In Sex and the City it seemed as if Carrie and the girls were always eating out. Whether meeting for a gossip over brunch, or queuing for hours to get into Manhattan’s hottest new place, going out was all about the restaurants. For skint-in-the-city girls, however, nothing munches a hole in the budget faster than eating out. Just looking at restaurant prices can make your eyes water. Six pounds for a starter, twelve pounds for a main, and how could you pass up on those desserts? That’s before you’ve even got to the wine list, and before some smart-ass with more cash than sense asks the waiter for fizzy water. With a few minutes the meal is costing you more than your entire week’s food budget.
What’s the alternative though? Stop eating in restaurants? No way! There’s nothing like the buzz that comes from checking out the latest place or eating food that you’d never cook at home, be it sushi, Thai or tapas. Skint in the city girls simply need to be a bit savvier about the way they eat out. Here are a few tricks which have served me well over the years.
Share: It’s entirely acceptable to share both starters and desserts when dining at a restaurant. I’d perhaps draw the line at sharing a bowl of soup – as much for the mess as anything else – but sharing a plate of seafood or antipasti won’t raise an eyebrow. Don’t worry about coming across as a cheapskate either – you’re more likely to be regarded as Continental. Ditto sharing desserts: it’s more fun with your pals, more romantic with your date or partner – and half the price of course.
Timing is everything: Simply eating at a different time of day or different day of the week instantly guarantees you better deals. Many restaurants offer great two or three-course deals Monday to Thursday and, with the kitchen less frazzled, the quality is often better too. You’re also more likely to be able to pick and choose the best table. Eating out straight after work brings big advantages: you’re more likely to be in the city centre already, which cuts out taxi fares into town; you’ll eat earlier and call it a night earlier too, saving money on post-dinner drinks, and – my personal favourite reason – it feels slightly decadent to eat out with friends on a Monday night. Knowing that you’re enjoying great food whilst most people are watching Coronation Street has a faintly illicit air to it that you don’t get when dining with the crowds at the weekend. I highly recommend it.
Lunch is another great option. Places are often less crowded, the choice is just as good and the prices are most always a good deal lower. Fixed price lunches present a brilliant opportunity to try swanky restaurants that you’d never normally be able to afford, and by eating at one o’clock you’ve got the rest of the day stretching out before you, which creates a sense of opportunity and excitement that dinner can’t quite match. So many great adventures must have started with lunch! Pre-theatre is another tried-and-tested way to avoid the high prices that come with later dining.
Afternoon tea: Once solely the preserve of powdered elderly ladies, afternoon tea has grown in status and popularity recently till it’s now the chicest thing in town. The biggest mystery is why we didn’t all embrace it years ago. From those darling trays of cupcakes, almost too gorgeous to eat, to dinky little sandwiches and the chance to drink champagne by the glass at a reasonable price, afternoon tea is like heaven on earth for skint-in-the-city girls. It’s stylish, it’s delicious and you can combine it with an afternoon’s shopping. It’s also way cheaper than going out for lunch or dinner and somehow feels like much more of a special treat. Afternoon tea is very Sex and the City and a brilliant, relatively cheap, way to celebrate a birthday with a crowd of friends.
Don’t follow the herd: In eating out, as in life, it pays to go against the grain. This applies with bells on for special events. No smart girl goes out to eat on Valentines Day. If you want to celebrate your love, do so on a random Tuesday when the world has been cruel to you both.
Deal or no deal: Eating out more cheaply isn’t simply a case of eating out-of-hours. There are also lots of other ways of ensuring you get the best deals on your meals. Pre-booking is the smartest way to go, using a site like 5pm.co.uk. Martin Lewis’s celebrated money-saving site, http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/ also has a section where you can download restaurant discount vouchers. Some of these are terrific; for two minutes work you can bag yourself a half-price meal at a range of well-known restaurants. And every January The Times carries a Two Meals for a Fiver promotion which allows you to eat dirt-cheap at a wide range of places across the country.
Get it on tap: Drinking tap water isn’t just kinder on your pocket but on the planet too and, unless you live in an area where the water from the tap tastes really foul, it’s the way to go. Don’t allow the waiter’s ‘still or sparkling?’ to deter you from ordering what you want: good plain water from the tap. We’re lucky to have it.