Ways To Dine Well During A Downturn

With a few savvy strategies, saving money is not as difficult as it sounds.

ByRebecca Ruiz <br/> Forbes.com
October 24, 2008, 3:33 PM

Nov. 14, 2008&#151; -- At Fleisher's Meats in Kingston, N.Y., owner and butcher Josh Applestone still fills orders for grass-fed beef tenderloin that costs $40 a pound. But more frequent these days are requests from families that are looking to get more value for their dollar.

For such customers, he might recommend a grass-fed five-pound eye-round or an eight-pound, bone-in Berkshire pork shoulder, both of which can be prepared easily. At $7.99 per pound, they are also far less expensive than other premium cuts. While not as heavenly as tenderloin, these cuts still taste great and yield leftovers perfect for sandwiches, quesadillas or fried rice.

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"Even during economic stress, people have to eat," Applestone says. "And people would rather eat well than poorly."

Along with opting for different cuts of meat, there are myriad other ways to save on food without sacrificing quality or taste. With the help of a few savvy strategies, including staying in and splurging wisely, saving money is not as difficult as it sounds.

Gourmet at Home

James Oseland, editor-in-chief of the Saveur, loathes the idea of "pinching pennies" when it comes to food, but he does feel pressure to curb excessive spending.

"For me, the economic crunch equals, 'Wow, I've got to get cooking at home,' " he says, "and experience the great sensory pleasures of cooking at home and eating at home."

While that romantic notion may be incentive enough for some, the financial incentive is enough for most, as a two-person household can save significantly by cutting back on restaurant meals. In 2006, the average household spent $2,694 on food away from home, according to the National Restaurant Association. Households with incomes of $70,000 and higher spent $4,502, or $87 per week.

Recreating a restaurant's culinary experience at home, in fact, can be relatively simple, not to mention significantly cheaper. Butchers such as Fleisher's, DeBragga and Spitler, and D'Artagnan, which supply high-end New York restaurants like Savoy, Craft and Daniel, also sell directly to the public. Fleisher's only delivers in the New York City area, but DeBragga and Spitler and D'Artagnan sell online and ship overnight in the U.S. DeBragga and Spitler, which supplies to Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak, sells a four-pack of 16 oz. grass-fed, New York strip steaks for $81.50. At Craftsteak, a similar 12 oz. cut costs $50.

Chefs who include the farm source in dish descriptions on their menus also make it easier for the quality-obsessed to replicate meals at home. At the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant Chez Panisse, for example, desert includes a bowl of mission figs and a Frog Hollow Farm Warren Pear for $8.25. But a six-pack of those same pears is available on the farm's Web site for $24.

Knowing When to Spend

Even if financial restraint is not a personal strong suit, there are ways to splurge wisely, including on "recession specials" and gourmet street food.

Amanda Kludt, editor of the Web site Eater.com, says that while Michelin-starred restaurants like Le Bernardin or Jean-Georges aren't likely to start slashing prices anytime soon, some fine-dining establishments are offering recession specials. Table 8, with locations in South Beach, Fla., and Los Angeles, is offering a "recession concession" meal. At the Florida restaurant, a kobe beef carpaccio appetizer, skirt steak entrée and vanilla panna cotta desert can be had for $42 instead of $60.

Kludt says she's received a glut of special offers lately, including ones for half-price bottle nights, reduced prix-fixes and Sunday suppers.

"Smart restaurant owners are seeing this as an opportunity to market their operations as affordable and sensitive to concerned diners," she says. "And smart diners will be able to see which deals are actually worth it and [which] will take advantage of them."

Those looking for wallet-friendly splurges also will be pleased to learn that scaling back doesn't have to mean trading down. Take, for instance, gourmet street food, a trend that's intensified in recent years as inventive chefs with years of experience--often in notable kitchens--have launched mobile eateries. While many are concentrated in New York, there are dozens across the country serving items like a Kobe-style burger on brioche with bacon jam, blue cheese and arugula or crème brulée with caramelized banana--all for prices that rarely go higher than $8.

Such options also help quell the feeling that the economy might be in a long-term tailspin. During such times, says Applestone, it's important to know that eating well is still possible.

"Especially when people don't have control over anything," he says, "it's nice to have control over your food."

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