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.

More about...Food, Frugality

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plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

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

Daniel
Daniel
12 years ago

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,… Read more »

AnnieJ
AnnieJ
12 years ago

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.

SG
SG
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Dave
Dave
12 years ago

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.*

Cat
Cat
12 years ago

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.

m.g.
m.g.
12 years ago

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.

bozemblem
bozemblem
12 years ago

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?

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

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… Read more »

DJ
DJ
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Xias
Xias
12 years ago

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!

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

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… Read more »

MoneyChangesThings
MoneyChangesThings
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Modern Worker
Modern Worker
12 years ago

10 buck cocktail? Yowza!

rstlne
rstlne
12 years ago

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.

Velvet Jones
Velvet Jones
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Laura
Laura
12 years ago

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.)

Fox Cutter
Fox Cutter
12 years ago

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.

jay s
jay s
12 years ago

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… Read more »

ClickerTrainer
ClickerTrainer
12 years ago

@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.

Patrick
Patrick
12 years ago

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… Read more »

NormalDude
NormalDude
12 years ago

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.

Daniel
Daniel
12 years ago

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… Read more »

MonkeyMonk
MonkeyMonk
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Mariette
Mariette
12 years ago

“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… Read more »

mahalie
mahalie
12 years ago

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… Read more »

SR
SR
12 years ago

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,… Read more »

speedwell
speedwell
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Patrick
Patrick
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Sam
Sam
12 years ago

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.

Sam
Sam
12 years ago

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.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Tim
Tim
12 years ago

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… Read more »

m
m
12 years ago

***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… Read more »

Monica
Monica
12 years ago

“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”.

speedwell
speedwell
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Mariette
Mariette
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Money Blue Book
Money Blue Book
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Jordan
Jordan
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Jordan
Jordan
12 years ago

@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… Read more »

Beth
Beth
12 years ago

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… Read more »

SR
SR
12 years ago

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.

devil
devil
12 years ago

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…

m
m
12 years ago

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.

RJ
RJ
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Andrea >> Become a Consultant
Andrea >> Become a Consultant
12 years ago

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.

RJ
RJ
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Lane
Lane
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Daniel
Daniel
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Amber
Amber
12 years ago

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… Read more »

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