Dining Out on the Cheap

Delicious food just tastes better when it costs less. I have no research to back this up, but it is unequivocally true. Have you ever had the same quality entrée at two differently priced restaurants? Which one would you go back to?

Photo by haraldwalker

Whether you’re on a budget or not, you can eat out for less than $20 for two people without sacrificing your taste buds. Instead of rehashing the everyday tips (don’t order drinks! or appetizers!), here are a few resources that will help nourish you and satisfy your wallet at the same time. Bon appétit!

1. Read a few reviews

A little research could mean the difference between eating another Chipotle burrito or chicken enchiladas con mole. In urban areas, some local magazines list the best places to find an entrée for under $12 (e.g. Washingtonian Cheap Eats and Time Out New York). Restaurant reviews are not limited to food critics these days. Many of today’s cheap eats sleuthing comes from user-generated review websites like Yelp and Urbanspoon, along with popular food message boards like Chowhound.

Yelp is my favorite of the user-generated review websites. Some of the reviews can be ultra picky, but a good rule of thumb is to pick a restaurant that’s earned a rating of over three stars. I’ve never had a bad meal at a top Yelp restaurant. To find a cheap restaurant near you, simply search for “restaurants” and enter your location/address in the “near” field. When the results pop up, click the single “$” under the “price” field to filter for the top-reviewed cheap restaurants.

Tip: You should make sure that the current reviews (from the past six months or so) are favorable. Some restaurants’ quality diminishes faster than the food critic’s annual visit.

2. Wait patiently… then pounce on the deal

Deal-a-day websites like Living Social and Groupon provide some of the best restaurant deals around, but they aren’t available every day. These deal websites have coupons for activities, bars, restaurants, and other entertainment. Once you sign up, you’ll receive a daily deal email. All you have to do is bide your time and strike when they offer a coupon for a restaurant that you’ve always wanted to try.

Besides social coupon websites, everyone should take advantage of their city’s restaurant week. Restaurant week offers affordable pre-fix meals at some of the classiest restaurants. Be forewarned: reservations at the best restaurants go quickly, so plan your restaurant week dining as far in advance as possible.

For those who don’t want to wait for their deals, restaurant.com always has great gift certificates to thousands of restaurants.

3. Embrace being an omnivore

You won’t find many cheap French restaurants or steakhouses. With an open mind and a simple willingness to try new things, you can find great meals for even greater prices. Thai, Ethiopian, and Vietnamese restaurants are some of my new favorites even though I grew up on Shoneys, Bob’s Big Boy, and Denny’s.

Photo by mooshee85

I’m not trying to sit on my foodie mountain looking down on you, but you should know that humans are scientifically engineered to like all types of foods (except for those of us with food allergies). Still don’t believe me? Read this great account of a lawyer turned Vogue food critic who had to get rid of his food phobias. Here’s the food critic’s reasoning:

“Unlike those of most other animals, our genes do not tell us what foods we should find tasty or repulsive. We enter the world with a yen for sweets and an aversion to bitterness… After four months, we develop an innate fondness for salt. And that’s about it.”

You can learn to love new foods even if you don’t fall head over heels for them the first time. Remember, the goal is to eat deliciously and economically. You can have your cake, eat it too, and still have enough money to save for a rainy day.