Good evening, friends and neighbors!
I’m gonna get sappy for a second and tell you about my first date with my wife.
We knew we wanted to go out for dinner and a movie, and were tossing around ideas for local restaurants. We settled on a decent Italian place in the area, but the conversation first went like this:
Me: “Well, there’s a bunch of places near the theater. Fridays, Applebees…”
Emily: “Ugh, no. Let’s go to this place instead.”
Me: “Oh thank God.”
According to Emily, that was the moment she knew we would work out in one way or another- she loved food, she loved eating good food, and wanted someone she could nerd out about it with.
Three years into being married, and that’s still one of our favorite indulgences- going to restaurants and being nerds.
Want to Sell to Millennials? Don’t Sell Crap!
Like a lot of couples our age, Em and I have gotten used to living with a pretty tight budget. We pay our bills on time, only go grocery shopping once a week, and meal plan so that we aren’t grabbing up extra crap.
Since Em is home more than I am, she tends to take lead on our home cooking and makes large amounts of food for us to eat throughout the week. In addition to staples (eggs, butter, milk, breakfast cereal, etc), our budget is usually about $60/week. I’ve discussed our tips for healthy grocery shopping in a previous entry.
Even with our domestic cooking and grocery game on lock, we still love treating ourselves to a meal out every now and then.
Usually it’s a matter of convenience, or a celebration of some kind- but it’s also just a love of restaurant-going and trying out new places. For a cook, going out and trying other peoples food is necessity. It’s like a writer devouring novels, or a painter going to a museum. The more you expose yourself to as a creative and a craftsperson, the better you get. It’s that simple.
As an aspiring food writer, going out and trying new things is doubly important- I need things to write about, AND I can’t just describe the same places over and over again. As much as I love food carts, there’s only so many times you can describe eating hot foil-wrapped what-have-you before it gets cliche.
That’s why one particular hunk of that old chestnut “Millennials are killing the ____ industry” kinda tickles me. Apparently we aren’t going out to eat so much anymore- or at the very least, we’re being more choosy.
That’s not surprising in-and-of itself. In case you’ve missed it the last few years, most folks are being a bit more wary about how they are spending their money, and going out to eat- being one hell of a luxury- is usually an immediate cut. “I’d love to go to the bar, but drinks are so expensive…” “That places menu looks AMAZING, but it’s so pricy! Maybe for my birthday or something…”
This is all restaurants really, but what really makes me chuckle is when we are called out for specifically killing businesses and business models like “fast casual dining.”
Who is “fast casual?” Our old friends TGI Fridays, Applebees, and Buffalo Wild Wings, for example. And why are they feeling the squeeze? Because… sorry to say, we don’t have the money to waste on crap.
No, that’s not classist to say, and if you like them, great. That’s your preference. But the truth of the matter is that most people Em and my age don’t have that much money to spend, and we are concerned with being thriftier. We want more bang for our buck, and that includes finding it on menus.
The “bigger food is better food” ethos of the 50s is long since dead. Giant portions for “cheap” prices are for dares, jokes, and YouTube videos. In fact, Americans don’t know what an actual “portion” of food is.
If Em and I decide we’re going to go out, it had better be either really damn good, or somehow worth the experience and the money involved.
So how DO we do it? How do Em and I manage to feed our foodie habit, but not wind up in debt over dinner? Here’s a couple of tips:
Keep A Hit List
In Portland, everyone has an opinion about where the best ____ can be found, and faithful followers of certain carts or restaurants will proselytize with little to no prodding. If you are more the exploratory type, you can easily find neat little holes-in-the wall, bars, pubs, and more wherever you happen to be poking around. Keep track of places you want to visit– you can either save them as pins on a Google map, take pictures of the menus and save them on your phone, or just write them down in a small notebook (my personal favorite for leads on new places to write about.)
Do Your Homework
Look up their hours and menus online. Make a deal with the devil that is Yelp and check out their reviews. Get a sense of how much a night out will be and (here’s the big BIG secret) BUDGET FOR IT. Yes, spontaneity is fun, but unless you have the financial stability to be spontaneous a LOT, you’ll have to settle for the joy of setting aside money and spending it on the things you like (which is, itself, quite enjoyable.) Include alcohol if you’re gonna drink, and tip.
Because you ARE going to tip, right?
Don’t be that guy.
Eyes and Ears Open for Promotions
Yes, this CAN be a little tacky if you’re on a date (unless your date is also a frugal foodie)- but seriously, pay attention to special deals or promotions. Does that place you like have a happy hour? What’s on the menu? Most places will offer some version of their best plates at a reduced price or portion on those things.
If it’s a fancier place, do they do a chef’s tasting menu? Emily and I went to one of Portland’s best restaurants for our anniversary last year, and because of their incredible tasting menu, we got a full meal- plus alcohol- AND tasted all their best work for only about $75 each. Some places will offer a prix-fixe menu that offers a limited menu for a flat price, or something like it. Kachka, another of Portlands best, offers a unique experience where the kitchen will fill your table with a random assortment of cold appetizers- that you knock back with enough vodka to drown a Siberian bear. Drunken antics for $30 a head? Not bad at all!
You Don’t Have To Break the Bank!
I don’t know if going out to eat counts as a hobby, but if so, it’s an expensive one- and one of my favorites. It helps me as both a cook and a writer to experience new foods and preparations. Even if you DON’T aspire to be the next James Beard, going out to eat is a fun experience that everyone should get to enjoy.
You don’t need to break the bank, and it may take a little more planning, budgeting and deliberation than if you were Rich Uncle Pennybags, but just because you’re living tight doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
What do you think? What’s a place you’re willing to save up to try for a night?