Going out to eat in nice places can be an absolute shitter when it comes to money. I used to work as a chef at places like Le Gavroche and The River Cafe, but now I dine out like any regular John. Except I have to do it on a very tight budget. But that doesn't mean I can't eat well. I'm a grown man, after all.
It might sound obvious, but, to me, the idea of feeling obliged to spend what everyone else is spending in a nice restaurant is a joke. If you have a plan and stay away from dishes that go into hefty double figures—a $30 (£18) fish dish, say—you're getting the same expertise and skill sets as if you order a $15 (£9) dish, like a salad or a few gussied up vegetables. The quality is not going to be downgraded because of the price.
All drinks in restaurants that aren't tap water are marked up like a motherfucker. It's where they get you. So order tap water and nothing else. When I worked at Polpo, staff were told to offer customers tap before bottled water, which I thought was nice. But other places can be pushy, so push right back, sister.
Another one of my favorite ways of frugally immersing myself in good restaurants is—I'm a genius—only going for part of the meal. I often venture into St. John, for example, after filling up on a cheap street kebab to sit and indulge in a dozen decadent madeleines. In New York, you could be out grabbing cheap beer and falafels in the West Village and then head up to The Four Seasons's bar for a plate of their fromage blanc panna cotta with plum soup like an absolute don. Trust me, it feels good.
And for god's sake, if you do go somewhere like The Ritz, spend some proper time in the toilets. They are like tiny palaces. I've started to go to places like The Zedel in London just to use the washrooms to relax for seven minutes. I sit back, take my glasses off, run some hot water, use the towels, and take stock of my life.
This same breeziness should define the way that you navigate a menu. Try replacing menu headings like "starters," "mains," and "desserts" in your brain with more useful navigational prompts like "cheap," "fuck off," and "no thank you." I've sat down to dine with people many times who only order a couple of starters. A chef cannot legitimately leave his kitchen to tell you how to order from the menu—it's all for your eating enjoyment and you can order it in any sequence, and any volume, you like.
There are menu staples that will always be good value for money, though. More specifically, soup and burgers. One of the most talked about dishes in London right now is the potato and smoked eel soup at Mayfields, which costs about £6 ($10). No one—even the fanciest of hotels—will ever deny you a solo bowl of soup and some bread, and you will walk away with a pleasant, full slosh in your gut. Most restaurants worth their salt will have a burger on the menu, too. They're usually cheap enough and, unless the chef is trying some fancy Heston Blumenthal shit with lettuce emulsions, spray-on cheese, and tomato dust, you're probably going to leave with change from $20 (£12).
Or maybe not. Tasting menus and small plates are the blueprint that every young, creative chef wants to follow these days. On the surface, the prices might make your beard fall out, whisker by whisker, but the most recent wave of fiercely seasonal, low-key restaurants doing wonderful things to great produce are of incredible value. The Clove Club in London, for example, is £55 ($93). New York's Contra is $55 (£32) and LA's Alma is the same. Forget places like Per Se—their tasting menu is $295 (£175)—and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay—where the Menu Prestige is £135 ($227)—and go eat in places that are doing pared-back Michelin-style cooking without the stuffy bullshit.
Small plate places should be approached with caution because they're the biggest psychological con artists out there. You think, Great, these are all under $12 (£7), so I'll get as many as I want. No. You won't. If you're really hungry, go for the bulkiest dishes (think lentils, potatoes, and something meaty). Pray you get full.
If you need to take someone out—like your long-suffering partner who has had enough of you whining into the fourth bowl of budget puttanesca of the week—go for a prix fixe lunch. Most great restaurants offer them, and even if you're at the ass-end of a paycheck, you should be OK. One of the best meals I ever had in London was at The Square, where I had a set lunch at £25 ($42) for two courses, which included oysters cooked three ways—tempura, Asian, and something else. Remember that it's the same chefs cooking in the kitchen. You aren't getting sub-par food and it is not a cop-out to go for lunch.
When you get to the end of your meal, wherever you have chosen to splash your penny collection, you have to figure out the tipping situation. We all know not tipping in the US can bring repercussions upon us, whereas in China, tipping will make you look like a rude pig—it implies that whoever has served you isn't valued. But here's the thing: I think there's a lot to be said for being vigilant with paying service charges and not buckling to blanket gratuity. If the staff fucks up, make your point discreetly at the end of the meal. Gently stipulate that you want to leave half the 15 percent to reflect your experience of service because, like chefs often say, their cooking can only be judged by the quality of their next dish. A customer's dining experience transcends the food itself and front-of-house staff are responsible for that. But people make a living off of this, so don't be a dick about it.
Now you've got no excuse for not eating well, you tightwad.