With the recession in full swing, we're all doing some creative belt tightening and curtailing of social niceties like dining out. Here are some ways to navigate your way through restaurant row on a shoestring, whether you choose to replace your favorite kitschy hot spot for a family diner, trim the frequency of eating out or take a page from my recession-friendly handbook:
- Separation anxiety - separate checks, please
We've all been on either side of the lopsided check - sometimes we order the lion's share, other times we order Spartan, and when dining out with good friends and family celebrating terrific milestones over the years, it usually evens out. However, times are a'changing, and if your dining partners are super affluent they may not be aware that splitting checks equally might not be affordable to the others.
If your co-diners choose to order hog wild with caviar bilinis, market price lobsters, wine bottles equivalent to your car payments, after dinner cordials and flaming desserts prepared tableside while you wash down your roasted chicken thigh with a glass of H2O from the tap, then it is quite appropriate to ask for separate checks. Even if your fellow diners don't go gourmet on you, separate checks are a friendship saver.
There are also many dining establishments where you pay before you eat like buffets and ethnic eateries. That's a good and easy solution for lunches and casual evenings. Many restaurants also have prix fixe or fixed-price menus such as wine tastings. This would be a great choice for more formal celebrations.
- Dutch treat or going Dutch
A similar outcome can be achieved with Dutch treat where a single check arrives and the tablemates have to figure out the math so each one pays for their own vittles and drinks.
The phrase "going Dutch" likely came from Dutch etiquette where it was typical for Netherlanders to pay for their own food and beverages when dining out with a group. In the past, "going Dutch" on a date has been viewed as cheap, but in today's climate it is now considered practical and acceptable. If you don't want to be stuck with the whole tab, make sure you slip in the words "Dutch treat" in advance and there will be no misunderstanding when the bill arrives.
- Liquor license
If you are a teetotaler while other members of your party are wine connoisseurs indulging in sommelier recommended bottles of vintage, today's etiquette allows you to speak up.
You can gently nudge them away from the triple-digit priced bottles with more modest suggestions. For a business gathering, this is a little more ticklish.
If it's on your expense account, go to a restaurant without such an extensive (and expensive) wine list. And when ordering cocktails, have drinks from the "well" instead of pricey brand names.
- Clip your coupons
Sign up on your favorite restaurants' Web sites so you can be kept abreast of promotions, events and receive e-mail coupons for discounts. Many restaurants also advertise in local flyers and dining-out magazines for a percentage discount on the entire bill, free or half-price entrees or a complimentary glass of wine.
So clip your coupons, and you will pleasantly save at a variety of casual and upscale eateries.
- Valet value
Valet parking can be a big chunk of change these days so carpool with your co-diners and do "Dutch treat" with the valet parking tab. Better yet, self-park or avoid the issue and expense altogether by dining at a restaurant that only has self-parking.
- Just desserts
Many restaurants gladly give a freebie dessert (and sing-along) when a member of the party is celebrating a birthday or other special occasion. So don't be shy and tell the server about the event.
- Plastic surgery
Leave your credit card at home (or cut it up) and bring cash to the restaurant. That way you can set a budget and stick to it. Using plastic makes it too easy to indulge in frivolities.
In honor of eating out, saving money, separate checks and going Dutch, here's a cocktail called "The Mandarin Split" to toast your good times and good friends.
The Mandarin Split Cocktail
- 1 ounce of Absolut Mandrin Vodka
- 1 ounce of Strawberry Schnapps
- 1/2 ounce of Crème de Bananes
- 1 splash of Grenadine syrup
- 1 part sparkling water
- 1 part pineapple juice
Simply shake once and strain into a Collins glass. Garnish with a chunk of fresh pineapple.