Fine Dining on a Take-Out Budget

Are you looking for a first-rate meal on a take-out budget? Head over to your local culinary school for a great meal at a low price.

Nearly all culinary schools have student-run restaurants, which are opened to the public practically every day school is in session. Since the chefs are at the cutting edge of culinary science, the restaurants offer an innovative assortment of gourmet food at student friendly prices. In layman’s terms, these restaurants offer terrific food at dirt cheap prices. Lunch at your local culinary school will set you back $6 or $7, and a three-course lunch at a nationally recognized school will cost $15-$20.

Culinary schools, however, aren’t the only places to score a great meal with out breaking the bank. Most universities, colleges, and vocational schools with culinary or hospitality management programs also have student-run restaurants. Thanks to larger campus populations, these restaurants are typically open for a combination of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For example, at one large, Southern university, the student-run campus restaurant offers a full breakfast buffet for $5 and a three-course lunch (including drink) for $6.95. Every month, they also host a themed five-course dinner for $15.

If you’re adventurous enough, culinary school meals are also a great way to enjoy fine dining while traveling abroad. When I lived in London, there was a world famous culinary school two blocks down the road from us. Every few weeks, we enjoyed a five course meal, with selected wines, for £10 (about $15 at the time).

More than likely, there are culinary schools or hospitality management programs with student-run restaurants in your area. Fire up your search engine or flip through your phone book to find them! Call them for hours and prices. Also, if you’re looking for catering for a special event, some of the larger culinary and hospitality management programs offer catering services at drastically reduced prices.


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Guest's picture

Great idea on the Culinary school, I used to go to a hair dresser's school to get super cheap hair cuts.

Also, you all should highlight mystery shopping. I have done it for 10 years and my family and I eat out will little to cost for us. It is fun, it is easy (except at the beginning - there is a lot of work on the front end to fill out forms and applications) and a family can eat out with out busting the budget.

Jessica Harp's picture

I hadn't thought about mystery shopping!  I'll have to add it to my list of ideas!  I already have an article in the works on haircuts at beauty schools... =)

Do you mind if I ask what mystery shopping company you use?   


Andrea Karim's picture

 <rant>Oh, man. I signed up to do that a while back. I was assigned to go to a bank and pretend that I had all kind of inheritance money that I needed to invest. I called the bank and set up an appointment, and then the lady called and had to delay because her mother was sick. Then her mom died, and she had to delay again because she was in charge of the funearl arrangements.

By the time she was ready to meet with me, I felt so bad about the entire thing (lying and wasting her time, even though I know it was her bank that set up the whole thing to test their own service) that I just couldn't go through with it.

But they never offered me a restaurant!!!


Julie, thanks for posting this. We have a local culinary school in Seattle that offers incredible meals at great prices. The only downside is that their hours can be wacky, but it's worth making the effort to go.

Julie Rains's picture

It was Jessica (not me, Julie). Btw, I have tried culinary schools and mystery shopping. Thanks for the reminder about the culinary experience -- some coworkers and I did this when we worked close to a community college many years ago (though reservations could be hard to come by). Still I should try it again though the one that's nearest to me know is 30 miles or so away.

Also, I have tried the mystery shopping. I completed a training assignment at a retail store and everything was fine and the next assignment I was supposed to be paid for. But then I was told to go on another training assignment, this time at a bank for no compensation. Perhaps if I would have gone on that one (I pointed out to the owner that I had completed their requirements as outlined to me when I signed up), I would have actually gotten paid at some point but I didn't stick around.

Guest's picture

My alma mater had a culinary school, and it turned out to be a nice way to get a fancy meal at college persons price. I would endorse the experience, although the atmosphere wasn't top knotch.

- The Happy Rock

Andrea Karim's picture

Now that we have three J names blogging for us, I will refer to all of you as 'J' to avoid any further embarrassing mishaps. Sorry. :)

Guest's picture

I wish our local culinary school had a full time restaurant. My family would be frequent visitors. Another thing to watch out for are open houses and special events. Our local school does do both of these. Open houses usually provide a wide selection of appetizers and some local wineries occasionally donate wine for tasting. Our local school only does full meals for special events like fund raisers, but they put on a nice party with some good food at a good price.

Guest's picture

California School for Culinary Arts in Pasadena CA has 2 restaurants, the cafe has sandwiches and pastries all the time and hot food at certain hours (sort of odd times due to class schedules) You will get a really nice meal for short money...the Bistro is NOT super cheap, but the quality is equal to that of any of the fancy places in LA and you will pay less than if you were at Spago or Providence.

Both are totally worth checking out.

(CSCA class of 07 :)

Guest's picture

I was a mystery shopper for several years and finally gave it up - it just wasn't worth it to me. The restaurants tended to be places like Hooters and Steak 'n Shake, and shops were inconsistent. If you really like to shop and have lots of free time, it may be for you but it just wasn't worth the amount of time it took, in my opinion.

Guest's picture

Hint: Call first to check where in the training cycle the students are -- you'll get much better service at the end of a training cycle than at the beginning of the cycle. (The Cordon Bleu school near me has a 6-week cycle.) So if you're taking someone there for a special dinner or lunch, try to make it at the end, so that food timing is perfect and service fluid. Usually there is a trainer walking around helping the servers and making sure your meal is a good one, and we weren't allowed to tip, so our dinner was $40 each (we had wine pairings for each course, which added to the price).

Guest's picture

What company is doing mystery shops for Steak n Shake now? It used to be Feedback Plus, but they no longer seem to offer them!

Guest's picture

Sometimes you have made your limit of shops and have to wait until the next quarter.

Guest's picture

Most of the culinary schools prepare students to get good positions in the culinary, service and hospitality industry. They offer exclusive culinary courses that are well designed and structured and help students to explore about the subject.