You can dine out on just about any budget if you're willing to use a few frugal strategies, says Rachael Ray, host of 30 Minute Meals and Tasty Travels on the Food Network. "I live in New York City, and while we have plenty of high-end, expensive restaurants, there are more than enough great and reasonably priced places. In fact, there are thousands of them," she says. '"You don't have to be rich to live a rich life, and that is very true even when you're eating out." Here are a few tips from Ray and other culinary experts on finding the best deals:
Go early. Early-bird specials make a lot of sense for retirees, who can take advantage of not working during the day and go out for breakfast or lunch. "I love to go out to breakfast. I think it's a great part of the day," says chef Spike Mendelsohn, a former contestant on Bravo's Top Chef reality show who now owns Good Stuff Eatery, a "comfort food" restaurant in Washington. And that's not just because he works at night. Breakfast items typically cost a fraction of dinner meals. Plus, many restaurants serve the same or similar entrees during both lunch and dinner, but they charge less earlier in the day.
Forgo the extras. It can be painful to pay $1.50 or more for a glass of soda or iced tea when you know you could buy an entire 2-liter bottle for the same price. Instead, drink water with your meal, and have a cold glass of lemonade at home on your front porch while watching the sun set. The same goes for wine, beer, and dessert. For the price of dessert at many restaurants, you can buy an entire half-gallon of ice cream or have a fun evening baking and frosting your own cake.
Just desserts. Instead of skimping on extras, you could dine at home and then soak up the ambience of a nice restaurant while having dessert and coffee. Or just get an appetizer before or after filling up at home. "Obviously, you will get more bang for your buck when you are shopping and preparing meals at home for yourself," says Ray. She adds that some recipes can feed a family for about $10. "Make sure that when you are shopping, you compare unit prices—not retail prices—to make sure you are getting the best deal on ingredients."
Ask for discounts. A common senior discount is 10 percent off the price of a meal (for diners above a certain age). Some restaurants may offer a free beverage with the purchase of a meal or a special senior menu with smaller portions and lower prices. "There are always great deals at family-owned places," says Mendelsohn. "You can research places on the Web and find these great deals and great tasting menus." But seldom will you find such discounts promoted on a menu. Often, asking is the only way to get a break on your bill.
Double take. If you plan to share a large entree with a friend or significant other, watch out for extra charges. Also, consider taking half of a large meal home to eat for lunch the next day. If you often order too much, look for restaurants that offer a special menu of several courses for a fixed price.
Food festivals. Many cities host food festivals that feature samples of exotic delights from top chefs at affordable prices. During Washington's restaurant week this year, for example, participating establishments offered three-course meals for just $20.09 for lunch and $35.09 for dinner. "When we were in Austin for the South by Southwest music festival, we ate at Polvo's on South First Street," says Ray. "Everything at Polvo's is reasonably priced—especially the fajitas, which are heaping in size and delicious—and in the center of the restaurant, there's a free salsa bar with tons of great pickled vegetables. My friends loved the beef fajitas, which are marinated in beer."
Talk about town. Before visiting an unfamiliar city, ask a few residents or friends who have visited where they eat—and don't be shy about mentioning your price range. Online community message boards or restaurant review websites can also give you the inside track. "Whatever city you are in, it's always great to ask the locals where they go to eat," says Chef Stephanie Izard, who won Bravo's Top Chef cooking competition in season four and plans to open a new restaurant, The Drunken Goat, in Chicago in the fall. Once you're in town, ask the concierge or other hotel employees about their favorite hot spots. "If you are having breakfast in a hotel, ask the waiter for great local restaurants," says John Kinsella, president of the American Culinary Federation.