough that if they order full meals and drinks and see that one person only got an appetizer, they are going to suggest paying according to order.

    ***This what a great topic, and though I don’t always follow it myself (since I rarely drink otherwise, and thus like having champagne when we go out for a special occasion), I think one of the best tips is no drinks. Those, esp. alcoholic ones, usually add a lot to the bill.

    Also many high end rest. offer their own tray of sweets at the end of the meal so often ordering dessert won’t even be necessary anyway if you are satisfied with the small assortment of complimentary sweets.

  35. Monica says 12 October 2007 at 13:49

    “There have been times when my dinner companions have eaten upwards to $100-$200 worth of food (each!!) and they expect to split the bill evenly between everybody. Without being a jerk, do you know of a good way to tactfully to get out of paying too much?”

    When you order, say “separate cheques, please”.

  36. speedwell says 12 October 2007 at 14:13

    Adding to what J.D. says: My fiance and I eat out every day. We have favorite places where we get treated like honored friends because we know how to mind our manners, we recognize when a server is having a hard time that isn’t their fault, we help the waiter by discreetly letting the manager know when a dish is not up to a place’s usual high standards (we always tell the manager we know it is not the waiter’s fault), and we tip plenty well for decent or better service.

    We also have places we avoid altogether because when we first went in, tired, hungry, depressed, and/or not dressed well enough, we got treated like something scraped from a shoe bottom. We ate at such a place yesterday, and although we did leave a tip, that establishment and that waiter will not get a dime more of our money.

  37. Mariette says 12 October 2007 at 15:03

    When I linger for a long time in a restaurant that’s busy then I tend to tip more as an acknowledgement that I may have been monopolizing a table and therefore screwing up the waiters’ planned tips for the eve.

    For all you New Yorkers or those planning to go there – Babbo is great for a really nice meal where they don’t treat you “as if you’re something scraped off a shoe bottom” if you’re dressed more casually and the staff doesn’t have a lot of ‘tude. Reserve far in advance though as the wait lists can be up to 2 months long for weekends.

  38. Money Blue Book says 12 October 2007 at 15:38

    Frankly, I don’t see the point of going cheap or frugal when you eat out.

    The whole premise of eating out (particularly at a fancy restaurant) is that you are there to enjoy yourselves and live it up a little. What is the point of eating something before going out to the fancy restaurant? If you are afraid of spending too much, then you definitely should not be eating at such a fancy place then.

    I eat in as often as I can so that I can save as much as I can, such that when I am going to eat out at a nice place that I don’t need to be so frugal.

    -Raymond

  39. Jordan says 12 October 2007 at 15:40

    My friends and I have never run into the problem with splitting the bill. Each of us knows what we orders and put money in for that amount + tip. The only time we have had to re-count the money was when we ended up with like 40+ extra so we looked to see who over paid. It was a 300+ bill so we just added it to the tip because the wait staff did a great job.

    I Guess it just depends on who you are dining out with. Id have no problem with someone saying “hey I only ate 10 bucks worth of food why am i paying 50” I would never expect someone to pay for my part of a meal just and I think to assume “friends split it evenly” is being rude and selfish. I’m glad my friends are like some of these commentors, its nice knowing we each handle our part of the bill.

  40. Jordan says 12 October 2007 at 15:47

    @Daniel

    Yes, blame the customers, as i’m sure its not that charming attitude you just showed that gets you bad tips.

    Good wait staff get great tips from me. I don’t tip a percentage of a meal, I tip for good service, because I know that its just as much work to carry that cup of coffee as it is to carry my steak. You shouldn’t assume someone spending little on their food is going to stiff you on a tip. And if you think you aren’t paid enough…go get another job that pays a salary then you wont have to worry about tips at all.

  41. Beth says 12 October 2007 at 16:44

    The most important thing thing in my experience: be on the same page with your companions.

    I’ve found that when just my husband and I go out, it’s much easier to keep to my budget if I tell him as we’re getting out of the car how much I’m looking to spend. (Our income roughly divides out to him paying for day-to-day necessities and me paying for debt reduction, investments, and pleasures, so I am The Boss in this regard.) I can have as much fun with a “spending money is a little tight but we need some fun” $70 dinner as I can with a “just got a big commission check, let’s party!” $120 dinner at the same restaurant – but boy, if I’m sitting there stressing about the bill while he’s buying appetizers and Scotch, nobody’s having fun. It’s a little tougher but possible to gracefully do the same thing with friends or co-workers – I like to look up online or newspaper restaurant reviews with a prospective meal companion, and pre-emptively suggest places in my price range. (I try to avoid spur-of-the-moment meal dates if I can at all get out of it – I’ll drop $15 on coffee because I ran into you at the post office after not seeing you for six months, but not $40 on lunch.) Going out, after all, is almost never truly economical – the whole point of it is the pleasure, so if I’m going to be all stressy and miserable, there’s no reason to go at all.

  42. SR says 12 October 2007 at 17:50

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned: higher-priced restaurants tend to serve smaller portions.

    So, using the excuse of an entree is “just too much food for one person” is often invalid. When the ingredients are higher quality, the portion size generally lowers. Posh is much different than Denny’s.

  43. devil says 12 October 2007 at 18:28

    I agree w/Raymond – if you’re cheap, don’t eat out in the first place. It’s bad for your wallet and your waistline anyway.

    What’s really sad is that people these days consider eating food a form of entertainment. Especially Americans, who live to eat rather than eat to live.

    The food all winds up in the sewer, anyway, so why not just eat a healthful meal at home? With the money you save you can afford to invite all your friends over to share a good supper and they’ll probably bring some drinks, too.

    Just an idea…

  44. m says 12 October 2007 at 19:32

    In response to the very logical “separate checks” advice–many restaurants have a policy against issuing separate checks. Which I think is prob. why the question was asked in the first place.

  45. RJ says 12 October 2007 at 20:34

    Once in a while I go out with a couple of friends who prefer just to split the bill. They both order very expensive dinners and several drinks, and I tend to be more moderate. When my general calculations lead me to think that I should be paying $15 instead of $25 or $30, I just say something like, “I how about if I just leave $15, since I really didn’t have too much tonight; you two can split the difference between yourselves.” That’s worked fine for me.

    (Side note: I’ve noticed that one the guys tends to tip at only 10%, and at potlucks he always brings a $5 bottle of wine and then consumes someone else’s expensive microbrews. I don’t feel bad in the least about only paying my share at meals.)

    If you want to be a little more edgy about it, you can always just hand over what you owe (have the denominations ready in advance) and sorrowfully say “Oh gosh, I didn’t realize we were going to split it evenly–I only ordered with my disposable cash in mind.”

    My partner, before I met him, used to go to restaurant meals with a social group once a month. He always wound up subisidizing other peoples’ meals because he only ordered a glass of wine and pasta when other folks ordered two martinis, an app, and rack of lamb. Well, one night, he turned the tables and ordered an app, filet mignon, dessert, two glasses of wine…. and everyone split the bill….and he could tell that *they* were not happy with him.

    As far as I’m concerned, in most cases, just “pay what you think you owe,” and be responsible for your consumption.

  46. Andrea >> Become a Consultant says 12 October 2007 at 20:36

    What’s with this splitting bills? When you’re seated, just tell the server you want separate bills. At the end, they present you with a nice summary of costs for each “seat”. No calculators, no anger over splitting, no concerns about who owes what. And you can pay by whatever method you want. This is extremely common where I live…even at higher end restaurants. I’ve never seen a server even blink at the request, as long as you mention it when you sit down.

  47. RJ says 12 October 2007 at 20:40

    As far as high-end dining goes, I prefer to do so very rarely (once every three or four months), but I splurge a little bit when I do. After all, I would hope that part of the point is to try new ingredients and interesting recipes, to ramp up the culinary experience a bit.

