For our family, living a frugal life means stretching each dollar as far as it can go. What it doesn't mean is sacrificing our quality of life. When it comes to eating out, we, like any family, sometimes need a break from the kitchen. Whether it be for a change of pace or to fulfill a craving - or simply to avoid doing dishes - going out to eat is a treat that we enjoy a few times a month.
Napa Valley, the place we call home, is the Garden of Eden when it comes to restaurants. From The French Laundry to Meadowood to La Toque to Morimoto's to countless others, there is no lack of amazing places to find your next meal. What can be difficult is finding an affordable meal, especially on a monthly restaurant budget of $50.
I am here to tell you that, even in one of the most expensive places in the world to dine, it can be done. In fact, we're typically able to stretch $50 into two or more meals over the course of a month. Are we eating at one of the Napa Valley's many Michelin star restaurants? Obviously not if we're paying. But we are enjoying incredible, budget-friendly meals and having fun as a family. Here's how we make it happen:
- Counter service: These days, plenty of non-fast food restaurants offer great menus without table service. Avoiding a 20% tip stretches your budget.
- Tip properly: When you do have table service, tip well - as I waitressed during college, it's a rare occasion when I tip less than 20%. However, don't forget to calculate your tip on the bill before tax. Here in California - where restaurant tax is nearly 10% - that makes a big difference. (For fellow Californians, an easy tip trick is to double the tax on your bill to tip 20%. Voila!) Even when you don't have table service, put a dollar or two in the tip jar - you'll feel good about paying it forward.
- Share your meal: Portion sizes at restaurants are often so large that each person doesn't need their own meal. Sharing a dish with your partner or child will make the most of your night's budget.
- Drink water: You'll shave at least $10 or more off your night's bill if you forgo fancy beverages for Plain Jane water. Drinking water obviously applies to more than just eating out - it's also a good way to cut your grocery bill, not to mention great for your health. Miss a glass of wine with your meal? Enjoy it as a nightcap when you get home.
- BYOB: If you do want wine with dinner, bring your own. More and more restaurants these days have corkage fees, typically $10-$20 to open your bottle (there are quite a few in Napa that waive the fee completely). Before heading out for dinner, call the restaurant to find out if you can bring wine. At the end of the night, remember to tip your server as if you had purchased a bottle of wine off the menu - look at the wine list to find a bottle close to your budget and mentally add that amount to your bill (minus any corkage fees).
- Happy Hour pricing: As anyone with little kids knows, it's all about the early dinner! What's good for your little ones is also great for your checkbook as an early dinner helps you take advantage of deals like happy hour pricing. It's not all about the booze anymore (although two beers for the price of one is sure to make Mom & Dad happy!). Many restaurants have deals on appetizers or nightly specials - call ahead to find out what they offer and until what time.
- Nightly specials: To build up business local spots may offer specials on weeknights. Whether deals are on specific menu items or the entire meal, it pays to find out so you can get the most bang for your buck. Here in Napa one of our favorite places to eat, the Oxbow Public Market, has Local's Night on Tuesday. We rarely eat at the Oxbow on any other night as the Tuesday deals are too good to pass up.
- Join a club: Does your favorite sandwich place offer you a free sandwich once you've purchased ten? Lots of restaurants have loyalty clubs - ask the next time you're there.
- Get on the email list/fan their Facebook page: Find out how your favorite places share deals with their customers and make sure you're in the know. For example, one of our favorite pizza spots in town, Firewood Cafe, offers two pizzas for the price of one a few times throughout the year. We get updates via email and plan a night out around the special.
- Coupons: While it can be difficult to find coupons for local restaurants, it's nice to have a few for the big chains in your back pocket in case you need them. For instance, we always clip the Subway coupons so that when we want to go for a picnic and don't have the fixins' at home we can get two subs for the price of one. Our bill always comes to less than $6 for the whole family to eat. Not too shabby.
- Go out for breakfast: One of my favorite discoveries since having a child is the joy of eating out for breakfast. I'm not sure why we never ventured out for breakfast before, but something tells me it's because we were, well, sleeping. Since there's not much of that going on anymore, we may as well get up and start the day with some delicious food! Besides scrumptious waffles and pancakes and sausage and bacon and chicken friend steak and biscuits and oh-so-many-wonderful treats, one of the best things about going out for breakfast is the price. Not to mention your child is running on a full tank of gas and on his/her best behavior. Ah yes, breakfast is the meal of champions.