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Tips to save on money while keeping the taste 

Eating on the cheap

A restaurateur recently noted that the best day of 2008 may be the day it is over. With the increase in food costs, the tightening of credit and customers spending their discretionary cash at the gas station rather than their neighborhood eatery, local restaurants are feeling the squeeze.

The places that could be hurt the most are those locally owned eateries that serve the best food, buy from our local farmers, pay the salaries of our neighbors and serve as a big part of the basic culinary fabric and economic structure of the city. But no eating establishment is immune to the current economic environment.

The perception is many of the places that win accolades are expensive. The reality is most of these prices represent quality food and labor costs: Quality costs more. But as food costs have gone up, many local establishments have been reluctant to raise their prices, preferring instead to keep, as one restaurateur put it, "butts in seats." As a result, many have become more aggressive in passing on cost savings to those afflicted with a thinning wallet.

Notably, though, some restaurants are not shy about charging: Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, a corporate chain in South Park (4725 Piedmont Row), for example, charges $46.95 for their 24-ounce Porterhouse, while Noble's Restaurant (an independent in South Park, 6801 Morrison Blvd.) offers a 14-ounce USDA prime New York Strip at $45. Sides are an additional cost.

So if you are looking for ways to save money without getting out the coupon clippers, try these tips:

Tip 1: Start and finish with apps. Rather than eating the traditional starter and/or salad, entrée and dessert, order several starters. The first course usually offers dishes that allow the chef to flex his culinary talents in smaller, less expensive portions. Smaller sizes translate into less money, and ordering a variety of starters expands your taste glossary of any restaurant. My preference when dining with friends is to share a covey of starters with a bottle of wine. We skip dessert.

Tip 2: Get on the restaurant's e-mail list. Jim Alexander, chef and owner of Zebra Restaurant and Wine Bar (4521 Sharon Road), frequently publishes price breaks via e-mail. He said, "We have about 3,000 names on our list, and it's a cost-effective way to reach our customers and offer them specials." In addition to birthday and anniversary specials, Alexander has a $29.95 three-course dinner special, and half-priced-bottles-of-wine evenings (Zebrarestaruant.net).

Tip 3: Look for advertised dinner specials that occur during the week, typically Monday through Thursday in the suburbs and weekends Uptown, especially during the summer. At Santé (165 N. Trade St., Matthews), chef and owner Adam Reed says, "We started a midweek dinner special from Tuesday through Thursday: a three-course dinner -- an app, entrée, dessert -- and a bottle of wine from a select list for $75 per couple. That's over a $100 value."

Tip 4: Visit the restaurant's Web site. At Global Restaurant (3520 Toringdon Way, www.global-restaurant.com) the specials are located on the "Special Events" page: a $79 dinner for two with a bottle of wine Monday through Thursday. The menu choices include a lamb and beef tenderloin skewer starter and an organic chicken ziti entrée. Upstream, in South Park, offers Lobster Mondays with four courses for $45 per person.

Tip 5: Get a frequent-diner card. According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 25 percent of restaurants offer some kind of loyalty rewards programs, including a card-swipe-based program. The card at Sonoma Modern American (100 N. Tryon St.) offers 10 percent off the total meal (not including the tax and gratuity). Pewter Rose (1820 South Blvd.) has a Lunch Punch card: The 10th lunch is free. Some restaurants offer savings when buying a gift certificate: The Harper Restaurant Group (www.harpersgroup.com) has a cash bonus for gift cards. Their Mother's Day special, for example, was a card with a $115 value for $100.

Tip 6: Look for dinners offered at charity events. Restaurants are constantly asked to donate to charities and school auctions. Typically a dinner for two or more is given. While many dinners, in the spirit of charitable giving, go for well beyond the listed value, some go for less.

Tip 7: Eat early. Some restaurants offer "early bird" specials. While this time slot is fodder for comedians in the current presidential race, there are no age restrictions. At Pewter Rose, starters are half price from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. weekdays, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays all wines by the glass are also half-off. Sibling Tutto Mondo (1820 South Blvd.) offers half-priced appetizers from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. weekdays as well as daily drink specials. Ruth's Chris Steak House (6000 Fairview Road) offers a "Prime Time" three-course special for $49.95 from 5 p.m. until 6:30 p.m. Depending on the entrée selected, the special may offer a $10 savings.

Eaters' Digest is back on a bi-monthly basis. Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via email (no attachments, please)

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