Saturday, October 24, 2015

Restaurant Dining

Eating at restaurants should be a fun social activity, not a chance to refuel.

As I have noted in other postings, eating out in restaurants several nights a week (or for lunch every day) is one way to go broke and ratchet up credit card debt.   When I say this, people get reactionary (and I hate that) and say things like, "Well, you gotta have fun once in a while!"

Once in a while, yes, every damn day, no.   There are people in this country with gourmet kitchens with high-end appliances and whatnot, and inside their subzero refrigerator is nothing but three moldy Styrofoam clamshells that they brought home from a restaurant the night before.

And if you ask them, they are "too busy to cook!" but not too busy to spend four hours every night in front of the television, or an hour every day driving to work.    The reality is, it is a habit, and a nasty one.  We get comfortable having someone else prepare our food, and since we don't eat proper snacks between meals, we are not "too tired" to cook, but "too hungry" and want instant gratification.

So we order out or go out to dinner - or lunch - and run up more debt and then get fat and pay a personal trainer to help us work it all off.  It is an idiotic way to go through life.

Eating out can be a lot of fun, but it can also be a huge cause of credit card debt.   Many Americans eat dinner out five nights a week or more, plus lunches and breakfasts, and as a result run up huge credit card debts over time.  Like the lady in a recent posting, they act bewildered as to "where all the money went."

Again, this is not to say you should never eat out, only that it should be a fun special experience, not merely a chance to refuel your stomach.    And you can eat out once in a while (like once a week) and not spend a lot of money.    As I noted in an earlier posting, restaurant meals can cost four times as much as a meal made at home.  The amount of savings here isn't trivial.

But it isn't hard to go to a nice restaurant and spend $100 on a meal for two people, with a bottle of wine.   Such meals are fine for once-in-a-while, but a middle-class person can't afford to eat that way every night - nor can their waistline!

1.  DON'T use a restaurant as a kitchen:  Dining out should be a special occasion, not a chance to refuel yourself.   Make a habit of preparing your own meals 80% of the time, at least.

2.  Let's Do Lunch:   In most restaurants, breakfast is the cheapest meal, followed by lunch and then dinner, which is twice as expensive as lunch.   If you are dining out on vacation, for example, try doing lunch instead of dinner, as it will be a lot cheaper.  If you are in New Orleans, for example, there are a lot of very fine restaurants - that are very expensive to visit for dinner.  For lunch, though, the same food is often half-price.  Experience the cuisine and the ambiance, at half the cost!

3.  Avoid the Expense Account Restaurants:   Hotels and Convention Centers cater to business people on expense accounts.   Expensive "chop houses" with their mammoth steaks and $18 baked potatoes (I kid you not) are fine when you are spending the company's money on client entertainment (but even that is not fully deductible!).   Such places don't cater to ordinary folks like us, and are prohibitively expensive.  It just doesn't make sense to eat at place designed for folks on expense accounts (unless that $18 potato is your entree!)

4.  Order Less:  Ordering a pile of food and then taking some of it home in Styrofoam clamshells is not cost-effective.   You are not "saving money" by bringing some food poisoning nightmare to work the next day as lunch.  Order an appetizer as an entree, or split an entree.   Just because the menu has appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, and desserts does not mean you have to order one of each.

5.  Explore Early Bird Specials and Prix Fixe:  Yes, the "early bird special" that old people like is often a bargain.   Similarly, prix fixe meals (offering an appetizer, salad, entree, and dessert, often with a glass of wine, for a fixed price) can often be a better deal than ordering a la carte.

6.  Avoid Chain Restaurants:   Getting back to #1 above, most chain restaurants cater to the restaurant-as-kitchen crowd, who want bland, inoffensive and uninteresting foods that you could easily make at home for a lot less money.   A plate of pasta with sauce and bread is not a very interesting meal - nor a difficult one to assemble on your stove in a matter of a few minutes.  And no, "unlimited breadsticks" doesn't make it a bargain.  Moreover, most chain restaurants, even though modestly priced, are no real bargain, in terms of value for the money.   You can go bankrupt, one restaurant meal at a time, and kidding yourself that Chi Chi McGullicuddy's Onion Garden Lobster Buffet is "affordable" is one way to do it.

7.  Specials:  Often specials are not so special.  Sometimes they are an attempt by the kitchen to get rid of a lot of food stock that is about to expire.  Sometimes they are an attempt by the kitchen to expand the menu and offer variety.   Sometimes they are bargain-priced items.  Other times, they are often the most expensive item on the menu.  Many people bite on a "special" because it is the last thing that sticks in their mind when the server comes to take an order.   But think about them carefully, particularly when the server doesn't mention the price.

