We often find ourselves at a crossroads between what we want to eat and what we can afford to eat. I want champagne and caviar, but I settle for beer and a tuna sandwich. I want stuffed quail, but I buy a rotisserie chicken. Given the economy, there is something about splurging on food that seems almost inappropriate. These are uncertain times, when everyone is trying to save money and even the most extravagant are keeping an eye on the size of their wallets. In the hierarchy of oxymorons, "cost-effective splurge" ranks up there with Microsoft Works, compassionate conservative, and Gov. Schwarzenegger.
We live in a city where the average meal cost is $38.70, according to the most recent Zagat survey, and the price of a splurge can land well into the three digits. Even so, treating yourself to good food doesn’t necessarily mean an orgy of excessive expenditure. And if you spend your money wisely, you’ll find that even in a city as expensive as ours, great dining deals can be found even if your cravings are more Niman Ranch and your budget more Oscar Meyer. The following are some tips on how to get the most out of your money when you treat yourself to a gourmet meal on the town.
1. BYOB. The cardinal rule of smart splurging is to bring your own alcohol. Alcohol has a notoriously exorbitant mark-up at restaurants, but some restaurants allow you to BYOB for a small corkage fee or, even better, for free. Anchor Oyster Bar (579 Castro, SF. 415-431-3990, www.anchoroysterbar.com), Indigo (687 McAllister, SF. 415-673-9353, www.indigorestaurant.com), and PlumpJack Cafe (3127 Fillmore, SF. 415-563-4755, www.plumpjack.com) never charge corkage. Some restaurants will comp corkage one or more nights of the week. Laiola (2031 Chestnut, SF. 415-346-5641, www.laiola.com) has free corkage on Mondays, Zazie (941 Cole, SF. 415-564-5332, www.zaziesf.com) on Tuesdays, and Alamo Square Seafood Grill (803 Fillmore, SF. 415-440-2828, www.alamosquareseafoodgrill.com) on Wednesdays.
2. Parlay happy hour. Bars and restaurants regularly offer great deals in that dead-zone between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m., a time I fondly refer to as "lunchtime." At Andalu (3198 16th St., SF. 415-621-2211), Tuesday happy hour means $1 ahi tuna tacos. At Olive, (743 Larkin, SF. 415-776-9814, www.olive-sf.com) drink a perfectly mixed, classic martini for $5 on weekdays, followed by a $7 pizza large enough to split with friends. And don’t forget the tastiest of all happy hours: oysters! Happy hour oysters are $1 each at Woodhouse Fish Company (2073 Market, SF. 415-437-2722, www.woodhousefish.com) on Tuesdays, at Hog Island Oyster Company (1 Ferry Bldg, SF. 415-391-7117, www.hogislandoysters.com) on Mondays and Thursdays, and at Waterbar (399 The Embarcadero, SF. 415-284-9922, www.waterbarsf.com) on weekdays before 6pm.
3. Explore specials. Restaurants are feeling the economic downturn just as much as we are, and to usher in customers, many been offering tempting and reasonable "recession specials". Case in point: on Sunday through Thursday nights, Luna Park (694 Valencia, SF. 415-553-8584, www.lunaparksf.com) currently offers a rotating "blue plate special" priced from $10 to $12, with accompanying drink specials for $5.
4. Decide ahead. Most restaurants have online menus, and if you choose what you want before you get to the restaurant, you’ll prevent yourself from making impulse orders at the last minute.
5. Go prix fixe. At many restaurants, you can eat a delicious three-course meal for under $25 if you order off the prix fixe menu. Baker Street Bistro (2953 Baker, SF. 415-931-1475, www.bakerstbistro.com) offers a popular three course prix fixe dinner menu that includes soup, chef’s choice of an entree, and any dessert for $14.50. At Pisces (3414 Judah, SF. 415-564-2233, www.greenopia.com), start off with an organic green salad, followed by Muscovy duck leg with pear compote, and end with a crème brulée, all for $23.
6. Try lunch. According to Zagat’s San Francisco Dining Deals Guide, lunch items are generally 25 percent to 30 percent less expensive than dinner items, even if both menus are exactly the same.
7. Take a class. Give a man a fish taco and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him how to sauté a whitefish and make his own fish taco with mango salsa, and he’ll eat well for the rest of his life, plus impress his friends. Emily Dellas (www.emilydellas.com) at First Class Cooking, teaches three-course cooking classes out of her beautiful SoMa studio for $55, which covers all the ingredients. Post-cooking, you’ll sit down and eat the gourmet goodies you learned to make.
8. Go ethnic. Dining at ethnic restaurants is a great way to eat sumptuously without spending every penny in your pocket, since hole-in-the-wall places are almost always better than the expensive versions. Shalimar (532 Jones, SF. 415-776-4642, www.shalimarsf.com) is easily one of the best Indian restaurants in San Francisco, and most entrees on the menu are under $5 (BYOB). With prices like that, you can justify heading up the street afterward to The Hidden Vine (620 Post, SF. 415-674-3567, www.thehiddenvine.com) for some chocolate truffles and a glass of wine.