More for Less: Great Restaurant Meals Don't Have to Cost a Fortune

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 7, 2009

The silver lining in the recession story: Now is a terrific time to dine out. From neighborhood joints to high-end venues, deals are ready and waiting at restaurants of all stripes. Tough times, it appears, bring out the spunk and creativity in a chef.

Perhaps you need a little stimulus to move from your home kitchen to your favorite reservation. Allow me to throw out some suggestions for ways to enjoy restaurants without dropping a lot of dough.

Some of these bargains are new. Others predate the bad news from Wall Street. All should make you feel a little more flush.

Dine before prime time. Restaurateurs lament that everyone wants to eat at 7:30 p.m. Do the establishment, and your wallet, a favor by filling empty seats before rush hour. At the youthful Bourbon Steak in the Four Seasons Hotel (2800 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-944-2026), diners who show up between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and between 6 and 6:30 p.m. the rest of the week can take advantage of a three-course, $59 pre-theater special. The entree choices are cobia with lemon vinaigrette, chicken with truffle macaroni and cheese, and a 10-ounce filet mignon. Thoughtful touch: free valet parking for up to five hours.

Head to the bar. I dig bars. If I'm by myself, I feel less alone at one. If I can't get a reservation in a hot spot, its bar is likely to serve some of the same dishes as the dining room proper, allowing me at least a taste of what the chef can do. And if my companions and I aren't particularly hungry but still want to enjoy some restaurant buzz, bars don't require you to order a full meal.

Oh, yeah: The menu at the bar tends to be cheaper. One of the most delightful bargains of the moment is available during lunch in the lounge area of Proof in Penn Quarter (775 G St. NW; 202-737-7663), where $12 gets you a choice of one of six entrees and a glass of house wine. Not long ago, I enjoyed a divine panko-crusted shrimp burger brightened with pickled carrots and daikon, with a generous pour of Gewurztraminer.

Think prix fixe: Plenty of restaurants offer set-price, multi-course menus that are less expensive than if a customer were to order an appetizer, main course and dessert a la carte. One of the most sumptuous bargains around: a lunch of three courses whipped up by the esteemed Bertrand Chemel of 2941 (2941 Fairview Park Dr., Falls Church; 703-270-1500) for (ha!) $29.41. Among the French chef's temptations on a recent menu were artichoke-shrimp salad, house-made gnocchi with braised morel mushrooms and strawberry-rhubarb crisp. At the charming Tavira (8401 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase; 301-652-8684), the dinner menu includes three courses for $30. Recently, I indulged in a delightful parade of dishes -- potato-kale soup, spicy grilled chicken with a heap of hand-cut potato chips, caramel custard -- that made me want to book the next flight to Portugal. Cool detail: Tavira's deal is offered all night long.

Make Monday or Sunday your new Saturday: The "Monday Night Cafe" at Jackie's (8081 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-565-9700) features some of the American restaurant's best-selling dishes in the form of tapas, or small plates. Two pieces of cold fried chicken and coleslaw set a grazer back just $9; house-made linguine with clams can be had for five bucks. There are mini burgers, too, for $3 a pop. At Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan (1819 Columbia Rd. NW; 202-797-1819), two of you can splurge on a four-course, family-style Sunday dinner for $80. "Pass the Plate" begins with a salad, moves on to a shared entree, continues with a cheese course and concludes with dessert. The menu, which tends to be Mediterranean-inspired, includes the option of a bottle of wine, typically in the $65-to-$75 range but poured on Sundays for an agreeable $40.

Buck tradition. There's no rule that says you have to order an entree after an appetizer. The next time you eat out, think about ordering a couple of appetizers instead, and request that they be served one after the other rather than together. In my experience, first courses tend to be more interesting; chefs have more flexibility with appetizers, which are designed to stimulate the senses rather than sate you. Larger in size, entrees are more apt to get tedious. One food-savvy pal of mine sometimes assembles a meal from the list of side dishes; another friend is inclined to graze on a cheese plate instead of an entree when he's feeling frugal.

Do lunch rather than dinner. At Equinox (818 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-331-8118), Todd Gray's agnolotti with caramelized onions and ricotta cheese costs $12 during the day and $15 at night. Patrons hankering for the chef's dorade fillet with potato mousseline, priced at $32 on the dinner bill of fare, will save $8 if they order basically the same main course at lunch. Gray says the different costs reflect the higher desirability of tables and the need for a larger staff in the evening.

Save on wine. Look for restaurants that offer discounts on their collection or waive corkage fees on certain days of the week. At the Italian-themed Dino in Cleveland Park (3435 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-686-2966), owner Dean Gold offers a third off all wines priced at more than $50 a bottle on Sundays and Mondays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he lets customers bring in their own bottles free of charge.

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