8.  Look at Prices:   Every restaurant menu has a cheapest item (usually a pasta or chicken dish) and a most expensive item (the surf 'n turf, for example).  Usually neither are ordered very often.  The former may be a bland, flavorless mess that is no real bargain.  The latter is a rarely prepared item and is rarely prepared well.    If you are more than 100 miles from Maine or Florida, chances are the surf 'n turf includes a frozen lobster tail.  Obscenely priced entrees are a doubly bad bargain as not only are they expensive, but since they are rarely ordered, they are often not prepared well.

9.  The Wine List:   Some restaurants provide a phone-book like volume as a wine list.   I generally dislike these.   There is too much to choose from, and many of the wines are horrifically overpriced (such as the $2200 bottle of wine I saw at Antoine's in the French Quarter.  Here's a hint:  If you go there for dinner, eat at the bar, as it is a lot more casual).  Some of these lists are a bad joke, as the proprietor doesn't even stock half the labels, and some labels have been sitting so long they are corked and undrinkable.  Most folks order wines within a fairly narrow price range.   And there is no shame in ordering the cheapest (or second-cheapest) bottle on the menu.  Antoine's, in addition to a $2200 bottle of wine, had a $30 one, which was just fine.  The best restaurants have a compact and interesting wine list that is reasonably priced.

10.   The Wine Up-Sell:  Often the server will suggest a different wine, usually a more expensive one.  If it is only a dollar or two, then maybe it is a genuine recommendation.   However, if it is twice the price - or worse yet, the price is undisclosed - then maybe you should take a pass.   I fell for this once, being talked out of a $28 Pinot Noir and into a $65 one, when the server neglected to mention the price delta.  Another little sneaky trick is to bring you a different bottle than what you ordered.  You order the $30 bottle and they bring you a $50 bottle, and if you didn't pay too much attention to the name, you may say, "That's fine" and not realize you've been stealth upsold.  And yes, this has happened to me as well, on more than one occasion.

11. Dessert:  Great desserts are worthwhile, but few at most restaurants are truly great.   A server comes to your table and makes Cherries Jubilee or Bananas Foster, complete with a fiery show, and it is fantastic.  Other times, I have had  plates of melting mush brought to me from the kitchen, and felt gypped out of $10.   If they make their own pies and cakes, maybe it is worthwhile - but it is also very rare to find this.   Desserts are a huge mark-up item for most restaurants and servers are taught to sell, sell, sell, the upgrade.   Problem is, most restaurants don't even make their own desserts but instead order them from a local bakery or the like (act shocked).   So you pay $12 for a piece of a cake or a pie that the restaurant paid.... $12 for.   And it isn't even fresh half the time.

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Some non-economic restaurant tips:

Many people love to complain on Yelp about service at a restaurant, and most of these people never worked in a restaurant and thus have no clue what is going on.  If you go to a busy restaurant during peak serving time and then make a bunch of special requests, well, you're going to be giving out one-star Yelp reviews and it's your fault, not theirs.

1.  Off Hours Dining:   Eating early or late at any popular restaurant means getting the table you want and good service.   And often this means shifting your meal time by as little as a half-hour.   You go to a restaurant and there is a line out the door at 6:30.   At 7:30 half the tables are empty.   When would you prefer to dine?   There are some caveats, of course.  If you go for the "early bird special" the staff may be distracted and disorganized due to set-up issues.   Going late may mean some menu items are sold out.  But overall, less crowded is better.

2.  Bottle of Wine, Pitcher of Beer:   At a busy restaurant, consider ordering all of your drinks at once, by ordering  a bottle or wine or a pitcher of beer for the table.   You never have to wait for a refill on your drink this way.   It amazes me that some folks in a party of four cannot agree on the same beverage, but insist on all having different drinks - one orders a martini, another a lite beer, a third a glass of house wine, and the fourth a frozen strawberry margarita.   For the cost of four shit drinks, you can have a nice bottle of wine.   And martinis and margaritas are not usually drinks one serves with a meal -  if you have any taste at all that is (exception, maybe some Mexican joints, a margarita might be in order, but frankly, a good Mexican beer is a better choice.   So many Americans order lite beer.  How sad).

3.  Order All At Once:   In the restaurant business, you may see two or three people before you even see your server.   A maitre d' greets you at the door, and hands you off to someone who leads you to a table and perhaps hands you menus.  Someone else comes and brings you water and says, "your server will be here shortly".   The server then takes a drink order and then comes back with drinks, and then leaves again and comes back later for food orders.   You can literally wait a half-hour before you even order.  If the restaurant is busy, you may wait another half-hour for your food.   An hour goes by and now your blood sugar is reaching Yelp one-star low.  Read the menu and save the chit-chat for later and get your order in early.   You can enjoy talking over drinks while you wait for your food.