    Also, it’s often better to go to a high-end place for lunch, when applicable. Lunches tend to be less expensive, wines-by-the-glass have better turnover in some places, and some restaurants have a lunch prix-fixe menu so you can sample a variety of foods at relatively low cost.

  48. Lane says 12 October 2007 at 20:43

    I belong to a group of friends, where we save up our money to go to one of several high-end steak houses in town (I’m also from Portland). When I go, I seriously treat myself, but I do think about how best to spend the money I saved.

    Do I want to start with a beer or a cocktail? Typically I splurge on the cocktail, because I typically have a beer everywhere else.

    Does the Lobster Bisque appetizer sound better than the Chocolate Lava cake? I know that I’ll really only be able to eat one of the two in addition to the Steak, Starch, and Veggies.

    Do I really want a glass of wine with my steak? Typically yes, because there is nothing better than a big Cabernet with a perfectly cooked steak (rare, by the way)

    Which cut of steak do I want? I typically get the New York, but I’ve been known to order a Porterhouse for a bit more money. At the price good steak houses charge for their steaks, the price difference isn’t that much; plus I typically get to take home an excellent cut of Fillet after eating the Strip.

    At the end of the night I’ve dropped a load of cash (always cash, never card, to control my spending) but what a great meal and a great dinner with friends.

  49. Daniel says 12 October 2007 at 21:20

    Wait a table and then judge.

    Hat tip to M for the thoughtful response.

    I am a professional. You would never know my displeasure with you or your 21.00 PPA. You would just never know what special wine by the glass would go perfectly with your tortellini, or get any of the lagniappe.

    Fine dining is about the sizzle and the steak.

    It would serve everyone well to wait tables once in their lives. It is a lesson in humility as well as the finer things in life.

    Those who responded curtly, just don’t get it. I serve, I am not a servant. Throw your lucre around in some formulaic, corporate mallurant; at least there the service will match your outlook.

  50. Amber says 13 October 2007 at 00:00

    Daniel-

    The problem with your thoughts- and the general server “categorization” of diners- is that it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    My husband and I, while professionals (and previous servers), look like college students. This particular group is almost always looked down upon as “bad tippers” which is not helped by our ordering habits, as sometimes all we want is apps and water.

    The problem in this case is that, as former servers, we are more than happy to tip upwards of 70 to 80% for fabulous service, and have several times over the last six years we’ve been together (although 30-40% is where we tend to settle). However, if we’re completely ignored (which has happened more times than I care to count) we are also more than happy to cover what we imagine the tip-out of a table will be, and not a penny more. (We’ve mostly heard 3%, which goes to bartenders and hosts, for those not familiar- which is why leaving 2 cents or nothing at all is particularly mean- you’re making the server pay for the privilege of serving you. However, we also tend to eat at steak houses, so don’t worry about lecturing me on the tip-out procedures at fancy restaurants.)

    The problem, as you can see, is that by assuming the outcome and giving bad service (or noticeably less than stellar), the servers are only creating the very atmosphere they have assumed will happen. And by leaving an appropriate tip for their level of attention, we’re only enforcing their beliefs.

    Of course, we always try to speak with a manager in certain cases- but I’m sure we both know that doesn’t do much good. The wait staff I’ve known and endured were very much an “in-one-ear” group, and not predisposed to changing the racist and ageist assumptions that they’ve developed and cling to like a security blanket.

  51. Monica says 13 October 2007 at 04:59

    I’ve never heard of a restaurant refusing separate cheques! How annoying. I live in Canada though. When I go out for a meal with 20 colleagues, we get separate cheques without even asking for them, just as a matter of course. And often when I go out with my husband we are asked if we want separate cheques.

  52. Daniel says 13 October 2007 at 05:28

    @Monica:

    Where I live (NC, USA), it is common for a restaurant to refuse separate checks for parties of 6 or more.

    PS – there are 2 “Daniel”s on here – perhaps one of us should use a different moniker.

  53. Mike says 13 October 2007 at 05:29

    Great tips! I regularly have dinner with a friend who drinks a bit (I don’t drink), and so we deduct the cost of the drink(s) then split the rest of the cost (we usually eat similarly priced entrees) and he throws in a few more bucks for the extra tax/tip.

