No your eyes aren't deceiving you... yes, I'm quoting Sean "P.Diddy Combs," and no, I don't approve of his interpretation of Fine Dining a la "All About the Benjamins" circa 1997...
Getting back to the "Bougie Budget Ballin' Series," - I have a few for you this week... YES, a few! So without further ado... I present the first, "The Bougie Budget Baller's Guide to Fine Dining"
I'm a self-confessed foodie. I love to eat... my nickname might as well be "Mikey" since I'll try just about anything. I'm generally none too discriminating in my tastes as part of my ability to budget stems from a willingness to eat at "Old Country Buffet" or "IHOP" when times get rough (or after a late night of socializing... whatever!). I blame my this on my father, who is known for making midnight runs to the infamous "Ranch House" in Hartford, or eating fried pigeon off of those suspect NYC vending carts (those things are delicious... don't deny it my bougies)!
My mother of course, is HORRIFIED by this behavior and for years has attempted to counteract this it by enrolling me in various etiquette classes, and taking me to "fine dining establishments." "Remember" she'd demand, "When in doubt, start with out!" Or another favorite, "It's pronounced FILET MEN-YON," not "FILEGT MIG-NOG!" Surprisingly, her lessons took hold and the pleasure I get from food is not limited to "greasy bar-dives."
In fact, since moving to the NYC area, I've become somewhat of a "Fine Dining" Junkie, using every available opportunity to eat at some of New York's/New Jersey/Philadelphia/Chicago/Las Vegas... etc. etc. most "intimidating" food locations... Gramercy Tavern, Nobu, Asia de Cuba, Buddaken, Tangerine's, Tavern on the Green, the Four Seasons... the list goes on... and on... and on. At one point, my addiction was so bad, that I contemplating trying "French Laundry" while on a trip to the Bay Area where pre-fix prices (per person!) start at $210. *smh*
Clearly fine dining can be an expensive foray... and if you're going to do it, do it big or go home. There's no sense in going to a place like Megu and spending $25 for a glass of water and a bowl of Miso Soup just so you can stay on your budget and say you ate there. But, fine dining doesn't need to be an insane adventure where you drop $1000 on one meal. Instead, use it as an opportunity to explore various avenues and paths... here are some of my suggestions on how to get your "bougie grub on" without dipping too deep in your pockets:
1) Restaurant Week
Restaurant Week is one of those brilliant creations that allow local restaurants (fine and otherwise) and bougie purveyors on a budget to mutually benefit one another. During restaurant week, participating restaurants offer pre-fixe meals at set prices... for most restaurants, the prices are set much lower than average (i.e. $25 for three course lunch, $35 for three course dinner). This is a perfect way for you to eat at all of the restaurants you WISH you could eat at, and stay on a fixed budget. Check your local listings, most cities offer some type of restaurant week:
Washington, DC: http://www.washington.org/restaurantwk/ (1/14-1/20)
NYC: http://www.nycvisit.com/restaurantweek/ (1/21-25; 1/28-2/1)
Philadelphia: http://www.centercityphila.org/restaurantweek/ (1/27-2/1)
Boston: http://www.restaurantweekboston.com/ (3/9-3/14-3/16-3/21)
Also check out regions/boroughs for specials - for example, Brooklyn has a fabulous restaurant week - http://nymag.com/restaurants/articles/restaurantweek/brooklyn/
Hurry and make a reservation, restaurant weeks get booked rapidly!
2) Taste of [Insert City Name Here]
Don't turn your nose up at city-wide tastings! This is a great opportunity to "sample" fine dining and decide if a certain restaurant is for you (or not). There's nothing worse than shelling out a good amount of money for what you "think" would be an excellent food experience... and you find the food bland, the water tepid, and the service sour. A Taste of [City] easily solves that problem buy bringing the meal to you in bite sized morzels... no fuss, no muss, and easy decision making! A Taste of [City] can also offer you alternatives or new restaurants that may not have made your initial list, but now pique your curiosity!
Arguably the most famous "A Taste of [City]" is the Taste of Chicago ... I've known people to fly out to Chicago, simply for the festival (http://www.tasteofchicago.us)! Other cities also hold their own tasting festivals and they're relitively easy to find; for example:
New York (http://nymag.com/taste/)
Again, check your local listings - definitely a enjoyable as a solo or as part of a group experience!
3) Sampling menus - While nowhere near as reasonably priced as Restaurant Week, most high-end restaurants offer pre-fixe meals/prices available in 3 course, 5 course, and 7 course options. For example, Mediterra (Princeton, NJ) offers $50, $100, and $150 options which occasionally include a free wine pairing. Check your local restaurants for such options, it may save you a considerable amount of money. Local restaurants will sometimes do "tasting parties" where you can pick and choose multiple "tapa" type entrees.
4) My fourth and final suggestion is a "common sense" suggestion. Don't assume that a famous name, a high rating, and a pricey menu indicate fine dining! If you do, you'll lose on on some wonderful establishments that exist under the radar. My best advice is to talk to friends, and colleagues - they often have suggestions that are mind-boggling!
For example, although I pop in and out of Brooklyn on occasion, I'd never tried Sugarcane Restaurant, until last Winter when a few friends put me on: http://www.sugarcanerestaurant.com. While the service was "questionable," the overall food and drink experience was delightful. Deliciously priced and artfully named mojitos, savory caribbean and southern entrees, and of course gorgeous and mouthwatering desserts (on which we had to pass... too full)! Everyone's experience *will* be different, so make sure you amass multiple opinions before you dive into fine dining.
Another suggestion would be to start a "dining club" where you and some of your friends do lunch/brunch/dinner at a different upscale eatery once or twice a month (again remembering... upscale doesn't have to equal expensive). I'm a huge fan of lunch at the Bergdorf Goodman Cafe, first because it's nice to relax after a hard day of (window) shopping, and second, the food is yummy, reasonably priced, the couches and chairs are comfortable, and the service is excellent. Try experimenting with your options - different types of food, different price range, different location. You'll be bougie eating (on a budget of course) in no time!
I hope you enjoy Part I of The Bougie Baller's Series on Fine Dining. What's to come? Affordable wine tastings, fabulous dinner parties on a budget, and gourmet/healthy cooking for low prices (and yes... there will be outside insight)!
The Bougie Baller