Recently, after I suggested Il Fornaio for a couples’ night out and listened to complaints about how no one could afford it, my contrariness kicked in. Where was their creativity? Didn’t they know they could fill up on Il Fornaio’s free focaccia, follow up with soup and salad and go home with change in their pockets?
The Dollar-Wise Gourmet decided to test her theory at three local restaurants reputed to be untouchable without tapping into one’s 401(k). Could two people dine well there on $50 or less?
Of the three restaurants on my hit list, the one whose sky-high prices I’d been most warned about was Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Indeed, one glance at the menu told me that two steaks were out of the question. (The least expensive&emdash;the petite filet&emdash;is $30.95.) But this did not turn out to be an issue for me and my dining companion, whose heart was set on the Sizzlin’ Blue Crab Cakes appetizer ($18.95), which we shared along with a tasty tomato and onion salad ($8.95) and a disappointingly bland apple tart ($8.50). We escaped under budget: $47 (including tax and tip).
The notion of eating for less than $50 at The Melting Pot initially seemed absurd: The boyfriend had once spent upward of $150 on our dinner there, so to me Melting Pot meant melting money. But on this return visit, I was delighted to discover cheese fondue for $16 and a few entres under $20. Another surprise: Our two entres (breast of chicken, $19, and the vegetarian, $18) came with salads and offered far more food than my pal and I could eat. We could have shared an entre and one of those decadent chocolate fondue desserts ($14 for a small) and still come under budget. Total spent: $47.37.
The elegant La Provence in Roseville, where most main courses run $25 or more, also seemed formidable. But we got around it by sticking to salads and small plates (my Gnocchis Maison, housemade potato gnocchi with Hedgehog mushrooms and truffle essence, was divine, and only $11). But the best deal by far was the Salade Mesclun, which was as spectacular as it was cheap ($5.50), featuring a tower of organic baby lettuces, crumbled goat cheese, and assorted veggies in a lovely balsamic vinaigrette. We barely made budget at $50 on the nose&emdash;if you’re not counting the few glasses of wine we bought on the sly, that is.
And therein lies the rub: Eating in fancy restaurants on a budget requires the kind of steely willpower most mere mortals lack&emdash;even, apparently, the Dollar-Wise Gourmet.
There will be no appletinis. Or cosmos or lemon drops or sexes on the beach. Alcohol will put you over budget faster than you can say Rachael Ray.
Learn to love the appetizer menu. Little nibbles are almost always less costly than main courses.
Share and share alike. If you must have an entre, be prepared to share.
Be ready for the hard sell. Waiters are also salespeople. When they try to convince you to order up, don’t cave in.