There are ways to squeeze dining out into tight budgets


Nervous over job security, wobbly investments and shrinking buying power? Then you're probably taking a closer look at the cost of dining out.

Some diners have responded to the financial crunch by limiting the visits that they make to pricey, three-star establishments. But for the most part, the appeal of having meals without shopping, cooking or cleaning up afterward is so compelling that we continue to dine often at our favorite places, even though we are appalled by what it does to the budget.

Dining out has become as much an American tradition in this age as Sunday dinner at home was in our parents' generation. We like it, we want it, we'll do it. But we can keep our national passion from taking us to the brink of financial ruin. Some tips from the frugal diner follow:

* Be an early bird. Dining as early as 5 p.m. -- once considered terribly unfashionable -- may yet return to stylish status as more of us seek out those restaurants fighting for our business with reduced, early-hour prices. But even if the place you choose does not lower prices for early diners, you still could save. By eating at a time when you are not yet ravenously hungry, you might be able to refrain from over-ordering.

* Consider entree-less dining. In virtually all restaurants, the entree category is the most expensive on the menu. A meaty appetizer, on the other hand, routinely costs about half as much and could make a meal with the addition of salad and dessert. Examples? Buffalo chicken wings instead of grilled chicken breast, appetizer steamed mussels and garlic bread instead of seafood linguine.

* Dine out elegantly at lunch, not dinner. The food at that swanky restaurant you've been dying to try is the same at lunch and dinner, and so is the setting. The only difference is the price, which should be substantially lower in the afternoon than it is at night.

* Don't have drinks with dinner, or choose a restaurant that lets you bring your own bottle of wine, which will be considerably less expensive than wine from a restaurant's cellar (with the restaurant's mark-up).

* Consider takeout dining. Dinner-to-go is being offered by more and more good restaurants. The packaged, ready-to-eat food lets you have your favorite restaurant's specialties without the added cost of tipping. You can also save with your own wine or cocktails, but don't skimp on ambience. Have your takeout meal in a pretty setting, on the terrace or balcony in nice weather, or by the fire on a chilly day. Bring out your best china, silver and linen napkins.

* Save by ordering less than you think you want. If you eat slowly, chances are you'll soon feel full on the smaller amount, spending less in the process.

* Save a little -- or a lot -- by heading for a restaurant where you can park free. That includes city restaurants with street parking or parking lots for customers; country places; diners; fast-food outlets.

* Count pennies by watching out for extras. Have after-dinner coffee or drinks at home. Read the menu fine print. Some places charge for seconds on bread. Others serve vegetables a la carte. Some even charge extra for certain salad dressings. All add dollars to your check.

* Go ethnic. Certain ethnic cuisines carry modest price tags. Good bargains are to be found in Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai, Greek, Lebanese, Indian, Italian and Mexican restaurants, to mention just a few.

* Don't always assume that it's a good buy to order a restaurant's complete soup-to-dessert dinner. It may cost less than ordering the same courses a la carte, but it encourages overeating and that, depending on your calorie needs, could be a bad bargain.

* If you can't avoid a big-portion-at-a-big-price restaurant, plan in advance to take half of what you order home for a second meal. Order something that will be appetizing cold or reheated. Meats that make great sandwiches are roast beef, lamb and pork. Turkey or chicken are great for next-day lunches. Cold salmon could be flaked and used in a salad. Combination dishes can be reheated in a microwave.

* Test a new restaurant by ordering just an appetizer. If you like what you get, continue ordering the rest of the meal. If you don't care for the appetizer, ask for the check, pay it and leave. That way you won't waste good money on bad food.

* If your server doesn't volunteer the information, ask the price of specials. I've been to restaurants where recited items turned out to be appreciably more costly than items on the printed menu.

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