    Another thing is in NYC they have Restaurant Week where expensive well-known restaurants will offer a prix-fixe for some pre-arranged price (this year it was 20.07) — you have to make reservations a bit ahead of schedule, but it’s a great way to try some of these restaurants that don’t fit my eating out bill, and you get the full appetizer, entree, dessert.

  54. SAHM-CFO says 13 October 2007 at 05:40

    DH and I have often noticed that an appetiser and drinks would be enough for us (usually after we ate the appetiser and are full but still waiting for the entree) We’ve decided that if we return to restaurants where we noticed this, we’ll get drinks and apps at the bar to leave a table open for full meals.

    About sharing bills, I won’t go out to dinner with people other than my DH unless we are being treated by family or we are treating someone else. It’s just too annoying. I order very little and would get the evil eye when I wanted to pay my share only.

    I was in a club that rotated meetings at area restaurants, I quit the club b/c of this silly check splitting business.

  55. Laura says 13 October 2007 at 05:49

    Just went out last night to a very nice steak place. The waiter asked us if we wanted the check together or separate.

    Last week we went out for a retirement party with over 20 something people and we had 12 separate checks! Before we got in, it was discussed that the server would be tipped graciously. We personally gave 40% tip. We didn’t order a huge meal, we split and entree and had a large sampler appetizer. Others had a full meal. Waitress was happy and we had a great time with our food.

  56. Brad says 13 October 2007 at 12:25

    I am quite frugal, but i think that when going out to eat one should eat as much as one likes and truly enjoy it, rather than worry about saving (too) much money. I like to enjoy everything about the restaurant- ambience, drinks, entrees, desserts.

    For Daniel- your attitude is awful. I was a server, years ago, and hated the job. I respect anyone who can do it well and with a smile on their face. I tip well. However, it is not your job to judge the customers based on what they eat and how much money you perceive you will make. They are not there to ensure you make the maximum amount of money. Plus, you never know- that couple eating appetizers and drinking water might tip well, and the couple ordering expensive meals might be tightwads who don’t respect the service and tip poorly.

  57. guinness416 says 14 October 2007 at 11:12

    I might use all of this advice when having to go to a chain or mid-range restaurant, a local place we go often, or an unknown quantity. But for my definition of swanky – world class, well regarded, big city places – we always plan to enjoy ourselves to the fullest. It’s one of those “life’s too short” issues, but I know that not everyone values food and drink like we do.

    A number of people have mentioned “friends” who shirk on the split bill, or don’t leave their share of the tip and just shrug. Which has happened to me too. That speaks volumes to me about the type of person they are. And they won’t be dining with me again.

  58. oklagirl says 14 October 2007 at 21:57

    I’m a professional server, and I love dining out. I don’t have a problem with any of the ideas JD mentioned. In fact, they are all perfectly fine at my restaurant (and I work at the classiest restaurant in my area). Yes, it can be expensive, but you can have the experience without the huge price.
    The only other tip I would add is to ‘make your situation known to the staff.’ If it’s your prom night, and you only have $100 for dinner, talk to the person handling your reservation. Are you new in town and just want to check us out? Cool, I can even tell you about my favorite after-dinner bar. Do you have a party of twenty that will all need separate checks? Make that point when making your reservation, so that management and your server will have a heads up (and you ARE making a reservation if you have twenty people all needing separate checks, RIGHT???) This all saves the embarrassment of trying to handle it without your dinner companions knowing, flustering your server, etc. We do this all the time for corporate parties, which are the bulk of our business. There are actually companies whose function is to set up these reservations…and what they do is ask questions about prices and the menu, follow a budget per person/per party, and handle the billing. Our reservation sheet will actually have notations for the servers that say things like “$100 per person MAX (and we know that means tax and tip, too), no lobster, house wines only, no features, $500 minimum” etc. If it’s good enough for Merck and EdwardJones, why not you?

