Lately it seems like going out to an expensive restaurant can be, well, outrageously expensive. Where does all the money go? Alcohol markups, inflation-related price increases, and even over-ordering all contribute to a bill that can mirror an insurance premium. I asked Chef Brad Miller from Inn of the Seventh Ray, a splurge-worthy restaurant In Los Angeles, for his best tips on how to slash the bill while keeping the experience memorable.
“Split the Romaine salad; everyone knows that.” This is how Miller immediately kicked off our conversation about how to save money at restaurants. Split the salad, my friends. Better to put the bulk of your bill toward more courses, like an interesting appetizer or two, than waste precious pennies doubling down on a $20 bowl of frisée.
Ordering a Tomahawk steak or côte de boeuf does carry some sticker shock, but these are items meant to be split, and sharing such dishes is going to be a better move than ordering two different entrées altogether.
“Anything for two is cheaper than two individual entrées,” Chef Miller says.
I can attest to this. Most recently at Gage & Tollner, an upscale chop house in Brooklyn, I dropped a Ben Franklin on a T-bone for two. That steak was more than enough for our table of three, and when others threw in the towel, I was gifted with extra sirloin. Those big cuts tend to satisfy even the hungriest of parties, as long as starter courses and a steady eating pace are put into play.
Even if you don’t eat red meat, some restaurants like Dai Due in Austin will run specials like a whole stuffed fish (pompano with dirty rice), which I am told is a comical amount of food. When restaurants are tasked with large-format entrées, they tend to go big, and so should you.
“If I get a martini and [my girlfriend] gets a blueberry drop, that’s $50 right there,” Chef Miller says with a laugh as he explains the financial commitments of buying booze at a restaurant. Cocktails and wines by the glass can really add up, so there is some value to consider when ordering from the wine list.
Admittedly a collector of fine wines, Chef Miller has a wine list of his own, and he is always happy to pluck a bottle from his cellar, bring it to the restaurant, and accept whatever corkage fee might come his way.
Even if the corkage fee is, say, $30, he considers it a no-brainer. “I’m going to get four glasses out of my bottle that I bring for 30 bucks.” Definitely something to consider when wines can easily creep up to $20 per glass on the restaurant menu.
If you’re going to go the BYOB route, you should find out ahead of time what the fee is and whether there is a corkage limit, i.e. a limit on how many bottles you can bring. Some restaurants charge a double corkage for a large-format bottle like a magnum, and in some cases they won’t allow you to bring in a bottle that’s on the house wine list—call ahead and do your research.
And for the sake of optics, don’t abuse this policy by bringing in a bottle of wine from a gas station with the bright-orange sticker still on it.
“You can go online, look at the restaurant’s wine menu, even on the way to the restaurant,” says Chef Miller. “Choose a style you like (Syrah or an Austrian White), stop at your local wine store, and pick up the bottle.” Due to markups on alcohol, a bottle you purchase for $30 at the wine store would cost three to four times that much at the restaurant. Add the corkage on top of the cost of the bottle and you’re still winning.
This is the money-saving strategy that struck me the deepest, because it not only offers insight on restaurant booze markups (which aren’t exactly news) but instructs you on how to probe the wine world for deals. On my podcast Eat This Drink That, I learned that certain wine regions can command higher prices, while areas literally next door can yield a cheaper product. Sure, you could ask for a Côte-Rôtie at your local wine shop, but it might interest you to know that the comparable Hermitage is half the price.
Not all restaurants welcome outside bottles, but others wouldn’t be able to survive without their corkage, so wherever you’re headed, plan accordingly. In general, don’t be afraid to go out to pricey places and be upfront about how you roll. Restaurant people are people too. Tip well, go big where it counts, and pinch your pennies elsewhere. That’s how I roll in 2022, because eating cheap isn’t so easy anymore.