Thursday, January 24, 2008

Frugal + Fine Dining = ?

It was like a mirror-image of my regular self.  I was poring through restaurant menus online, trying to find the most expensive one so I could eat there!

Okay, so it's not quite as strange as it sounds.  Last week was Washington DC's Restaurant Week, which means a whole bunch of different restaurants were offering dinners for the set price of $30.08 and lunches for $20.08.  (Some have extended it an extra week or two, if you're interested.)  Normally I never eat at places that cost that much, but the "Oooh, I love a good bargain!" part of my mind won over the "You're paying how much for food?" part.  Besides, I figured, if I never even try eating at fancy restaurants, I'll never know if they're worth the price, right?  So my boyfriend and I decided we'd give it a whirl.  And since the RW price was already set, naturally the way to find the best discount was to figure out which participating restaurant had the highest regular prices, hence the menu-hunting.

It turns out that there weren't any jaw-dropping deals, because naturally, the most expensive places aren't going to give their food away at huge discounts.  What I did find were a number of well-reviewed restaurants with entrees around $30-- so in other words, essentially buying the entree and getting an appetizer and dessert for free. 

So we picked out a nice Italian place (Tosca, if you're curious) and tried it out last weekend.  And, indeed, we thought the food was very good.
But the thing is, there are a number of restaurants I've been to and loved which serve delicious food that I thought was just as good, or almost as good-- in the $8-$15 range.  When I ate at Tosca, was the food 2 to 4 times better?  Not to me, no.   And yes, it was nice to get an appetizer and dessert (I usually skip those), but on the other hand, I have a pretty small appetite, and so I actually didn't finish my dinner in order to save room for dessert, and still only had a few bites of dessert before feeling too full.  (It felt wasteful, but I felt awkward asking for a "doggie bag" in such a fancy place; I looked around and none of my fellow diners were doing it.)
I don't know.  Maybe I don't have refined enough tastes to appreciate fine dining?  I mean, I'm not giving up after just one try, because I know I shouldn't generalize based on a single restaurant.  DC does Restaurant Week twice a year, so we'll give it another whirl next time (and probably try the $20.08 lunch rather than the $30.08 dinner.)  But I have to say I'm not feeling entirely optimistic.
I can totally understand why not-so-frugal people enjoy fancy restaurants; great food in an elegant atmosphere has a lot of selling points.  But I know that a number of frugal bloggers, who are genuinely concerned about value for their money, have talked about really enjoying expensive restaurants, too, and I'm very curious about what makes some frugalites decide fine dining is worth the cost.  Is it based on finding a particular fantastic restaurant (or a few)?  Is it actually the even pricier restaurants that are the ones worth their cost?  Are there any "helpful hints" you've learned-- for example, specific kinds of dishes that high-end places really take to the next level?  Or do you think appreciating fine dining really just comes down to personal taste? 
And if anyone has specific recommendations for places in the DC area that you think can successfully get my food-loving tastebuds to overrule my frugal brain, do share!  (I'm vegetarian and not a wine-drinker, FWIW.)


HC said...

I think that you'd find fine dining advocates/gastronauts/etc tend to AVOID events like Restaurant Week. Some restaurants continue to bring their A game, but many seem to take less care in the kitchen and CERTAINLY less care in service.

I don't consider myself super-frugal, but I'm certainly not a spendthrift. And I indulge in fine dining because the service is often better and the dishes tend to be more inventive.

I do think it's slightly more difficult to find really nice places in DC that give vegetarian dishes the same attention as the meat-laden ones, but certainly not impossible. Asian restaurants often seem to be better at this, for some reason.

I am planning on visiting Rasika next month before a show, and I'll get back to you with my thoughts. It comes highly recommended, and has a fair amount of vegetarian fare.

You might also want to check out VegDC's list of restaurants to compare against the places offering RW.

aj said...

Plenty of decent restaurants on Not exactly fine dining but pretty good deals for over 50% off.

Don't order alcoholic drinks. Share plates. Take home doggy bags and eat them at work the next day.

There are plenty of ways to enjoy fine dining frugally.

bpt said...

food isn't just the issue with dining out. it's the choice, the service, the ambiance, the ritual.
My husband's grandmother was blind and uber frugal. We read her the menus, but all she cared about was the price, so whatever was cheapest, she was on it!
As a fellow non-meat eater, and now rarely fish either, for eco-concerns, I'm pretty much the cheapest on the menu myself! Of course the wine costs more than the food. Kind of crazy.

Anonymous said...

I'm also vegetarian and don't drink wine. I find that anice restaurant is rarely worth it if it's a traditional American or Western European restaurant. They just think of their vegetables as sides. Maybe if you eat seafood it's different.

I am frugal but will save up for the fine dining (although my expensive places max out at about $35 for a three-course meal so maybe this doesn't count as fine in your definition). I don't live in DC, but here are the cuisines of the relatively expensive restaurants that I find worth it: Indian, Afghan, Cambodian-French, Eritrean/Ethiopian. I just haven't found an American restaurant where I'm willing to shell out for their expensive vegetarian dishes.

Pete said...

THanks for this post. I have to say that I am just as, or more, happy dining at places that cost less. Some of the best meals I've had are at places where an expensive dinner is $7.99! While its fun to splurge every once in a while on a fun restaurant with a good atmosphere, i've rarely found that it was worth it just because of the food

Anonymous said...

For the best dining recommendations for any price level, I'd recommend The commentary is by foodies, and they're almost always polite about answering your questions.

For deciding if a dining-out experience is worth it, first I consider the cost of the items for me to make both in terms of money and time.

For instance, creme brulee is something I won't make; I refuse to buy a blow-torch that I will rarely use. Potato gnocchi is one of the few dishes I fail to make well, so if I want that, I must order it.

I will occassionally spring for a streakhouse once or twice a year, since they are able to get grades of meat not readily available at the grocery store.

There's the whole "spend time with friends thing", which in Seattle seems to revolve around restaurants. So I have to weigh spending time with friends into the equation, too.

Dim sum is my favorite solution to this. But I've gone to places that I don't consider a good deal just because I want to see my friends, too.

peregrine said...

I've been in DC for the past year and a half, and I tend to prefer cooking and baking at home, so I don't know too many places. However, I have a friend who works at a sister restaurant to Zaytinya's, so her and I took advantage of a 50% discount to eat there. I'm pretty picky about eating high-quality food with interesting flavors (which is why I always end up cooking at home where I can experiment for a lot less money!), and Zaytinya's really amazed me. It's a mezze-style restaurant, so you basically order a bunch of little plates of different food, which gives you tons to try and to share. The food was Lebanese/Middle Eastern inspired, and really quite incredible. We had a puff pastry filled with butternut squash puree that was my favorite of the meal, some shrimp and swordfish dishes, lentil pilaf, a tomato and goat cheese dip, light-as-air pita bread, etc. They have a lot of vegetarian options, as well as some vegan dishes, and because my friend knew the manager, we even got a special off-menu dessert: semolina cake soaked in orange-blossom water, with a scoop of tangy frozen lebanese yogurt and creme anglaise, surrounded by dried currants and blood orange slices. I cannot TELL you how amazing it was, and I will definitely go back, even if I have to pay full price--which I estimate would be about $70-80 for the two of us. Perhaps as a once a year thing, since that's typically two weeks worth of food for me!