The on-going proliferation of food-based television—shows like Throwdown!, Emeril Live, No Reservations and The F Word—have had a profound influence on popular culture and dining. For starters, they ushered in the era of the celebrity chef, making international superstars of the likes of (respectively) Bobby Flay, Emeril Lagasse, Anthony Bourdain and Gordon Ramsay—to say nothing of Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali.
More to the point, they introduced middle-class North America to the world of ultra high-end cuisine, even if this world remains, for most, deliciously out of reach. After all, who can realistically afford to eat at Emeril’s eponymous New Orleans eatery, or Ducasse’s Manhattan restaurant Del Posto? As for Michelin three-star restaurants, the flashiest jewels in the culinary crowns of Europe, Asia and North America, fuggedaboutit: they remain the exclusive playgrounds of uber-wealthy, globe-trotting gastronomes.
Or do they?
To be sure, a meal at Paris’s sublime l’Ambroisie, where truffles and foie gras rule the roost, will never be cheap. Nor will dinner for two at London’s Fat Duck, where the 42 chefs who ply the kitchen outnumber the place settings on any given night.
There are, however, ways and means—tricks if you will—to dine at even the glitziest, most expensive restaurants, without breaking the bank. Here are a few of the best.
Lunch, not dinner
The aforementioned globe-trotting gastronomes are unanimous: the most affordable way to sample the delights on offer at the world’s greatest kitchens is to book for lunch, rather than dinner. “Lunch is typically less than half, maybe one-third of the price of dinner at a Michelin three-star, for the simple reason that people aren’t willing to pay the same high prices for lunch as they are for dinner,” says Andy Hayler, who runs the well-regarded London-based website Andy Hayler’s Restaurant Guide, and has dined at virtually every Michelin three-star restaurant on the planet. The only caveat is that lunch menus might not include as many really expensive ingredients, substituting, say, rabbit and duck for lobster and Kobe beef. “But you’re still getting a three-star experience.”
Beating the rush
Restaurants that have just been upgraded from two- to three-star status in the Michelin guide will usually be priced lower than long-standing, iconic three-star eateries. “Better yet, if you are particularly prescient and can book into two-star restaurants before they’re upgraded, you can get what is essentially a three-star experience at substantially reduced rates,” says Hayler. “The day after they receive their third star, restaurants invariably jack up their prices, which they can well afford to do because of the dramatic increase in business.”
The path less travelled
Restaurants in large, affluent cities such as London, Paris and New York, are invariably more expensive than similar-quality restaurants in, say, the Italian countryside. There are two reasons for this, says Hayler: first, because the cost of rent and staffing are higher in urban centres, and second, because there’s a larger customer base willing to pay vast sums of money to dine out—especially in financial and business districts, were meals are often expensed.
Similarly, when it comes to food, some countries are trendier than others and hence have relatively higher-priced restaurants. “Spain got hot about three years ago, when the number of Michelin three-star restaurants jumped from one to six, almost overnight,” says Hayler. “Prices at Spanish restaurants, not coincidentally, also jumped overnight.”
By contrast, un-trendy Germany offers perhaps the best value in three-star dining. “It comes down to the brand,” says Hayler. “People think ‘German food, ugh.’ But in all likelihood you’re not going to be eating bratwurst at a Michelin three-star in Germany, you’re going to be eating French.”
Grapes of wrath
Another way to whittle down the cost is to focus less on the wine. “I rarely order an expensive bottle of wine at a three-star restaurant,” says Hayler. “I kind of resent paying the very large mark-up, sometimes hundreds of dollars.”
Since mark-ups vary from restaurant to restaurant, and from bottle to bottle, one solution is to research wine lists in advance—many restaurants post their lists online—and identify labels with the lowest mark-up compared to their retail price. “A decade ago you’d have to be a wine expert, carrying hundreds of prices in your head, to identify bargains,” says Hayler. “Today, with the Internet, all you need is time.”
Jim McElhiney, a retired Canadian tech millionaire who now makes his home in Monte Carlo, has another trick. “I ask the wine steward if the restaurant has anything local. Requesting local wines to pair with local cuisine is a perfectly acceptable, classy thing to do, and you’ll often get a superior bottle at a very reasonable price.”
Noted foodie Jo Ann Hennigar, whose adventures in fine dining have included stops at Emeril Lagasse’s New Orleans eatery and Bobby Flay’s restaurants in New York and Las Vegas, says she usually buys wine by the glass, rather than the bottle. “I save a lot that way, which is great, because while I don’t mind paying top dollar for a chef’s creativity and skill, I’m less interested in paying inflated prices for wine, which I can purchase anywhere,” says Hennigar, owner of Ottawa-based catering company A Sense of Taste.
There’s another reason for buying by the glass, says Canadian food television producer Chris Knight, whose programs include Cook Like a Chef, Licence to Grill, and This Food That Wine. “Not only is it cheaper, but you can pair different wines with different courses for a better overall experience. And if you’re dining with other people, a single bottle often won’t do. If I’m ordering lamb and you’re ordering fish, what bottle do we get?” A word of caution, though: “At many three-star restaurants, the first thing that happens is they wheel a champagne cart up to your table and ask if you’d like a glass,” says McElhiney. “You and your date each take one, and discover later they’re 35 Euros each. For house champagne!”
Hurry up and wait
“Especially in New York, where restaurants tend to be run like hard-core businesses, they’ll often show you to the holding bar while you wait, even though your table may actually be ready,” says McElhiney. “They want you to spend an extra $40 at the bar before even being seated. And after you get boozed up, you might end up spending more on the meal than you would otherwise.”
The price is right… or is it?
Another restaurant gambit is to include one item on a menu that’s over-priced relative to the rest of the dishes on offer. The purpose, says McElhiney, isn’t to realize higher profit on the over-priced dish, but to make the second highest-priced item look like a bargain by comparison: that’s the dish the restaurant is really hoping to sell in quantity. “You don’t get value by ordering based on price,” says McElhiney. “You get value by ordering what you really feel like eating, regardless of price.”
Don’t worry, be happy
It’s easy to be intimidated, even stressed, at the prospect of spending a king’s ransom on a single meal at a three-star restaurant. It’s also the best way to ruin what should be a sublime evening out. “Relax and enjoy the entire dining experience,” says Chris Knight. “A top-notch restaurant isn’t only about fantastic food, it’s about a room with amazing buzz, great service, fine wine, people watching. You’ll feel better about the high prices if you can relax and soak up everything the restaurant has to offer.”