Eating out is fabulous. When people tell me they can't afford to eat at some of the restaurants that feature in this column, I tell them they have it all wrong and they just need to get smarter about it. Without going as far as suggesting you take a candle to the food court, here are a few tricks to dining out without excessive penny pinching or choking on the bill at the end of the evening. Let's start at the top with fine dining. How is it possible to eat at some of our award-winning restaurants without having to take a second job just to pay the bill? Try these tips:
* Understand it's a treat, not an everyday occurrence, so plan ahead and save up for it by forgoing four to five meals where you'd usually spend anywhere between $30-$80 for two. The memories of one wondrous dinner will long outlive those from the mediocre meals you missed out on.
* When the night comes, boost the special factor by dressing up, using the hassle-free valet parking if they have some (The Grove does) and taking a drink in their bar beforehand if they have one (Clooney does). While seated, fully take in the design, the flowers, your fellow diners and be sure to use the expensive Aesop soap in the bathroom. Engage with the wait staff by asking questions about the wine, the food or just about life. And have fun, eating out is not meant to be taken too seriously.
* Skip the sparkling water, the sides and the salads - they're all just add-ons that add up.
* Sip slowly or not at all. Ask the sommelier for a glass of wine that will take you through both courses or try going alcohol-free for the night - you'll almost halve your bill and you'll vividly be able to recall every taste and texture from the entire the meal. I use this technique when doing degustation or tasting menus as drinking can inhibit the appetite and after about the fifth course, if they're matched with wines, it all gets too hazy for me and my palate.
* Don't bother with coffee or tea at the end of the meal as, let's be honest, it's rarely required.
* And lastly, to get value from your spend, ask for the menu as a memento. Most places are pleased to provide you with one as they know you'll be reliving the meal with friends - i.e. future customers for them. I treasure the menus I have from memorable meals eaten around the world - the huge red and gold one I have from Bocuse's 3 Michelin-star restaurant in Lyon is a constant reminder of one of the most incredible lunches I have ever eaten.
Here are some general rules to follow that can be applied to any eating out situation if you're taking the thrifty approach, without taking any pleasure away from the evening:
* Learn to share. No need to skip any course altogether but share an entree and a dessert. It can shave a good $20-$30 per person off the bill and yet you still get to have three courses. Alternatively order two entrees and skip the main course.
* Most fine dining establishments offer quality bread at no charge but from the next tier down you'll likely be charged for it. Well-trained staff will ask "would you like some bread while you wait?" Desist and get your food order in promptly instead.
* Likewise the sides, salads and vegetables. I have no problem paying good money for a chef's true cooking skills but I can easily assemble a handful of rocket or steamed asparagus myself, thanks.
* Beware of dining in large groups. The larger the group the bigger the bill, proportionally. Why? Large groups are indecisive and tend to go along with whatever is suggested. Bread and dips - sure? More sparkling water? Absolutely. A bottle of wine instead of a glass? Why not. Coffee anyone? Oh let's. A thrifty approach with a large group is to nominate one person who organises all the extras, while each person focuses on selecting their own main dish. It might seem controlling but you won't be sorry.
* Set menus: this can be a great way to curb the spending as long as you remember what the price includes and what it doesn't.
* Get to know your BYO. Some restaurants offer special BYO nights, charging for corkage only and this can reduce the overall spend considerably if you have a stash of wonderful wine to be drunk. (Clooney has BYO every Sunday, $25 per bottle).
Essentially it's about figuring out what it's worth splashing out on and what's not, so that rather than not going out at all, we get smarter about how we dine out when we do.
Auckland Fish Market: $15 will get you a seafood main dish such as mussels steamed in a wine broth with crusty bread or a spicy pad thai or prawns gremolata with glass of wine at their Thursday Night Live. 5pm-9pm every Thursday. Fish Market, 22 Jellicoe St, Freemans Bay. Ph (09) 303 0262.
La Cigale: $28 will buy you one of the best dining atmospheres in Auckland as this retail outlet turns itself into a French Bistro at night. With a choice of two main courses, served with crispy roast potatoes, a green salad and French bread, it's a steal. Wine can be bought off the shelves at reasonable prices for an extra $10 a bottle for corkage. Bookings essential. Ph (09) 366 9361 or email@example.com.
Sidart: $50 will get you a fantastic five courses, the perfect-sized meal for lunchtime. The menu changes weekly and is available on Fridays, except for December. Sidart, Three Lamps Plaza, 283 Ponsonby Rd, Ponsonby. Ph (09) 360 2122.
Merediths: $90 and you can dine on an exquisite six-course tasting menu created by world-class chef Michael Meredith at his award-wining restaurant. Add $60 if you want wine to match. Avail Tues-Thur nights. Merediths, 365 Dominion Rd, Mt Eden. Ph (09) 623 3140.