Tackling that Restaurant Budget!


There are some fixed expenses we cannot do much about: insurance, condo assessment, real estate taxes, etc.  But, as we all know, there are lots of discretionary expenses that we can definitely do a lot with.  Year after year (and I’ll do a retrospective post on that soon), it seems like one area of very flexible spending is our dining budget.

Let’s face it.  When one month, you can exceed your budget by 300% or come in 75% below it, that’s a category worth looking at in terms of trimming.  Unlike even “Grocery”–which can still be reduced much further than our paltry recent attempts–“Dining Out” is almost entirely discretionary.  No one is forcing you to go to fast food places, coffee shops, or high end restaurants in order to survive this month.

And yet, for us at least, the amount we set for that dining budget has historically been the same as our allotted grocery budget.  How can that be?  After all, surely we cannot be going out to eat as much as we are eating at home!  (And, no, were not.)  Obviously, we end up spending more money when we eat out as opposed to when we purchase our foodstuffs to cook and dine in.

But we really do have fun trying out different foods and restaurants!  So, our 2016 dining challenge to ourselves is two-fold: Enjoy dining out as much as we used to, but do it for a lot less money.

Actually this is going to be pretty simple, if we put our minds to it and plan a bit better.

1.Dine out mid-week

We have been married over 15 years, so we’re hardly trying to impress each other on traditional “date nights.”  In addition, Will works from home when not traveling for work, and I don’t have to be on campus all days of the workweek.  And, our friends have similar jobs.  So, there is no reason why we need to have our “nice” dinner out on a Friday or Saturday.  Those evenings are for newbies getting to know each other, young people who have to “go out” on a weekend evening to prove their social value to each other.

In our Chicago area with world-class restaurants, we have many restaurants which offer a Wednesday evening special or Sunday-Thursday prix-fixe meals.  These are amazing deals like a 3-course (of pretty much anything off the regular menu) for $27-33.  Very special, when you consider that those often include being able to order a main course entree that costs $20-25 by itself.

On our own or with other friends, we have enjoyed Thursday or Sunday prix-fixe dinners in a relaxed pace with servers not desperately trying to rush you out the door to get the next reservation in.

2. Get to know your BYO Restaurants

We are rather lucky to be in Chicago.  Not only do we have a whole slew of great restaurants, but MANY of our favorites places are BYO places..  People living in other cities are often confused when we bring them to some of our BYO restaurants carrying our own bottle of wine.  Yes, we bring our own alcoholic beverage (usually wine, but could be beer or even mixed cocktails), and sometimes we are charged a nominal fee–per 750 ml bottle of wine, or per individual, or per the table–to enjoy our own drinks along with the restaurant meals served there.

Consider this.  Eight years ago, we went to a famous prime rib restaurant in Los Angeles (which will remain unnamed, but which is quite well-known for those who know LA and prime ribs…).  Will ordered a bottle of the cheapest wine he could consider drinking, which turned out to be “Le Menage a Trois.”  They charged us $42 for that bottle.  Even figuring in inflation and everything, it galls us that today we can still get this wine at Costco for $7.99.  Mark-up anyone?

Now, we wait to bring our reserve wines (a Bordeaux Grand Cru? a Brunello de Montalcino?, etc.) to a restaurant where the chef’s creativity is unbounded, but where we are not overcharged for mediocre wines.

3. Lunch out rather than Dinner out

When traveling in expensive areas like Paris or London or Rome, we know that a major dining out tip is to make lunch the “nice” restaurant meal of the day.  We have been taking advantage of that trick for decades now.  When we were in Lyon, France, two years ago, we had two spectacular lunches at museums which offered 3-course specials.  (You can see one of the lunch main entrees at the top of this post.)  One of our favorite meals in all of Spain also came in a Madrid art museum courtyard, which offered such a fabulous meal that we are still blown away by it.

But we don’t really seem to take the same advice when we go to our area restaurants at home.  Why not?

Last month, I came home from a meeting on a Friday and insisted that we go out for lunch at our favorite Szechuan restaurant (which actually is fairly “fancy,” by Chinese restaurant measures).  We tried two different soups, two different appetizers, two different rice dishes, and two different entrees.  All for under $25, including tip.  And the portions of the entrees were not much smaller than dinner ones which tended to be much more expensive–and which didn’t include the starter courses.

We brought leftovers home for another set of lunches.

4. Ethnic restaurants

But of course you are thinking: Sure, a Chinese lunch is going to be cheap.  Well, if you know this, then why aren’t you going out to Chinese restaurants more often for your meals out?

It seems we have somehow convinced ourselves that restaurant experiences can only be “special” if they serve Continental European cuisine.  If it’s a French or high-end Italian (not the red-and-white checkered plastic tablecloth) restaurant, then we expect to shell out a lot of money.  But if it’s Chinese or Thai or Vietnamese or Indian, then surely the food cannot possibly be too expensive?  In fact, there is a “fancy” Thai restaurant in Chicago which has a 7-course prix-fixe tasting menu for $75, but a lot of people just cannot make themselves go to the restaurant because it goes against what we identify as Thai cuisine (read: cheap!).

Yet food at some of these ethnic restaurants are just as fresh, creative, innovative, and as  nourishing as–and often healthier than–western cuisine.

When nothing else works…

5. Bring the restaurant home

I’ve written on this before on my post about dining IN with friends, but it bears repeating.  Why not go out on Thursday evening for your nice 3-course prix-fixe meal, and then spend Saturday evening bringing the restaurant scene home?

One of the major categories of entertainment–endlessly fascinating for us–is to cook memorable meals at home, open a special bottle of wine, light some candles, and enjoy a multi-course meal.


All with our dog Katie warming our feet below the dining table…


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