    No one at my restaurant has a problem with splitting apps, salads, entrees, or desserts. We’ll even plate them separately in the kitchen, so that it comes out looking like a regular portion. It helps me out when guests tell me their price range on a wine, so I’m not wasting all our time with too expensive bottles. You don’t have to be obnoxious about it (‘whoa, look at these prices!’), just communicate effectively.
    Thanks to all you great tippers out there! I appreciate that you realize that it’s just as much work to carry out coffee as it is a steak (actually more work at my place, because the kitchen plates the steak, but I have to brew the coffee, warm the cup, heat the cream, and plate it 🙂

  59. JB says 15 October 2007 at 11:24

    Great post. My husband and I have used some of these tools.

    For example, our favorite restaurant near our home is a high end restaurant where you could easily spent $100+ per person if you factored in drinks, appetizers, entrees and dessert (it is comparable to a Ruth’s Chris’s–actually it used to be a Ruth Chris, but then was bought by a private owner). Fortunately, occassionally there are some gift certificates available on restaurant.com. We stocked up on the certificates during a 60% off sale at restaurant.com, so we were able to get $25 certificates for $4. The minimum purchase is $35 to use the gift certificate. We have figured out several menu variations, through combinations of appetizers, soups, salads, split entrees etc., that total $35-40. After the gift certificate we paying about $20-25 out of pocket including taxes and a 20% tip for a meal that is far superior to what you could get for $20 at any chain restaurant and a much more enjoyable atmosphere/ambiance.

    We still try to limit our eating out, but if we’re going to, we’d rather carefully plan a meal at a nicer restaurant than to waste our dining dollars at a run-of-the mill chain.

  60. Safrican says 16 October 2007 at 04:56

    Hi

    I’ve always been curious about how the tip percentage should be calculated. In South Africa (where I stay) we used to tip 10% but over the years the percentage has increased to 15% 20% etc. My question is why this should be so if the restaurant is already increasing their prices on the food and beverages served as this means that the server receives an “increase” whenever the establishment’s prices change?

  61. RR says 16 October 2007 at 14:35

    I have to agree with those who’ve said that servers assumptions create a self-fulfilling prophecy. I often go out with girlfriends, and we just can’t eat much, we’ll often share something. The bill will be low, trust me, but we have all worked service before and understand the work, and how hard it is and thus we do tip well, often >20%, especially if our bill is on the low side.

    What I’d like to know is, how to communicate that to the waitstaff at the start of the meal? I mean, I know the old saw about the guy who calls himself a “big tipper” but only leaves a couple of bucks, so I don’t want to say something which might backfire.

    I guess what it comes down to is, don’t make assumptions. Don’t assume the family will tip badly, or the two ladies together or the woman dining alone. Give us the benefit of the doubt and the good service.

    Good tips!

  62. Maxine says 16 October 2007 at 21:24

    As an ex-waitress, to be honest, you do judge people on how much they spend. That’s just a fact whether you like it or not. But it’s just one of the criteria along with their general attitude and so forth. And unless a patron is being a real dick, the judgement consists more of fleeting thoughts rather than a deeply held opinion you consciously act on.

    Having the attitude that people should only eat out if they plan to spend heaps of money is just as bad as the attitude that servers exist to serve only and should shut up & be opinion-free, both of which appear to be getting an airing.

    I do think that going to a fine dining restaurant and being frugal is contradictory and counter-productive – sorry JD. That’s like going to a funfair, riding the carousel only and avoiding the rollercoasters to save money.

  63. Jodie says 18 October 2007 at 09:19

    Great tips! We use restaurant.com for great deals on nice places we wouldn’t ordinarily go. It makes a big difference to get the the price of an entree (or more) shaved right off the top of the bill. We’re pretty big on leftovers too; why just have dinner when you can have dinner AND lunch (or breakfast)? All in all, I think there are smart ways to go to a fancy place without overspending.

  64. Mrs. Micah says 19 November 2007 at 11:25

    If I spend less on food, I can afford to tip more. There you have it, waitstaff. If I can’t afford to tip nicely, I don’t eat out or I do fast food.