4.  Don't Be Afraid to Leave:   Some restaurants are dysfunctional.  One or more of the servers, busboys, cooks, or whoever is stoned out of their mind (drugs are a big problem in the restaurant business) or they just can't get it together for other reasons.   For example, I related how we once went to Red Lobster out of curiosity - after someone had given us a gift card.  No one ever waited on us, so we left.    If you are sitting at a table and no one comes to take your order or even bring you menus, you've been "forgotten" and chances are, that means the restaurant has some service issues.   If you detect these sort of problems early on (e.g., other people at adjacent tables complaining, harried staff, disappearing staff, etc.) it is probably best to cut your losses and move on.  Trying to make a bad deal into a good deal never works.  

Some people try to do the opposite - they snap their fingers and complain to the manger, convinced they can "fix" the restaurant and get better service.  It rarely works.  Just stop patronizing the place and let it go out of business.  Or maybe realize the problem is you, not them.   A friend of mine keeps going to the same restaurant every week, and then complaining that the service is poor.   They badger the help and complain to the manager, convinced they are going to get better service - or maybe a free meal.   It never works, they are never happy.   Dine someplace else.

By the way, I bought stock in Darden, and since it shed Red Lobster the stock has gone up about 30% and it pays a dividend of 3.44%.  All the financial press was writing the epitaph of the company, because stories like that sell newspapers and generate click-through revenue.

5. Don't Make a Nuisance of Yourself:   Making special orders and special requests, particularly during the peak dinner rush is one sure way to make yourself unpopular and also end up disappointed, when the chef doesn't prepare the food according to your complicated instructions.   Another friend likes to order chicken wings, but "no drumsticks" which is an odd thing, and hard to do, since they come out a five pound bag (you are asking the cook to hand-sort the wings, basically).   The server makes some verbal request to the cook, but since it is busy, he forgets, and my friend gets pissed-off.  A better approach would be to maybe share the order with a friend who likes the drumsticks, perhaps.

You don't have a "right" to change ingredients on a menu.  And no, chances are, you are not lactose intolerant, or require a gluten-free diet, or whatever.  It is just some magazine article you read.  Going to a restaurant and expecting them to cater to your every need is unrealistic.   And restaurants that try to pander to such customers are usually not very good restaurants.*   Trying to order Vegan at the chophouse is just stupid, really.    Either learn to live with what they are serving, or dine somewhere that serves what you want.   People who claim to have special food needs or desires are often just being passive-aggressive and are trying to get attention.

Now again, some extremist will say, "Well what about food allergies?"   I have two friends who have very real food allergies (as opposed to say, helicopter Moms who diagnose imaginary allergies in their kids).  One is to peanuts, the other to shellfish.   They carry epi-pens with them at all times, as they have had near-death experiences due to these allergies.   Their situation is far different than the idiot who reads something in the paper about glutens and then decides they are allergic to them through self-diagnosis.

And sadly, the fake allergy people screw things up for the real allergy people.   Because so many folks claim to have afflictions today, some restaurants don't take seriously claims by patrons that they are severely allergic to some food items. 

And when it comes to food preferences just order something else.   Mark had a lady order the garlic chicken one day, "but could you make it without the garlic?"    In other words, she wanted a grilled breast of bland, flavorless chicken.   He brought her one and she was ecstatic.

In other situations, people like her end up screwing up the menu.   A fine Tapas place in Old Town went out of business after they catered to the bland crowd.   The garlic spinach was reduced to a bland mass of watery spinach after one customer complained "there was too much garlic" in it.   They dumbed-down the food to satisfy one loudmouth jackass who knew nothing about food and had no taste.   Before the year was out, they were out of business.  There is a lesson there for restaurateurs.  The customer isn't always right, and if you pander to the customer too much, you end up losing business, not gaining it.  The best restaurants have a line out the door and treat you as though it were a privilege to eat there - which it often is.

But regardless, if you make special requests and special orders, don't be upset, surprised, or disappointed when the result is less than expected or takes a whole long longer to prepare.  Most restaurants are set up to make certain things in mass quantities, particularly when the rush is on.   Expecting custom-made cuisine is just not reasonable.

*  When I go to a restaurant and they have each item on the menu identified with a panoply of symbols for "Gluten Free" or "Vegan" or whatnot,  I know that it is not going to be a very good restaurant.  They are pandering to the crowd.   The best restaurants don't have to do that - and they don't.

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This is not to say you should never order some of these things or never go out to eat.   Again, I hate it when people twist my words around and say idiotic things like "Well, I don't want to live on beans!" - as if dining out at Chez Paul and eating a leftover can of beans are the only two options in life.

These are just hints and suggestions and ideas to think about.   A restaurant meal can be a lot of fun, once in a while.   And it need not bankrupt you, either.