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A&E >  Dining

Dining out is expensive. Here are five suggestions to make a night out easier on your wallet

By Tom Sietsema Washington Post Washington Post

The sheer convenience of eating away from home – No dishes to wash! The hope of leftovers! – helps keep restaurants busy, although uncertain economic times inevitably lead to some changed behaviors. Customers might opt to pick up food instead of having it delivered, cut back on the number of times they visit restaurants or trade down. If flush times found you at the Palm, down ones might see you at Outback Steakhouse.

There are all sorts of ways to enjoy restaurants without breaking the bank. Some are clear as vodka: Just say no to $15 cocktails. Others are more subtle, like where you sit in a restaurant. Repeat after me: Bars can yield bargains. It also pays to do a little research before you head out. Reviewing menus online, and deciding your order in advance, is the equivalent of writing a list before heading to the grocery store.

Don’t let your stomach think for you.

Here are five strategies for anyone interested in cutting back while digging in:

1. Rethink the way you order

There’s no rule saying you have to order an appetizer and a main course, let alone dessert, and in that sequence. Consider doubling up on appetizers instead. First courses tend to display more creativity than entrees, and smaller portions of two dishes allow you to sample more of a chef’s handiwork. A few bites of something also minimizes the risk of boredom. Another strategy is to order a side dish or two to start and split an entree. Some first courses are substantial enough to qualify as a nice light meal.

2. Opt for lunch vs. dinner

Guess what? The Mediterranean branzino that costs $35 at night might be four bucks less in the afternoon – for the same portion and the same presentation. Lunch tends to offer better deals than dinner, including fixed-price menus.

3. Don’t drink

Double-digit cocktails can send your tab soaring. But so can other liquids. “Take a pause before you go out” and ask yourself if you’re going to be indulgent or careful, says Clark Wolf, a California-based food, restaurant and hospitality consultant. “Am I going to get bottled water and a double espresso or am I not?” Wolf says that if he wants a caffeine hit, he’ll get it at a coffee shop, where it’s less expensive than at a restaurant. Seek out establishments that offer complimentary still and sparkling water. Not only is it better for the environment, because water isn’t being trucked in and house flasks can be reused, pouring gratis water is a marker of hospitality. If you really want wine, beer or a cocktail, partake before you head to a restaurant, or even after, to save money.

4. Fill up on happy hours

Now feels like a golden age for what used to be mostly a pre-dinner weeknight event, with restaurants of all stripes extending both the times and the days they offer happy hours. The days of happy-hour food as an afterthought – popcorn or pizza – are over.

5. Take leftovers home

I’ve turned tonight’s unfinished kimchi into tomorrow’s stir-fry and pressed leftover baguette into bread pudding. (Admittedly, I’m not always the consumer. My whippet Henry might be the best-fed canine in the city, thanks to doggy bags that truly go to the dog.) As someone who waited tables in an earlier life, and has interviewed dishwashers in restaurant kitchens, I can tell you that no one likes the scrape-scrape-scraping of uneaten food into the trash. It’s the sound of waste.

Wolf, the consultant, has some choice words for diners considering reducing the amount of a tip to save money.

“Stop it. Stay home,” he says. “If you want restaurants to be there, take good care of staff. They’re not servants – and you’re not royalty.”

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