I’d had it.
For months, I’d been frequenting the same handful of restaurants, knowing they offered budget-friendly fare that maximized our efforts at saving money while eating out. I’d grown so comfortable at these casual restaurants that the waiters and hostesses there had started to recognize me (although, it might have been that they recognized me as the mother of two very loud children). That’s when I decided that saving money had gone too far. I needed a change. And I needed it now.
It may sound like an oxymoron – something along the line of jumbo shrimp – but saving money is possible, even at fancy restaurants. How, you ask? It boils down to two factors: timing and location.
This is a two-pronged approach to saving money at high-end establishments. The first facet of good timing has to do with what day of the week you’re choosing to dine out. Want to eat at a restaurant, whether a casual locale or a fancy place downtown, on a Friday or Saturday night? Be prepared to pay a heavy price; same goes if you want to make reservations on New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day. These are times when tables are at a premium – meaning special dining options and promotions are rare. On some special occasions, you may even be faced with limited menu options. Instead, try eating out on weekdays instead. Many restaurants offer special promotions for mid-week diners, including two-for-one deals, or price fixe menus for two or even four diners.
The other element of good timing deals with the time of day you choose to dine out. I’m not talking about the differences between eating out for breakfast, lunch, or dinner; at the great majority of restaurants out there, you’re going to find that dinner is the most expensive meal of the day, while breakfast and lunch are cheaper. Instead, I’m talking about eating dinner at a fancy restaurant. For example, one of my favorite places to dine out with my husband is a micro-brewery downtown. Were we to eat there at 7pm, we’d be paying $15-$20 for a dish of pasta, $20-$25 for seafood dishes, and $25+ for steaks and filets; we’d also be paying full price for appetizers, drinks, and desserts. But coming earlier – or later – alleviates much of the financial burden. The restaurant’s happy hour (usually between 3-7pm, depending on the establishment) offers half-price drinks and appetizers, meaning my husband and I can eat and drink our fill for less than $25 and avoid the pricy entrees entirely. The restaurant also has a late-night menu, which it starts to offer after 10pm; like the happy hour menu, it offers half-price appetizers as well as discounted desserts.
You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “Location, location, location!” as it applies to the real estate industry, but it also applies to fancy restaurants. Many high-end establishments include a variety of locations within the restaurant itself: the patio, the bar, the lounge, the main dining room, etc.
Sometimes, merely switching up the location can switch up the price tag as well. To take another example out of my eating out handbook, there’s a trendy infusion restaurant in my city’s business district that offers half-price drinks and a selection of $10 bottles of wine all summer long to customers who opt to dine on the patio. The reason? Down here in the South, the temperatures often remain over 80 or even 90 degrees well after sundown. These outdoor-only promotions are designed to lure diners to the patio, keeping the section full, even when weather conditions are less than ideal. There’s another high-end restaurant in my area that offers a special menu for diners who eat at the bar instead of the main dining room; sure, the location isn’t as posh, but the menu is nearly identical, and the prices are an average of $3-$5 less for the exact same plate.
And then there’s the extreme way to save money by switching up your dining location – by forgoing the “eating out” part entirely. Instead of dining at the restaurant, call in your order ahead of time and take it home with you. My husband and I have done this on multiple occasions (usually those on which we couldn’t find a babysitter!), and have been able to shave off the cost of drinks and gratuity, bringing our tab under budget. On top of that, we tend to skip appetizers and desserts when we take out; we also find that portion sizes are larger from the take out menu, meaning our dinners turn into next-day leftovers.
Reader, what are your strategies for saving money at fancy restaurants?