As a Northerner of solid workingclass stock, naturally I prize value for money. That attitude has only strengthened during my time writing about food (eight years of which I spent eating over 1,000 sub-£10 meals for The Guardian’s ‘budget eats’ series).
This is not about being tight. But whether I’m spending £3 or £300, I’m determined to extract maximum pleasure from every penny when I eat out, rather than gormlessly frittering away money. By dining smartly, you can stretch your cash further than you may think without having to rely on vouchers or opting for high-street chains. Here are my 10 pro tips.
1. It’s all about timing
Arguably, only mugs eat at night. You can nab remarkable deals at lunch, pre-theatre and, at all-day venues in that 3-6pm dead-zone. Some Michelin-starred restaurants offer three courses at lunch for £30 – with the added frisson of bunking off work for the day.
2. Choose your weapon
The best steaks, whiskies, wines and seafood are ruinously expensive. However, you can indulge in everything from world-class coffee and beer to Gujarati vegetarian dishes, bao or wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza inexpensively. Six quid will buy you considerably better falafels than foie gras.
3. Softly does it
Bookmark a restaurant openings tip-sheet (like Hot Dinners in London), follow the newbies on Twitter and eat there during their soft launches, when prices are typically 50% lower.
4. Tourist tax in Britain
The more tourists there are in a location, the worse the food will be, and the more you will pay for it. So don’t. Take a picnic.
5. Hot take
In this Deliveroo age, more restaurants than ever are set up for takeaway (not just obvious burger joints or East Asian canteens). If you can’t afford to eat in, it can be cheaper to take away. Keep wet wipes and plastic cutlery in your bag, and you can eat anywhere.
6. Down on the up-sell
Waiting staff are trained to up-sell to you at every stage of a meal – pre-dinner drinks in the bar, bottled water, nibbles as you browse the menu, sides, coffees. Resist that pressure. If you can only afford a main course, make it clear you only need the table for an hour, and stick to that plan.
7. Please drink sensibly
Most diners choose the second or third least-expensive wines on the menu, which are often cheap, low-quality bottles (no better than the house) with high mark-ups to maximise profits. Wines from less well-known appellations offer better value than those from classic growing areas. Good cava (it’s made using the champagne method) is canny fizz.
8. Decoding the menu
Menu design is a dark art (dropping £ signs so people spend more; listing expensive dishes on the top right, where people look first etc), but be alert to basic warning signs. Lowering headline main course prices while quietly upping the cost of starters (eg £12 main, £9 starter) makes restaurants look more affordable than they are, as does listing dishes that then require you to buy pricey sides. Make sure you always read the small print.
9. Rewire your desires
Whether it’s the bacon sandwich at London’s St John Bread & Wine (£6.90) or the Fat Duck-style, liquid nitrogen ice cream at Cardiff’s Science Cream (around £4), there are exceptional food experiences available for under £10. Hunt them out, while saving for infrequent blow-out meals.
10. Diffusion lines
From Le Cochon Aveugle’s Cave du Cochon in York to Nathan Outlaw’s Fish Kitchen in Port Isaac, it’s worth trying the cheaper, casual offshoots spawned by fine-dining venues. They’re often a distillation of the mother ship’s ingenuity and rigour, but at a fraction of the price.
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Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian.