The Dollar-Wise Gourmet: Dining for Dollars

In a slumping economy like this, there’s one thing that probably tops everyone’s holiday wish list: money. Moolah. Dinero. Cold, hard cash.

OK, how about the next best thing: tips on saving money—which, when followed as directed, will put some $$ in your pocket. Girl Scout’s honor.

True, The Dollar-Wise Gourmet devotes every column to that topic. But this one is different. It takes all the tips I’ve been dishing out—plus a few new ones—and puts them in one pretty package, all tied up in a ribbon.

Here, then, are my end-of-the-year, top 10 tips for cutting costs when you just gotta dine out:

Lay off the sauce.
And we don’t mean cranberry. When a cosmo costs $10 and a basic beer $4 (or more), there’s nothing that will drive up a bill faster than booze. Every party has a pooper, and it may as well be you.

Learn to share.
You learned to share in kindergarten; time for a refresher. With Texas-size portions the norm in most places, you’ll still get your fill if you share a dish with your partner. And no worries about split charges: They’re only a couple of bucks, adding way less to your bill than the cost of a second entrée.

Get small.
Typically priced at least 30 percent less than a main course, those small plates that are all the rage can help you save big bucks. But think “yellow light” and tread with caution: They also can add up quickly. Start with one plate per person: You may be surprised at how few it takes for your tank to register “full.”

Ask the price of specials.
Kinda like special sauce, the price of menu specials is often kept secret—and here’s why: If they were advertised, there’d be a scary amount of sticker shock. So ask.

Use coupons.
Yeah, yeah, yeah—you hear this one all the time. But how many of you actually use coupons? Buy the Entertainment Book (it’s worth it), check the Bee and search online: By googling “Sacramento restaurant coupons” or going directly to restaurant websites, you’ll uncover some deals.

Go veggie. Money-saving meat eaters may want to look first at what they’re putting in their mouths: Vegetarian dishes are, without fail, less expensive than their carnivorous counterparts. Kung pao tofu, anyone?

Switch to self-serve.
OK, so you’d rather be waited on. Who wouldn’t? But you’ll find consistently lower prices at so-called “self-serve” restaurants—you know, those places where you order at the counter and fetch your own flatware. But please check your ’tude at the door.

Seek validation.
Why pay full price for parking? Many local restaurants will validate your
parking garage ticket, reducing or even covering the total cost. Sweet.

Breakfast, anyone? Where is it written that going out for a meal automatically means lunch or dinner? Be original and switch to breakfast, typically the cheapest meal of the day—and, as our mothers told us, the most important one, too.

Stay local. Eating in neighborhood joints not only saves you gas money but may even help to keep local businesses afloat. And that’s a holiday gift worth giving all year ’round.

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