Ever been confused or hesitant about what to order at a restaurant? Wonder how to get the most out of your money when dining out? Have you asked where one should go to eat for health? If you’ve answered yes to any of those questions, then this is post is for you!
Types of Restaurants and How They Make Money
Usually, they make what nearly all people make at a lower cost and better. To begin with, they buy in bulk, so they’re typically paying 1/4 to 2/3 of what most consumers pay for the same ingredients. The most affordable restaurants — think McDonald’s Dollar Menu, from which you can put together a meal for under $5 — signal that it’s cheaper and more convenient and pleasurable to eat with them than it is to cook at home. That’s often true for those cooking for one, unless you’re an exceptional cook or only eating the cheapest of frozen meals and ramen.
Then there are restaurants that cost, for many, 10-35% more than cooking a standard home meal but provide good value. Alive Juice Bar’s salmon meal and Soup Nazi Kitchen’s beef stew are examples. At $10 and $11 respectively, they cost a bit more than making beef spaghetti and salad at home. But it’s salmon and slow cooked chuck roast, both of which are more expensive ingredients than ground beef and neither of which are easy to prepare for inexperienced cooks. Japanese ramen is another example, mine costs $17 after tip. I can’t make it as well or as cheaply, and I don’t want to spend money on equipment and the time to figure out how to do so because that’s not what I want to eat everyday. Or how about the Greek diner and gyros? These restaurants offer an affordable break from people’s weekly repertoire of home cooked meals.
Casual outing restaurants cost $50-$100 for two, and alcoholic drinks are more likely to accompany the meal. Décor and ambiance matter at such places, people are looking for an escape from everyday life, they want something different from the usual. Sometimes the food isn’t any different or better than what’s served at lower cost options because people are visiting for the restaurant’s aura as much as for the food. Occasionally, the food is original — nothing like it found elsewhere — and spectacular enough to win (or deserve) Micheline stars. Great chefs can make amazing dishes with low cost ingredients.
Special occasion restaurants start at $100 for two, without alcohol, and can exceed $1000 if it involves bottles of wine. While the food isn’t necessarily better than what’s found at casual outing restaurants, it’s more expensive because it’s made with higher priced, though not necessarily better, ingredients. A casual outing restaurant might serve a well marbled tri-tip steak, which most chefs consider superior in flavor to the more expensive beef tenderloin served at the special occasion restaurant. The décor is usually noticeably grander than what you’d find at more casual restaurants.
And finally, the once in a lifetime restaurants, the ones most go to once in their lives with no intention to return. These restaurants either have at least two Micheline stars or are ranked in the top 50 by UK based Restaurant Magazine. The décor and service is typically memorable and regardless of location, prices generally range from $200 – $800 per person. Three Micheline star Alinea in Chicago offers a budget $200/person tasting menu (served in its secondary dining room), which costs the same as the lowest priced tasting menu (no drinks) served by 11th ranked Maido Restaurant in lower cost locale Lima, Peru. Since most of these restaurants offer tasting menus with drink pairings, the cost per person is set, drunken carelessness won’t result in like a $2,000 bill for two.
Purposes of Going to a Restaurant
Here are a few common ones:
- Too lazy or busy to cook, want to save time.
- They make it better and/or cheaper than I do.
- Boredom, want to experience something new.
- Comfort, place is a second home, enjoy talking to the people there.
- Educational, want to learn different ways to serve, host, and cook.
- Celebrate a special occasion.
- Curiosity, why is this restaurant so famous?
How to Order on a Budget Without Destroying Your Health
Most fast food places have budget menus. At my local McDonald’s (Everett WA) a double cheeseburger and medium fries costs $4, tax not included. A double cheeseburger and a McChicken costs the same. Those are great deals, most don’t have the equipment to make fries or fried chicken patties of that quality. And the cost to make a comparable double cheese burger at home is the same, except it takes 10 minutes if you’re fast (includes cleanup time). A better use of time is to buy salad dressing and a ready to use assorted greens salad mix and pair the Dollar Menu Meal with a salad that takes a minute to make and clean. Final cost for a somewhat healthy meal: $5, $6 if it’s a big ass salad. It’s not grossly unhealthy — note that there isn’t an allowance for soda here — to do that two to three times a week to save time and money, especially if you’re cooking for one.
On other days, you want to slow down and have a nicer meal. Salmon perhaps, especially during the dark months for its Vitamin D content. You could pick one up at Alive Juice Bar for $10, tax included. It’s a complete meal that’s high in fiber because of the curry *brown* rice and beans and has at least three different types of seasonal veggies. Once a week, for $15, tip included, I go to Happy Pho in Everett for a healthy pho that includes soybean sprouts, basil leaves (expensive), broccoli, onion, jalapenos, and carrots. I skip the noodles (low carb diet) and get the beef tendon and tripe (both expensive and difficult to cook well) for its high collagen and protein content. It’s fast too, served in under three minutes after I order. It’s on the way after going to the gym and I can’t make it for less or better. Tastes good too.
How to Order at a Restaurant for Health and Budget
Sometimes you want to spend more on a nice full-service restaurant. Here are tips for ordering at a restaurant.
