food critic offers tips on the new economics of dining
little while ago, some of the quick-food joints figured out
an important trend in our dining: Subway has been offering
$5 sandwiches for more than a year and started doing so around
the time Boston Market came up with $5 entrées. Joining the
frugal fray in May is T.G.I. Friday’s, which just dropped
the price of several of its offerings to five bucks.
places like this are feeling the pinch, what about white-linen
and casual dining restaurants? A number of new deals have
been appearing on menus throughout the area, a sign that one
of the first things to go when you’re closing household budget
gaps is dining out. Restaurant meals can’t help but be exponentially
more expensive than the dinners you cook at home. Yet there’s
evidence—it’s anecdotal, so don’t put my feet to the fire—that
folks tend not to cut back on dining out as much as they could
during lean times. I suspect that the comfort offered by a
good restaurant meal becomes even more attractive as everything
else in your life goes south.
Is it possible to continue to enjoy your favorite eateries
even as paychecks shrink and disappear? I believe so. But,
then again, I’m paid to believe so. Not that I’m paid much.
My freelancing life is always a bouncy economic ride, so long
ago I developed my own strategies for minimizing meal expenses
without having to cook too often.
At first those strategies were transparent and/or stupid.
Take, for example, the challenge of dining out with others.
As a teenager, I learned that patting my back pocket in the
famous “where’s-my-wallet?” move fooled nobody. So I refined
it into a more careful scam, deciding ahead of time what I
could afford to pay for the meal and putting only that amount
of cash in my wallet. (Needless to say, I had no credit cards.)
At the moment of truth, I would very obviously produce every
last dollar I was carrying and murmur, “Listen, I think I’m
a little short.” The trick was to sit close to someone who
didn’t know me well, someone inclined to respond with a “Don’t
worry about it.” The downside, of course, is that you can’t
use that tactic too often.
Once I got my first credit card, I fell into the same trap
so many encounter and deluded myself into thinking it was
free money. On restaurant meals alone, I maxed out in no time.
It’s a gambling tactic, a hand you can play when you’re sure
there’s a big payoff coming down the pike. Of course, most
gamblers think there’s a big payoff coming down the pike,
and probably continue to think so as they enter bankruptcy.
It’s better to approach the dining-out quandary with some
manner of budgetary precision. Look over your restaurant expenses
for the past year. Mine, because of the work I do, get their
own Quicken category. Three main variables define you dining:
where you go, how often, and what you spend. You’ll save money
if you patronize different places, visit the same restaurants
less often, or cut out the appetizers and order cheaper entrées.
You didn’t need that dessert anyway.
Beyond that, how about cutting a deal with your favorites
for a discount? It’s not as far-fetched as it may sound. It’s
not just the chain restaurants that have been lowering prices
or, at least, offering economical combos. Ask if there’s a
reward program for frequent dining, which may well encourage
the owner to institute one.
There are significant ways to look at the matter of dining
at less-expensive restaurants. Theoretically, quality increases
with price, but at some point all you’re paying for is prestige.
This is the case with every high-end enterprise, be it audio
equipment, vacation resorts or fancy clothing. Maybe you can
live without being fussed over by a maitre d’. Do you really
need a designer label, so to speak, on your dinner check?
Now is a great time to deepen your interest in the cuisine
of unfamiliar ethnicity. Unfortunately, to do that, you’ll
have to go to New York or any other major metropolitan area.
Albany is getting there, but slowly and with cries of pain.
When we get an Ethiopian restaurant, I’ll stop bitching. We
have had a recent efflorescence of Asian and Middle Eastern
eateries, and I’m thrilled to see a low-priced Polish restaurant
(Muza) join Troy’s array, which already includes representatives
from Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Jamaica and Cuba.
It used to be called slumming, that practice of whisking your
top-hatted, fur-coated friends to some little dive where you
could display your hauteur while saving money on the
grub. Now it’s called financial survival. And once you lose
the hauteur, you’ll win an owner’s greeting far more
sincere than that of the well-paid maitre d’.
But how, I hear you asking, can I dine without paying anything
at all? It’s simpler than you may think. Try to find richer
friends. They’re out there. They don’t usually move in your
social circles, so you’re going to have to upscale your life
a bit. If you’re an artist, seek wealthy patrons. Otherwise,
wear respectable clothing and mingle with the well-heeled.
Insinuate yourself into the intermission crowd at opening
night of a symphony season and second-act the concert. Chances
are that there will be a reception afterward. There’s dinner!
Posing as a reporter, find a hotel with a noontime press conference
that has lunch attached. Ask a few questions—they don’t even
have to be intelligent ones (you’re a reporter, after all)—and
glom onto the buffet.
Or work as a real reporter and review restaurants. If you
haven’t got a print publication up your sleeve, try blogging.
Push your way past the background noise with quality writing,
good photos (and please, please, a good layout), and eventually
they’ll be coming to you, offering free eats.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
(Thursday) you should get yourself online and
go to fsacollegestore .com, find the Ticket Sales
option, and buy your way into the dinner-concert
taking place at 6 PM on Monday (April 20). Your
$60 secures a seat at a three-course meal crafted
by Schenectady County Community College Chef Gerhard
Moser, featuring butternut bisque, his signature
roasted hen diab and a dessert of profiteroles.
Carefully selected wine will accompany each course.
This takes place at the college’s Van Curler Room,
after which you’ll trot across the hall to the
Lally-Mohawk Room for a concert by the Musicians
of Ma’alwyck featuring music by J.C. Bach,
Boieldieu and Spohr for violin, cello and harp.
You need to reserve your seats now, and if the
online option is too oppressive, call 377-3623.
. . . Schenectady Day Nursery presents
its 10th annual benefit, “A Little Bit of Jazz
& More,” from 5:30 to 8 PM, April 30 at Proctors
Fennimore Gallery (432 State St., Schenectady).
Classé Catering’s menu includes jumbo shrimp,
sesame chicken with crispy noodles, steak canapés
with goat cheese, short rib sliders, potato rosti,
truffle risotto cakes and more. And there will
be a cheese display, tapas plates, two pasta station
items and cookies and chocolates for dessert.
The event also features complimentary beverages
including beer and wine, and jazz by Colleen Pratt
& Friends. Ticket are $50; reserve them by
calling 573-0773. . . . Remember to pass your
scraps to Metroland.