7 Tricks for Enjoying Fine Dining on a Budget

By Laurel Randolph on 25 February 2015 2 comments

There's nothing quite like a luxurious meal that's carefully made, served to you under romantic lighting, and placed onto a fresh white tablecloth. Sadly, the price can be prohibitive for many of us, and instead we end up spending our night with takeout and a bottle of $5 wine (not that there's anything wrong what that!). (See also: 8 Swanky Sauces to Glamorize Dinner)

The good news is that armed with a few tips, you can enjoy fine dining without emptying out your savings. As always, a good place to start is the Internet: Pick a few restaurants you are interested in and look up their websites, reviews, and local publications. There you can find some valuable information, like a sample of prices, what meals they serve, what kind of dishes they offer, and if they have any special deals. Keep an eye out for coupons on deal sites and seasonal events like Restaurant Week. And be sure take a look at the following seven hacks for an enjoyable dining experience without the bummer ending.

1. Go for Lunch

Many fine dining establishments are also open for lunch, and while some just serve a smaller menu of the dishes they serve for dinner at the same price, others offer some real deals.

Bouley, a well-known and well-loved restaurant in New York City, is known for their tasting menus. Their dinner version is six courses and costs a cool $185, while their five-course lunch version is $55. It may not have all of the same flourishes, but you are still eating a fancy pants tasting menu at Bouley without having to take out a second mortgage.

Blackbird, a celebrated spot in Chicago, offers a lunch prix fixe that is $25 for three courses, which is cheaper than most of their single dinner entrees. They also offer a complete lunch menu that runs half the price of their dinner menu. Check out your restaurant of choice's menus and compare lunch and dinner to see if they offer midday bargains.

2. Go on a Weeknight

Not surprisingly, Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest times at all restaurants, let alone the really nice ones. Some establishments offer discounts or special (cheaper) menus on weekdays, especially Monday through Wednesday — Tuesday is statistically the least busy day for restaurants. Call or check a restaurant's website to find out if they offer weekday deals. City publications also like to do articles about such deals, like this round-up of Weekday Dinner Deals in LA.

Little Dom's, a popular Italian spot in Los Angeles that frequently serves celebrities, offers a $15 three-course family-style dinner on Monday nights along with drink specials. Just an entree can run up to $30 on a normal night, making a Monday night reservation a no-brainer.

3. Eat at the Bar

Restaurants don't just put a bar in their upscale dining rooms so that the liquor and bartender have someplace to hang out — it also adds seating without taking up as much room as tables. To reward you for sitting elbow to elbow with your stranger neighbors, many places offer bar specials, happy hours, or even an entire menu only available at the bar.

Spago is Wolfgang Puck's restaurant in Beverly Hills and is highly regarded by eaters and critics alike. The bill can easily surpass $100-200 per person even at lunch, but luckily they have a bar with it's own "bar bites" menu. Go during happy hour from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. and order a drink and some "bites" and relish in the fact that you're sitting in Spago without maxing out your credit card. Call your local fine dining spots and see if they have similar deals. Be sure to mention that you want to eat at the bar when making your reservation.

4. BYOB

While some fine dining spots are pushing their 15-page wine lists, others are becoming more open-minded. A surprising number of restaurants are offering BYOB now, even if they offer wine.

Goosefoot, largely hailed as one of the best restaurants in Chicago, permits BYOB with just a $10 corkage fee. The food will still cost you a pretty penny, but you'll save big bucks on your drinks while eating top-notch food. Look for articles about BYOB spots in your city, or call and ask about a restaurant's policy. Then do a little math and compare their drink prices with bringing your own plus the corkage fee. The numbers are often in your favor!

5. Don't Buy $50 Leftovers

Finally time to order? Take a look around. What are people ordering? How big are the portions for appetizers and entrees? How much food are they ordering? Pay attention to the details and it will help prevent over-ordering and a $50 leftover situation. Make a plan with your fellow diners and share dishes so that everyone can try more things without over-ordering.

6. Hold That Drink Order

All wait staff is trained to ask for your drink order immediately, or even offer you a drink while you wait for a table. While there is nothing wrong with this policy, since you might be thirsty or might actually want a drink, they also do it in hopes that you'll order more drinks as the night goes on. Start early and you can easily be a drink in before you even order your food. Alcohol charges can add up quickly, so hold that drink order until you order food and enjoy your wine with the meal. Or, if you're a digestif fan, wait for dessert. If you don't want to give up that pre-dinner drink, pregame at home or at a lower-priced bar. It can also help to make a drink limit for yourself at the beginning of the night and stick to it.

7. Skip the Extras

Or, to really save money, don't order drinks at all. Drink orders can easily double your bill since alcohol typically has the highest mark-up at restaurants. You came for the food anyway, right? Plus, more alcohol equals more spending in more ways than one: a tipsy diner is more likely to order whatever they please and be surprised at their credit card bill later. If the restaurant isn't known for their desserts, then skip that, too, and grab some of your favorite ice cream on the way home instead. It will extend your fun night and save you an extra $10-$20.

How do you enjoy fine dining for less?

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Guest's picture
Rachael

Our local community college has a culinary school which offers five-course gourmet meals for $35 per person. Also, it is BYOB. So people should contact culinary schools in their area to see which meals are open to the public.

Laurel Randolph's picture

Great idea, Rachael!