- The typical appetizer -> entrée -> desert order is too much food for most people. If you’re stuffed after a meal, it was too much food. You should be comfortable enough to take a brisk walk after a meal.
- You don’t have to order an entrée. If the appetizers look interesting, order a collection of them to make a meal for two or more, all shared. For instance, from Anthony’s Homeport in Everett, WA: bowl of clam chowder ($14); blue cheese salad w/shrimp ($11); mussels ($17); crispy calamari ($19). Those appetizers add up to $63, tax not included and are more than enough to feed two at a casual outing restaurant. If there’s an entrée you want, ask for it to be served family style so it can be easily shared.
- Balance flavors and textures. Nothing wrong with ordering the same or similar ingredients twice or thrice, but avoid too much repetition. Calamari tastes better when it’s contrasted with something that isn’t fried, like raw oysters. A salad that’s light (no heavy dressing) balances out a fatty dish like foie gras or fried chicken and makes both taste better. Mashed potatoes and fries are different textures and it’s okay to have both for an enjoyable meal, but too much of both is bad for your health and likely unpleasant for your palate after a few bites. Don’t use fried rice as an accompaniment to main dishes at a Chinese restaurant, the mess of flavors will quickly dull your palate, which leads to overeating. You eat less when you get the pleasure you expect sooner than later. Order white rice instead, it’ll accentuate the flavors of the main dishes.
- Aim for diversity of flavors, textures, and ingredients. The contrasts make everything taste better, and a diverse diet is a healthy diet. Nothing wrong with having beef five ways if it’s a bite or two of each — something like this happens with themed tasting menus. But avoid ordering, for instance, beef stew and a 12 oz. steak unless you plan to share it. Otherwise, you might get bored of your steak.
- If you’re having trouble deciding what you want, order what you haven’t had in awhile. A diverse diet is healthier, use the opportunity to try something different.
- I think drink pairings are bullshit, and I’m not the only one. It’ll cost less to have a drink at home before, maybe one at the restaurant, and then a nightcap at home. That saves a lot of money, especially with tasting menus at special occasion restaurants — typically $150/person saved!
What not to ask or do at a restaurant
- Don’t ask what’s the most popular. It might be something you don’t like. You’re you and other people have their own preferences. Better to tell your server what your preferences are. “I don’t want a desert that’s cloyingly sweet” for instance.
- Don’t ask what your server likes. You’re you and other people have their own preferences. Good servers will respond to such inquiries with questions about your preferences.
- Don’t ask for seasoning spices (salt, pepper, etc.) if none are available on the table. It means the food you’re served is to be eaten as is. Ask for your preferred seasoning only if some seasoning is on your table. For instance, I ask for white pepper at my favorite ramen spot that keeps soy sauce and black pepper on tables.
- Don’t split checks at sit down restaurants when it’s busy. Splitting checks creates a lot more work for your server than you think, and the extra charges from doing so costs restaurants money. Most busy and higher end restaurants no longer allow for split checks.
- Don’t disregard a restaurant’s rules. You’re voluntarily entering into someone else’s home as a guest, okay? If the Japanese restaurant asks you to take off your shoes before entering its tatami room, do so. If Canlis requires coat and tie, wear them or don’t go. If Alive Juice Bar tells you to order the moment you’re ready instead of waiting around like an idiot, do it even if it feels rude to you. Each restaurant has its reason for operating as they do, and guests who don’t play along are fucking things up in their own fucked up way. Don’t hesitate to ask why they do as they do when they’re not busy.
Restaurant for Health and Wellbeing
Where I go weekly with budget and health in mind:
- Happy Pho in Everett. High in fiber, protein, collagen (tripe and tendon), and they serve the most veggies of any pho place I’ve been to. $14 and change with tip. Also recommended as hangover cure, in addition to juice with turmeric and ginger at Alive Juice Bar.
- Korea House in Marysville for tofu soup. I get the seafood option, which includes mussels, clams, shrimp, and octopus, all ingredients I rarely make on my own. It comes with six side dishes, such as kimchi, pickled daikon, soybean sprouts, so lots of veggies. $20, tip included.
- Swish Swish Hotpot, Alderwood Mall. This is my go to meal before I do a >24 fast. It’s $29.99 for its all you can eat lunch, it’d cost me $50 to make this on my own. That’s because I order expensive cuts such as lamb shoulder and jumbo shrimp, and pricey nutrient dense veggies such as wood ear mushrooms, chrysanthemum leaves, and lotus root. Skip the more pedestrian ingredients such as broccoli, chicken, and pork to get the most for your money.
- Alive Juice Bar in downtown Everett. The take-home meals are high in fiber, protein, and have at least three seasonal veggies. Protein shakes like the Avocado milkshake are complete meals for those on the run: kale for salad, apple for desert, avocado and peanuts for fat and fiber, in addition to protein powder. Tastes like a milkshake too, $9 tax included for a quick and complete meal that’ll keep you full for at least six hours.
- The Soup Nazi Kitchen. Each soup is high in fiber — lentils, carrots, celery, potatoes. Protein options include salmon, beef, and chicken. A 32 oz chicken soup is $10, tax included. Salmon stew is $11, tax included.