I’ve eaten the fanciest meals of my life at lunchtime. I don’t do it often, but when I’ve traveled abroad or to New York City and wanted to try the nitrogen-poached meringues at a Michelin-starred restaurant, I’ve sought out lunchtime reservations. For a slightly more modest cost than dinner (such meals will never be cheap), I can get a great sense of the restaurant. I also save money because I am less likely to drink more than a glass of wine when the daylight can still expose my reddened face. Seeking out off-hour dining like this (depending on the restaurant, this could mean lunch, brunch or late night) is one of the key tenets of the thrifty epicure, an identity I adopt from time to time—and one you can try on for yourself.
For all our talk of value in this issue, there is one unbendable fact: Dining out is expensive. But there are ways to get out to the most talked-about restaurants without feeling brutalized by the bill. The first rule, which sounds a little dour and maybe even a little obvious, is to go in with a plan: Check out the restaurant’s website and look at the prices. One reason that estimated tabs differ from the actual bills is that many restaurant guides (including our own dining guide in the back of this magazine) base their price ranges on entrées alone. But you’re likely to spend money on wine, appetizers, cocktails, dessert, sometimes bread—plus 10 percent for tax and another 20 percent or so for tip. A lot of the grumbling about the price of food, then, comes from shock and surprise when the bill arrives. It even happens to me, especially at small-plates restaurants, where I find it hard to resist additional nibbles. “How did my little meal add up to all that?” I ask myself, forgetting about the second $12 glass of wine, which encouraged me to order another round of scallops...
It’s a really sound idea, then, to use the information on a website to formulate a strategy—how many courses can you afford, how much will you drink? While you’re on a website, think about joining the restaurant’s mailing list. For the cost of a little demi-spam in your mailbox, you will be the first to know about seasonal promotions, happy hours (for a list of some of our favorite happy hour deals, see page 100) or even regularly held special meals (like the modestly priced Sunday family-style events at Dinette, Joule and Volunteer Park Cafe). These meals are a great way to get to know a restaurant, and usually good fun to boot. There are also citywide restaurant promotions, such as Dine Around Seattle, which runs through March and offers three-course meals for $30 at terrific restaurants. The thrifty eater prowls the Internet for these opportunities.
In recent years, restaurants have become decidedly more casual about what constitutes a meal: Sharing plates, ordering appetizers and no entrée, and drinking wine by the glass have all become common. My favorite way to eat frugally at a restaurant is to eat at the bar. The restaurants I’ve come to know best over the years are invariably ones where I’ve eaten regularly at the bar—the places where I might dash in for a quick bowl of pasta before a movie, or an after-work bite with a friend. Most restaurants serve their full menus at their bars, but you’ll feel minimally obliged to eat a full meal while you’re sitting there. Sample an appetizer or two, get a sense of the wine list by ordering a glass of wine, and then flit away. Not many of us can make a habit of the $68 Wagyu steak at Canlis, but if you’re curious about the famous restaurant, you might very well be able to afford some $20 steak tartare in the lounge, perhaps even throw in a martini. The tinkling piano and the lovely view come as a free gift with purchase. Of course, that bar spirit has been spreading; there’s a lot more bar real estate in restaurants like Luc or Seatown Seabar & Rotisserie or Bisato than you would have found in similarly ambitious restaurants five years ago.
A bonus with bar eating: You don’t have to make a reservation. True, this can be a problem on Friday nights around 8. To be a bar diner, you need to be able to roll with the punches. And I shouldn’t need to note that if frugality is your concern, don’t drink too much while at the counter—those cocktails are a prime source of profit for the restaurant, and once you’re tipsy, you may have a hard time saying “No, thank you” to additional courses.
Bar dining doesn’t work well for groups. But as long as you’re all in agreement on your budget and on the principle of food sharing, dining with a group can give you maximum tasting for minimum budget. In such cases, I recommend seeking places with family-style service—large portions designed to be shared (think the large plates at Flying Fish or Din Tai Fung or Tavolàta). Even if plates are not billed as shared portions, don’t be afraid to share as much as you want. I’m not sure they’ve been totally eradicated, but I haven’t seen a split-portion charge in years.
Wine is often the great inflationary part of the meal, so don’t forget that there’s no shame in choosing one of the least expensive bottles on the list. Get some help in picking it out. Or skip wine entirely.
And a final note to the frugal: If you want restaurants to continue to welcome thrifty eaters like us, it pays, karmically, to be thoughtful about eating this way. If you’re not eating at the bar, you might want to let your server or reservationist know that you plan on having just a few bites. Also, you might not want to loll around after you’re finished at prime time on Saturday night. And the thrifty epicure always budgets for a nice tip.