Tom has always cautioned listeners to the Food Show (airs 2-4 pm weekdays 990AM) to resist being wooed by “cheap” food at fast food places. He maintained that by the time the price of “cheap” food adds up there isn’t a lot of difference between the price of the “cheap” stuff versus the more satisfying food.
Inflation has made some staggering changes in pricing in restaurants, and it is more tempting than ever to go the “cheap” way. It doesn’t have to be actual fast food. Ordinary food in cheaper restaurant chains can also woo us to the dark side.
But I have discovered that one can eat very well and also quite frugally in some of the better restaurants around town. Even in the top tier.
Let me start there. I have maintained since its opening that Tchefuncte’s on the north shore of the lake is one of those restaurants that takes a lot of unnecessary extra steps to elevate your dining experience, but you are not charged for it. If you go for lunch or brunch at Tchefuncte’s you will pay the same $15-20 entree prices and receive much better ambiance and service. These little extras include housemade bread which is really great and little cookies at the end of the meal. (At least for dinner.)
Another top-tier restaurant with a great lunch deal is The Grill Room at The Windsor Court. Their “Meat and 3” has been around since 2014 as part of their 40-year celebration, but it is so popular it still exists. It has a mildly classier new name, The Plate Lunch, and it is now $25 versus $20.14, but it is still a deal, offering a main protein and three sides, with lots of choices across the board. I would go just for the scrumptious little cheddar biscuits (pictured above) that arrive shortly after you are seated.
The idea of tying anniversary dates to restaurant lunch prices seems to have originated with Antoine’s, who started offering a three-course lunch special with three choices each for $20.07 in 2007. It is now a two-course special with two choices in each course for $24. Now inflation dictates the price of these instead of dates on a calendar.
Except at The Peppermill, where the $20.23 lunch special of two courses with three choices per course is a great deal. I had an elegant Chicken Clemenceau there last week. This will last till the end of January.
Keith Young’s on the north shore started a fabulous $17 lunch special last year that was extended. It is still running, and is still $17 for two generous and really delicious courses like the lasagna (pictured), with a choice of three menu items in the entree course. With the ambiance and excellence of everything here, that is a deal!
Ralph’s on The Park discovered years ago that special deals bring in diners. Their $35 “3 courses and a glass of wine” Summer Special has always been a real bargain, and a tremendous success. So successful they have added other special offers for a limited time, usually just a month. Recently we went to their three-course Crab Dinner for $65. Currently, they are offering a $75 four-course lobster Dinner until February 19th.
Happy Hours are always good options. My current favorite is the half-price pizza deal at Meribo on the north shore. Two pizzas amount to around $16. Plus drinks, and that's a deal! The muffuletta pizza (pictured) is now my preferred way to eat bread, olive salad, and deli meats. Meribo has Happy Hour all day Wednesday. Pizza Domenica does the same half-price-pizza-thing in New Orleans
Another favorite is the Garden Salad at lunch at Fogo de Chao. Just the salad buffet is only $15. Here is the most beautiful salad bar I have ever seen, Premium everything. Letting your mind wander still wouldn't begin to cover the array of offerings here. Vegetables, cheese, meats, chicken salad, olives, bacon, and feijoada, the spectacularly delicious Brazilian national dish of black bean stew.
Deals are all around. I stumble into them, like a recent visit to Lola on the north shore. These two married A-listers have a daily “board” scribbled on brown paper as you order. The food offered here is always fabulous, and normally priced at $15-20 per entree. But there is also a soup and side item for about half that, of equal creativity and excellence. One day I was elated to see their terrific red beans and rice offered since I had missed it that Monday. I also got artichoke soup. Tom’s red beans side was so large I helped him, and my soup was so filling we were both full for the day. On really premium food. That doesn’t happen often, but it’s worth noting.
We eat out for most meals, way more than most people do. While eating at home is still certainly the best way to save money, a little awareness and strategic ordering can have you in a real dining room without grumbling about the check, which will likely be 30% higher than last year.