A Former Restaurant Critic Shares Her 11 Best Tips for Dining Out Cheaply but Well

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Whenever I tell someone that I spent 10 years as a food editor and restaurant critic, they think I’m one of the luckiest people alive.

Maybe I was. For years, I wrote for a monthly regional magazine. I also edited the restaurant directory and reviews. I helped plan, edit and write cover stories on the best burgers, pizza or brunches in town, which meant that my husband and I made lots of restaurant visits on the company’s dime.

Next, I moved on to an online city guide, where I coordinated and assembled a restaurant directory and wrote, edited and assigned weekly reviews. I also wrote a column, Offbeat Eats, reviewing restaurants in oddball locations, such as on dinner trains or inside faux jungles.

There were not-so-great moments, as with any job. Deadlines. Typos. Angry phone calls from restaurateurs who didn’t like a review.

I haven’t had that job for decades. These days, I pay for my own meals and choose my own dining destinations. And yet, I’m often surprised by how I fall back on these lessons learned from that career stint.

1. Choose your restaurant carefully

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Restaurants are as different from one other as books. Think about what you need from your night out and seek out restaurants accordingly.

If you’re trying to impress the new in-laws, hit a place where the service is reputably top-notch. If you need a quiet place for a conversation, don’t buzz down to a lively pub.

This sounds like common sense, but readers often complained to me about eateries that didn’t live up to their expectations in just these ways.

2. Check reviews and online menus

High five. father son eating pizza together
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It’s so easy to know what you’re getting into before you pull up to a new-to-you restaurant. Don’t fly blind.

Before you go, check your local paper and scan Yelp and other apps for reviews. At the least, this can help you decide what dishes you shouldn’t miss, and identify which to skip.

When reviewing menus — whether online or at the restaurant — also watch out for the red flags we detail in “8 Ways Restaurant Menus Trick You Into Overspending.”

3. Stay away on Hallmark holidays

restaurant Waiter carrying plates of food, serving customers crowded
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You might have heard people refer to Valentine’s Day, or maybe New Year’s Eve, as “amateur night” at a restaurant, meaning that restaurants are packed with people who don’t often eat out.

Inexperienced diners may behave badly or not tip well, servers claim. I think “amateur night” is kind of a cruel term. Not everyone can afford to dine out often, and to diss those who want a special occasion once in a while seems snobbish to me.

However, whether it’s Valentine’s Day at a steakhouse or Mother’s Day at a brunch place, my advice is this: If there’s a Hallmark card made for the occasion, consider eating at home that day, or at least adjusting your expectations. Places are crowded. Specialties run out. Servers are stressed. Just wait a bit to try that new restaurant.

4. Use deals and coupons

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Connecting with restaurants on social media can tip you to coupons and valuable discounts.

It’s a little more trouble, true. But if a restaurant is offering deals, why shouldn’t you enjoy them?

For more cost-cutting pointers like this, check out “9 Easy Ways to Save up to 50% on Your Next Restaurant Meal.”

5. Give a new eatery time to hit its groove

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I have a two-month rule. Now that I no longer am required to dine at a restaurant that’s just opened, I give a new place two months to get in gear before I visit.

I know some critics disagree with me: There’s a school of thought that if a restaurant is charging real money for their food, it should be up to snuff from Day One.

But in reality, I’d rather wait it out and let other diners deal with the newbie servers, an unfamiliar menu, and all the other inevitabilities that come with a brand-spanking-new place.

6. Let’s do lunch (and not dinner)

friends eating lunch at a table in a restaurant
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If you love to dine our but find it expensive, see if you can rearrange your schedule and dine out for lunch instead of a fancy dinner.

At lunch, prices are often cheaper, portions are more manageable and you may find specials not offered at the dinner hour.

One great deal I like is the half-sandwich and soup lunch deal often found at casual eateries.

Happy hours, too, can be a bargain for diners who don’t mind eating early now and then. Peruse happy hour menus online and make a list of places you’d like to try.

7. Consider the daily specials

restaurant specialty Traditional Portuguese lunch - grilled sardines and chicken - at restaurant terrace with ocean beach view. Algarve, Portugal
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Speaking of don’t-miss dishes, don’t forget to look for nightly specials on the menu, or listen carefully when the server details these dishes.

Nightly specials often highlight seasonal produce or other ingredients, and they may not be offered when you visit next.

8. Order what the restaurant’s known for

grilled salmon steak served with pasta and vegetables in a small outdoor restaurant
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I’ve dined with people who get lost in a giant menu and end up ordering enchiladas at an American restaurant or a hamburger at a Mexican place.

Menus often cast a wide net in an attempt to offer something for everyone, but that doesn’t mean they do all dishes well.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When at an Italian restaurant, savor an authentic Italian dish. You can have a grilled cheese sandwich at home.

9. Speak up if there’s a problem

restaurant complaint concern diners expressing dissatisfaction waitress
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I’ll be the first to say that it isn’t always easy to tell your server about a problem with your meal.

But waitresses and waiters are not mind-readers. If your chicken is still clucking, or the short-order cook burned your toast, speak up kindly but firmly.

A good server will apologize and fix it.

By the same token, do read the menu carefully. It’s unfair to be angry that a dish came with Dijon if the menu clearly notes that in the description.

10. Take home your leftovers

cheerful lady tourist girl backpacker laughing eating octopus chopsticks outdoor. young woman holding box street food
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Don’t be embarrassed to ask for a takeout container.

Maybe the waiter at a five-star snootfest of a restaurant will sneer at you, but most American eateries are happy to provide a way to take leftovers home.

Since portions these days often are insanely (and unhealthily) large, why not enjoy two meals from one when you can.

11. Tip generously

tipping restaurant woman waiter waitress tip from diner bar hotel.
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Restaurant work may look easy to those of us who’ve never done it.

Don’t be fooled. Juggling hot plates, handling fussy special orders and dealing with crabby customers is an art form.

If there’s truly a problem with the service, let a manager know, of course. But don’t be the diner who skimps on the tip in expectation that it will somehow teach a server a lesson.

Recognize that many — not all — restaurants pay servers a low hourly wage in the expectation that tips will fill out their pay. Add 15% to your bill for your server at the minimum and 20% or more if good service warrants.

What are your best tips for dining out? Share them with us by posting a comment below or at Money Talks News on Facebook.

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