    But if you treat me like crap because I didn’t spend much–you may be getting a very sorry little tip. Not because I’m a cheapskate but because you did a godawful job of it (and it has to be pretty bad for me not to leave at least 15%, which is what I leave for mediocre service).

  65. locust point man says 27 March 2008 at 07:23

    I’ve been reading this blog for a while and wanted to add something. A lot of bars and restaurants have special nights where drinks and sometimes food are a lot cheaper. I run a site for Baltimore, MD residents that keeps track of all the current specials, happy hours and the like. If you stick to the special and don’t order extra stuff, this is a great way to save some money!

    http://www.baltimorespecials.com

  66. Am says 06 April 2008 at 05:13

    “The wait staff I’ve known and endured were very much an “in-one-ear” group, and not predisposed to changing the racist and ageist assumptions that they’ve developed and cling to like a security blanket.”

    Sadly, as one of my coworkers pointed out, they are stereotypes because they are true. While I treat everyone the same (not EVERY person in a particular group is a poor tipper), it isn’t unrealistic for people to come up with an assumption when a particular outcome results 85% of the time. It doesn’t have anything to do with the service in general, just the person’s perception of what an acceptable tip is.

  67. Iris says 27 May 2008 at 06:38

    I refused to go out with a particular friend. She does not cook, so she eats out consistently. We take turns in paying the bill, but she normally would order the entire menu from several alcoholic drinks in addition to another beverage such as sweet tea, to an appetizer, to a dinner entree to dessert. I, on the other hand, is a light eater and is satisfied with just water (I don’t drink alcohol or sodas) and an appetizer or a small entree. In the end, her meal cost about $60 whereas mine only cost $25. This friend makes over $100,000, which is considerably much higher than my salary, but expects me to pay her meals. Cheap bastard!

    By the way, just because I order water and a small meal (I eat light) doesn’t mean I’m a bad tipper. In fact, I tip well when the service is great.

  68. Marilina Fernandez says 19 May 2009 at 07:33

    I love to eat out. My husband and I save money by doing a few things. We eat out for lunch instead of dinner and we eat at ethnic restaurants which tend to be cheaper. I think that if you’re eating with “friends” that expect you to cover their $100 meal and you only had $30 meal then they aren’t your friends. Also I hate rude servers. If I go to a restaurant where the server is rude I’m not going to tip you and if the restaurant is willing to do something simple as split a check for me I won’t return. And all those waiters I usually order the cheaper dish so I know I HAVE enough money for your tip! I always figure out tip when I’m ordering so don’t assume I’m not going to tip you. If I don’t tip you it’s because you’re rude or you ignore my table.

  69. Babs says 25 June 2009 at 12:57

    I have a friend who was a server in a high end restaurant. A big group of us were together Apres Ski for drinks. The first time the server came to our table to take our orders Jess handed her several bucks. This was an indication that the more she came to our table to serve us the more she would make. I have never gotten better service. “Tips” means “to insure prompt service”. I can’t think of a better way to do that than to start out at the beginning.
    Oklagirl has a lot of great ideas also.

  70. tina says 20 March 2010 at 19:50

    me and my daughter eat out every day because i dont cook i leave a tip when approprate to do so because i dont want to come next time and get less then best service on the other hand i thank if it is reall bad service and you did not get the attention to your table that was need you should not tip and not eat there again that just my oppenion and i eat out alot and not a mcdonalds either

  71. Evelyn says 14 January 2011 at 20:17

    @ Daniel (#50)

    Tell me about the special wine and maybe I WILL give you a big tip because it was so tasty.

  72. Leah says 14 January 2011 at 21:13

    If you know you take leftovers home often, I suggest bringing your own tupperware. I have a nifty tupperware container that can collapse. I keep it in my purse when we go out to dinner, and I can then pack up leftovers. It doesn’t save any money, but it does save a bit of trash. I also find my tupperware is less likely to leak than cheaper takeout containers, and that does save me time.

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