How to Have a Great Dining Experience the Budget-Friendly Way (From a Restaurant Insider)

You know that you have total control over the ingredients, the preparation, and the portions when you’re preparing food at home. It’s the safest option. It’s healthier and cheaper than eating out too. However, sometimes you find yourself eating out due to necessity or just because you want a nice night out.

There are so many great restaurant options out there now that target very specific dietary requirements, from vegan to paleo. Once you’ve settled on a place that looks good, how do you get the best experience from the restaurant?

Along with working in fitness and nutrition, I’ve spent years working in restaurants, so I’ve seen a lot along the way. Let me share seven great tips to get the most out of your dining experience.

1. If you want a table for two, book a table for three

Every square foot in a restaurant means money. Tables of two can be stuck anywhere and tend to be pushed to the side or lumped all together. If you’re looking for a comfortable and more private night out for the two of you, reserve a table for three. It will get you a better location and more room.

2. Look for these first two indicators of a good restaurant

I’ve worked with secret dinners and one of the big ones on the list is the bathrooms. This will give you a good indication of not only the cleanliness of the place but the attention to detail. Washrooms should be spotless. If you see a messy and dirty bathroom, I can promise you the kitchen is in a similar condition. A dirty kitchen ends up serving dirty food.

The next indicator of a good place is the type of bread and butter, or free starters that come out. How often have you had a rock hard roll and frozen butter that tears it apart when you start to spread? I’m pretty sure the rest of the meal was nothing to write home about.

A good restaurant should serve warm, fresh and ideally baked in-house that day bread with soft spreadable butter. Bonus points if they serve butter with grain mustard or an assortment of oils and balsamic kinds of vinegar. This is a good sign that they take pride and care in the preparation of their food.

3. Look out for the decoy effect

If you’re a wine drinker, purely for the antioxidant benefits.., look out for what’s called the decoy effect. The decoy effect works like this: If there are two wines on the menu for $9 and $16 which would you choose? There’s honestly not a huge difference price wise and not a huge scale of reference. Now if you add a $47 wine into the mix most of the time people will go for the $16 one. The perceived value has changed and something you may not have bought because it seemed too high now appears as inexpensive and good value.

Wine lists will always have a few of these very expensive decoy wines at the top of the list to make the other ones appear cheaper. The trick is to have a few favorite wine and get familiar with the pricing and look for those ones whenever you dine out.

4. Have them make your own salad dressing

Any restaurant worth its salt should be making everything in-house including sauces and salad dressings. Even though they are made from scratch, many salad dressing can be high in fat and even sugar. If you’re in a chain restaurant, ditch them all together as you’re guaranteed to be getting a dose of trans fat *cough* Caesar salad *cough*.

Instead, ask them to make you a simple olive oil and red wine or balsamic vinegar dressing to come on the side. It’s the healthier option and you can control the amount you use.

5. Ask your server what they eat

I do this everywhere I go. After a while of working in a restaurant, all the dishes and items tend to just become products to the staff and they’re probably bored of most of them. If you want to find the best stuff on the menu, ask your server or hostess what they eat when they’re there. It’s a good way to find the really best stuff on the menu.

6. Avoid ice in your drinks

O.K time to get a little gross. Ice machines are not regularly cleaned, trust me, it’s a pain. This leads to a lot of bacteria growth that ends up in your drink. Six out of ten restaurants have been found to have more bacteria in the ice than in the toilet water.[1] This is because the toilets are more regularly cleaned than the ice machine. Even though it’s cold, bacteria still grows.

7. Avoid fruit in your drinks

I’m a very clean person and am aware of keeping my hands clean. But when I was a bartender, it was pretty impossible. Hands used to grab dirty glasses are then grabbing fruit that goes into your drink. A lot of the time, the fruit at the bar is never washed and is easily contaminated by whatever else the bartender has touched from dirty dishes and utensils to the rims of glasses other people have drunk out of.

Just to concern you further on this fruit issue The Journal Of Environmental Health took samples of lemon slices from 21 different restaurants and found 70% of the samples to contain twenty-five different microbial contents.[2]

Everyone loves a good meal out and it’s always a great eye opener to see what real chefs can come up with using simple ingredients. I’m sure you’ve had good restaurant experiences and plenty of bad ones too. Hopefully with some of these tips, you’ll be able to set yourself up for some more good ones.

Just don’t forget to check the bathrooms…

Featured photo credit: pixabay via


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