Are You Looking for a Way to Lower the Cost of Eating Out?

In this economy, any way to dine out for less is great. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy going out to eat? There is just something fun and relaxing, not to mention convenient, about it. But it can add up. Americans spend a significant amount eating out. The average cost is about $3372 a year. That’s about $281 per month[1] or about $64.85 each week. If that includes restaurant dining, a couple who goes out to a mainstream restaurant (think of favorites such as the Cheesecake factory and the like) once a week, can easily spend $40-$60 per visit or about $2980-$3120 a year. My husband and I are among those who like to dine out regularly. Ninety percent of the time we spend no more than $20, including drinks (non-alcoholic and alcoholic). That’s still a lot of eating out, but by holding to a budget of $20 per meal, we save $520 – $1560 per year.

What’s the “secret” to dining on a dime (Okay - maybe more like 200 dimes)?

Well there are many tips for eating out for less … and they’re not a secret, really. The one I’m focusing on today is part of an eating out series which will offer a variety tips designed to save you money when eating out. If you’re not already taking advantage of this tip, you can potentially save money too at your fave eatery.

Today’s “secret” is, THINKING SMALL. Small plates. Tapas. Appetizers. Bar bites. Happy hours. Whatever you call it, they can be good for your wallet. Go this route and you can have a wonderful evening dining out without the buyer’s remorse once it’s over. Sure, sometimes (but not all!) the portions are smaller, but that means your waistline can stay smaller too and your wallet heavier! Besides, many times the portions are still big enough to share, which means yummy variety. So go ahead and make a multi-course meal out of small plates, or have them all come out at once. Good times!

Examples of Dining on Small Plates for Less:

Bravo Cucina Italiana: This is my husband’s and my current favorite. Our local Bravo offers “Bar Bites,” Monday-Friday from 4-7 pm during their happy hour. Yes, you must sit in Dining for Less at Bravo Cucina Italiana(127952)Credit: Kim O. the bar area, but many restaurant bars also have booths and tables blurring the line between the bar and the restaurant experience. Just walk in and seat yourself. During warm weather you can take advant

age of “Bar Bites,” while eating al fresco on the patio! The bites menu includes a variety of food offerings all priced at $3.95 each, as well as $5 alcoholic beverages. The food ranges from shrimp to flatbread pizzas, to a 6 oz. burger with fries, and the drinks include cosmopolitans, martinis, mojitos, sangria and wine. We split a couple of well-portioned bar bites and each have a drink, and voilà, it’s a little less than $20! We love it. We do this with many places.

 

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Perfect for your cheap eats.

 Ruby Tuesday: Their happy hour begins at 4pm (can vary by location). They offer $5 drinks and appetizers in their bar area. In addition to the happy hour, Ruby Tuesday offers $5 “premium cocktails” all day! So if you’d rather eat in the main dining area, that’s a way to have drinks (including beer) with dinner. Nothing on their regular appetizer menu (called “Shareables”), however, is less that $7 (6.99) so your small plates dinner will cost a little more, but when we’ve done this, two appetizers were PLENTY and it was still less expensive than ordering two entrees.

The Cheescake Factory: This always-busy-at-dinner-and-weekends restaurant offers $5 appetizers and beverages during their happy hour, limited to weekdays, usually 4-6 pm (and not at all locations).  It’s not advertised on their website, so if you’re not sure, call ahead. I have found this bar area to be very crowded, like the restaurant, so get there right when it starts to snag a table or a spot at the bar. If you miss the happy hour, you can always enjoy the abundance of “small plates” options from $3.95 - $7.95. Alas, have water outside of the happy hour because the drink prices are just too expensive for me. If the choice is water or soda or a standard lemonade or iced tea, I just go for water. I find the taste of the fountain drinks to always be off. That’s just me. 

Eating Out for Dinner at Bravo'sCredit: Kim O.Melting Pot: This one we love too! Anyone who has eaten (indulged, gorged) at the MP KNOWS that even if you share one cheese fondue, a dessert fondue and two soft drinks, you’re looking at $40! If you want an alcoholic beverage instead, the cost of your meal goes up to about $55. Yikes! Go to happy hour instead! It’s almost like having a Melting Pot coupon! During happy hour (like all places varies by location), if you eat at the bar and order off of the bar menu, the cheese and dessert fondues are $14 ($7/pp) instead of $18. They also have $6 drink specials. Some locations have a drink of the day special, while others offer a variety. When we go we’re typically diggin’ the cheese and can do without the chocolate (we can do without the fondue… get it...? Anyway).  So we go to the bar – which is very cool due to it having a burner unit for the fondue - and enjoy our cheese fondue and drinks for $26. The cheapie in me goes “grrr” that I can’t get it closer to $20…but unless I just have water, which is no fun (ha! Another pun! Fondue is no fun… get it?), I enjoy the fact that it’s still a bargain! And yes, you can be satisfied sharing one cheese fondue and having a drink. My husband and I are not waifs. He’s 6’3’’ and I like to eat.

 P.F. Changs: This is another fun noshing joint when we have a chance. It’s not close to us, or available everywhere, but where it’s offered it’s an opportunity to have some dim sum (ha! Another pun…oh never mind)! Their small plates, called dim sum, are plentiful in number and range from about $3.25-$6. The cocktails, wine, and beer are also in the $3-$6 range. Coincidently enough, the time of the happy hour is 3-6 pm (can vary by location).  A couple of beers and numerous small plates for $20. Love it!

These are just a few of the many, many examples out there to be discovered. It’s become a game with me. There are so many restaurants out there wanting, needing our business. It can even work at “fine dining” establishments like one of my local faves, Grille 3501 in Allentown, PA. Sure, there can be limits, such as certain hours, or days of the week, but the trade-off is worth it to us to be able to enjoy dinner out and a reasonable price.  I have rarely, if ever felt as if I was missing out by not ordering from the full dinner menu by going the small plates route, as I enjoy the idea of small plates and the immediate opportunity for variety. Here’s to small plates. The more the merrier!

Tell me about your favorite small bites place!