Anyone who reads this column knows that eating out is not getting any cheaper. As with every other area of today's economy, restaurant bills can leave you gasping for breath. Fast-food outlets, which at least are inexpensive, are the easy answer to inflated restaurant prices.
But for the times when parents think they will turn blue if they look at another hamburger, some imagination is required. A little more money is required, too.
For your dining out dollar, a restaurant does these things for you: It buys, cooks and serves your food, cleans up after you, and provides sufficient heat, light, and decoration to make the atmosphere pleasant and relaxing. Some restaurants will be educational experiences for the whole family. A trip to a Japanese restaurant, for instance, can provide cultural insights you might not acquire otherwise.
Above all, a dinner out should offer some relaxation, the least of which is that you don't have to cook. As you increase the number -- and the quality -- of things done for you, you are likely to increase the price. But before you decide that eating out with the family is a luxury you no longer can afford, consider the benefits and the alternatives.
Going out to eat is, after all, a treat. It gives everybody's spirits a lift, and in such circumstances, anything can happen. Some families have been known to have whole conversations with each other while dining out together.
And there are ways to keep the bill down and to make sure you are getting your money's worth:
1. The Cheap Splurge: Go to a fast-food place and let everyone get what he or she wants, especially a sundae. For anything other than Saturday lunch after soccer, adults tend to find this boring, however.
2. The Cheap Splurge II: This alternative requires you to go to a carryout and be extravagant. And you must be imaginative about your choice. You need not limit yourself to the colonel's place or the cowboy's, either. Carry out barbecued ribs instead of fried chicken. Try an Italian deli or a Greek-owned sandwich shop. For dessert, take home a quart of good ice cream.
3. The Middle Leap: Go to a full-service family restaurant and limit the kids to sandwiches so that the adults can have steak. This option, unfortunately, is liable to make you as popular as Marie Antoinette, whose lack of concern for the diet of those in her care led to the guillotine. It is commonly known that today's children are lacking in respect and likely to behave no better than a bunch of hungry French peasants. Off with your head.
4. Extravagant Restraint: Go to a better restaurant and order only from the lowest end of the menu. The service, ambiance and quality of the food will be the same whether you order the $7.95 special or the $14.95 lobster. This does, however, necessitate being able to keep everybody in line with the expertise of an experienced cattle herder. The child who spots his favorite fried shrimp platter, priced $3 over his allotted share of the bill, must be stifled immediately.
5. The Artful Dodge: Consider alternative restaurants. Vegetarian restaurants, cafes and ethnic places all tend to be less expensive than other full-service restaurants, although some are not. In Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants, entrees are meant to be shared. Order one dish fewer than you think you need and you will have enough, especially if you include a rice or noodle dish among your choices. Korean, Mexican, Greek, and Italian restaurants all tend to be less expensive, but the city's Spanish restaurants take the prize for good food at low prices.
6. Start the Day Right with a Good Breakfast: Go out for brunch -- or lunch. Where is it written that outings must always take place in the evening? Many restaurants offer fixed prices and tempting all-you-can-eat buffets for brunch that give you a choice of breakfast or lunch dishes. For that matter, having lunch instead of dinner at a nice restaurant is another money saver since lunch prices tend to be lower than those charged after 5 p.m. Our favorite version of brunch is to go to a good Chinese or Vietnamese restaurant for dim sum, which has all the virtues of both brunch and buffet.
7. Let Them Eat Cake: Cafeterias are not the first places that leap to mind when one thinks of dinner out, but for an informal evening, they can be fun, especially -- and this is important -- if everybody is allowed to indulge himself a bit. Kids enjoy being able to pick from an array of foods, like the son of friends who looks forward to their cafeteria dinners because he can get three bowls of mashed potatoes to go with his roast beef.
8. The No-Frills Munch: You go for dinner, and dinner it is, period: no appetizers or extras to run up the bill, and -- ouch! -- no dessert. Tell the kids ahead of time that you will stop for ice cream cones on the way home. Nine times out of ten they would prefer those anyway.
The reverse of this requires more imagination. Juggle the appetizer-entree-dessert combination to suit yourselves. For instance, a large antipasto, pizza and tortoni seems more special than simply going out for pizza. Or how about soup, shrimp cocktail, salad and dessert? Just because a restaurant serves five-course meals doesn't mean you have to order one.
9. Clean Your Plate: Buy only what you need. It goes without saying that you don't order a full dinner for a child who cannot eat one. It is better to let two children split an entree (most restaurants will allow this if you simply ask) or let a young one share his parents' dinners, even if there is a charge for an extra plate (usually around $2). It also should go without saying that, just as Mother told you, you never, ever, leave uneaten food on your plate. The best restaurants in town are happy to provide doggie bags, some of them quite elegant. You have paid for the food, so take it home and enjoy it, especially if you are the doggie.
10. The Final Piece of Advice: If you want a really good home-cooked meal at a bargain price, go visit Grandmother.