The Simple Dollar Guide To Eating Out

foodGiven that I’m such a foodie and also frugal at the same time, several readers have written to me recently asking for tips on dining out. I collected some of my thoughts together and thus present this guide to how I eat out in such a way that my frugal sensibilities are in balance with my desire for exquisite food.

Tips for Eating Out

1. Eat out rarely, but do it right when you do

If I am going to be served food by someone else, I want to be an experience I will really remember. I generally find “sit down fast food” restaurants like Chili’s and Applebees (want to see what I mean?) to be an overpriced and preservative-laden version of what I can make at home.

Thus, rather than eating out every other week at a place like this, I save my nickels and dimes and eat out every three months or so at an exquisite local restaurant. I have enough available money to spend so that prices aren’t really an issue, either – I can share a bottle of wine with my wife if we choose to, for example. There are several outstanding restaurants in the greater Des Moines area, and I’d far rather drop $80-100 at one of those for a meal than drop $20 five times at other places.

Why? Even though this was my philosophy before having children, it’s even stronger now. I eat out for the experience, and the experience of dining at a top-notch restaurant is something I remember – I don’t remember trips to the IHOP, though I’ll eat at those places in a group setting without any problem.

2. Don’t worry about healthiness

If you eat out rarely, as I do, don’t spend your time worrying about finding the healthiest item on the menu. The rare occasion of eating out somewhere nice should be savored, thus I recommend chooing items that excite your palate above all.

I often find that the rare “blow my mind” meal is a great motivator for dieting. I plan a meal at an upscale restaurant a few months in advance and then use thoughts of that meal as a motivator all the way along. “I’ll eat really healthy today, and as a reward soon I’ll have that tremendous meal. Bring on the salad!”

3. The company makes all the difference

I enjoy eating out in small groups, but the company should be suitably enjoyable. If you’re going to eat out with someone and it’s not a fully comfortable situation, don’t eat out at a high-end place.

Life is a series of experiences, and it is the great ones that stick with us. I’m a firm believer in lining things up so events will be of the highest enjoyment possible – if you don’t enjoy the company, don’t go for the gusto with the meal. Stay at home, or eat at a simpler place.

4. Order water

Almost every restaurant will give you water for free. Order it. Sip it between bites. This is something I try to do at home as well for two reasons: it increases your enjoyment of the flavor of the food as the water cleanses your palate between bites, and it sates your appetite quicker, meaning you’re less likely to eat too much resulting in misery and weight gain.

5. Know a little bit about wine before you go in the door, so you can make your own choice if you order it

Quite often, the staff has a particular wine to “recommend,” which happens to be whatever wine there’s an abundance of in the back. Instead of going down that route, decide what you’re going to order first, then select a wine to complement that food.

As a thumbnail rule, the wine should match the color of the meat. Red wine for beef, white wine for poultry, fish, and pasta. Pork can go either way; I usually order a red with it, though. More specifically, I order a chardonnay with chicken or pork, a cabernet with steak (or other cuts of beef), sauvignon blanc with fish, and pinot grigio with pasta.

6. Leave a cash gratuity

Some people might be surprised by this, but it comes from personal experience at a restaurant. If you don’t do a cash gratuity, the restaurant sometimes scrapes it into their own profit coffers and the hardworking waiter you’re trying to tip gets only part of it – or sometimes nothing. One restaurant I am familiar with actually collects all tips, then gives a very small (almost insulting) “Christmas bonus” to all of the employees, which adds up to only a small fraction of the gratuities.

Thus, I try to make an effort to leave a cash gratuity, particularly if the service was very good. Often, I’ll note that on the receipt – I’ll write “cash” on the tip line and then write the total as being equal to the bill (I always pay by credit card at such places). Some places add the gratuity into the bill for you – something I don’t like – but most do not for a small party.

The most important thing of all? Enjoy the experience.

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