For obvious reasons, many of us are trying to cut back on our spending right now—and when looking for ways to economize, forgoing trips to restaurants and bars is an obvious place to start. And yet that doesn’t mean dining out is fully off the table by any means. On the contrary, when the world’s as bleak as it is right now, coming together over food and drink is arguably even more important, and eating out doesn’t have to break the bank. It’s simply a question of knowing where to go and what to order. Here, find nine tips from food industry insiders to get you started.
Make “less but often” your motto
Eating out doesn’t necessarily have to mean saving up for weeks on end. “What hospitality needs is people,” says Sabrina Gidda, author of Modern South Asian Cooking. “It needs you out and about, even if you’re spending less.” Less but often means more to the restaurants you love – and often to your wellbeing and relationships, too. Cheap local joints can be as romantic as any candlelit dining room, she points out. “One of my husband and mine’s greatest luxuries is to go to an amazing B.Y.O.B. Punjabi restaurant in south London, and have a nice bottle of wine and some kebabs,” she says. “It’s a date night for us—and the bill is $30.”
Treat yourself, by yourself
You don’t have to be a high-flying businessman in a suit to dine solo; you just need a book and a ten-dollar note. A glass of wine and a bar snack on your way home from work provides much of the feeling of having been “out” at a fraction of the cost. Like getting your nails done, says Sabrina, it’s “an independent act of self-love”.
Limit your alcohol intake rather than cutting booze out altogether
Of course, not drinking reduces the bill. You know that. I acknowledge that, however reluctantly. But you know what also reduces the bill? Savvy drinking. I believe the correct term is mindful drinking, but that is far too reminiscent of yoga for me to connect it with booze, so I’m going with savvy. It means thinking about what you love, and how best to savor it. Is it an aperitif? Then make that your splurge item. Find the best possible version—leading restaurant PR Hugh Richard Wright advises seeking a good bar out first—then, once you’re at your chosen restaurant, stick to nonalcoholic drinks.
If wine is your poison of choice, then look for places with corkage, which is different to B.Y.O.B. “You bring your own nice bottle of wine, then pay a small fee to cover the loss the restaurant makes from you not drinking theirs,” he says. Another good tip: avoid carafes. “I’ve never ordered a carafe and not ended up ordering one more glass, by which point you might as well have ordered a bottle.”
Do consider choosing one blindingly great glass of wine over several good ones, too. “If you’re a wine lover, having one nice glass is a good way of cutting down spending,” says Rosie Birkett, the food writer and author behind the popular A Lot On Her Plate newsletter. And if you simply must order a bottle? Go New World rather than Old World, advises Dan O’Regan of the restaurant BANK in Bristol, England—or opt for the house wine, says Gavin Rankin, whose restaurant Bellamy’s has been showing how hospitality is done for almost 20 years.
Avoid tasting menus…
Think of the most memorable meal you’ve ever had. Think of your favorite restaurants. Do they serve ten to 12 courses with wine pairings? I thought not. Yes, tasting menus are extraordinary. They are a culinary adventure, and a privilege to enjoy. But they are not cheap, nor are they set up for maximizing chatter and laughter with loved ones. “Find somewhere that does small plates and a selection of wines by the glass, and you can have a little bit of something special with your friends,” says Gidda. “It’s a far more memorable way to spend time together than falling asleep at course seven, halfway through dinner.”
…but do look for set menus, particularly at lunch
Prix fixe menus are—or should be—representative of the à la carte offering, and are a clever way of sampling all three courses without breaking the bank, says Richard Wright. Rankin agrees: “A reasonably priced set menu, as in our case, offers three courses at the same price as a main course.” Lunch is the prime time for set menus, which makes lunch a perfect time to eat out – yet some places do have them at dinner, too. “Even if you can’t see one, you shouldn’t feel embarrassed to ask,” says Richard Wright.
Skip the snacks
Snacks are my reflexive order in restaurants: No sooner have I sat down than I’ve ordered some croquettes and Nocellara olives. But, as Birkett points out, they aren’t really necessary. “They are your more thoughtless order, because you’ve just arrived and you’re hungry—but they will set you back,” she says, and you’d be better off keeping your eye on the prize. Richard Wright concurs. “Don’t be distracted by alluring snack sections—or, if you are, have them instead of a starter. You don’t have to order from every section of the menu. It’s not the law to have all three, or four, or five courses.”
Split the bill fairly, not evenly
Anyone who has ever been out to dinner and abstained from alcohol, meat, or dessert will know the pain of the moment when someone who hasn’t casually says: “Shall we just split it?” It’s infuriating at any time, let alone with a recession looming, and you’ve every right to (politely) speak up. “We do need to be more considerate—people are watching their pennies,” says Richard Wright. His suggestion, if you’re good pals, is that one person pick up the tab, and the rest transfer them whatever they personally owe. If you’re less close, then choose somewhere with a set menu, or agree some sort of budget beforehand. Or just split the bill fairly, like you did in your student days. “If your friends aren’t comfortable with this, get better friends.”
Consider vegetarian options
Eating more seasonal, plant-based recipes isn’t just better for you and the planet—it is invariably cheaper. “It’s so much better value than imported, out-of-season produce,” says O’Regan. “I think the quality of veg options is something a lot of people tend to underestimate, but in season and in the hands of a good chef, it can be just as delicious as meat and fish.”
Think about the vibes as well as the food and drink
Ultimately, what we all really want from a meal out is an escape, however fleeting. We want to be transported via our taste buds to San Sebastian, Paris, Bangkok, Melbourne, Antigua, Accra, Cape Town, New Orleans—or simply, circuitously, to our childhood via a familiar taste or smell. “Those are the sorts of places I am drawn to. They bring me joy just thinking about them,” says Gidda. For most of us, the very best restaurants are those which take us out of ourselves, and in doing so reconnect us with ourselves and those around us. You can’t put a price on that.