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Get a three-star meal at a two-digit price

By Marnie Hunter
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(CNN) -- Do you have a long list of restaurants you'd like to try but consistently pass over for fear of eating up your car payment or your child's college tuition?

Ease your fears with some simple cost-saving tactics and get on with taking a bite -- or at least a nibble -- out of your restaurant wish list.

Look at lunch menus

Fine dining at lunchtime can yield significant savings when the bill arrives.

"Lunch is a great time to go to top-flight restaurants because it's almost always a lot less expensive than dinner," said John Fischer, an associate professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

"It's a way of getting the chance to take a look at a really great chef's menu," said Michael Mahle, a spokesman for Zagat Survey restaurant guides.

At Gramercy Tavern, consistently top-ranked in popularity in the annual New York City Zagat guide, a three-course lunch menu costs $36 while a three-course prix fixe menu in the evening runs $76. The city's highly rated Jean Georges offers a three-course lunch Monday through Saturday for only $24.

Dine in the other room

Tucking in for a meal in a restaurant's lounge or bar -- or in Gramercy Tavern's case, the Tavern Room -- can be a more casual and affordable way to sample some of the kitchen's offerings.

"You get an idea of what the flavors are that the chef is working with and it's equally delicious. It just comes at a little bit lower of a price," Mahle said.

David Chang, chef and owner of inexpensive to moderately priced Momofuku Noodle and Ssam bars in New York's East Village, agrees with this strategy.

"Go to the bar and just eat your way through the appetizer section," he said. "A lot of times you can construct sort of your own tasting menu."

Chang, who was voted one of the best new chefs of 2006 by Food & Wine magazine, also suggests splitting entrees or asking if you can have a half portion.

Keeping costs down also generally means keeping headcount down, Chang said.

"Eating on the cheap works best with two or three people because if it's larger then the bill gets enormous."

Try the chef's other restaurants

Many top chefs have made their food more accessible by opening up additional -- and more affordable -- restaurants featuring their signature treatments of different styles of cuisine.

Thomas Keller, the celebrated chef behind The French Laundry in California's Napa Valley and New York's Per Se (both of which have received the coveted Michelin three-star rating), also offers traditional bistro fare at Bouchon in Yountville, California, where entrees cost between $16 and $30.

Keller's restaurants range from elegant multi-course $210 menus at The French Laundry and Per Se to upscale soups and sandwiches served at Bouchon Bakery locations in Yountville and New York.

Choose sensibly

Even when you're in for three courses ordered la carte, there are ways you can keep your bill in line with your budget.

"You don't have to get the $35 steak when there's a $22 chicken dish," Fischer said.

"In fact, there's something that I call 'chicken guilt,' which is something that has chefs in restaurants making the chicken dish one of the best dishes on the menu because they feel guilty selling a chicken for $28," he said.

Wine and cocktails add up quickly, so keep tabs on what you're drinking.

"If you just stay away from beverages and you just want to eat tasty food, get a glass of wine or two glasses of wine," Chang advised. "Don't go over your head and try to impress the sommelier or your captain thinking you have to order bottles of wine."

Some restaurants will allow you to bring your own wine for a small corkage fee, usually about $10, Fischer said.

He suggested having cocktails at home before arriving at the restaurant to shave $10 per person off the bill. And there's no need to get fancy quenching your thirst.

"Avoid bottled water. Ice water is just fine," he said.

For bargain basement dining in cities across the country, Fischer also recommends looking into events such as Restaurant Week, a time when eateries in cities including Indianapolis, Atlanta, Boston and Baltimore offer deeply discounted prix fixe menus.

Three-course dinners usually cost $30 to $35 during the specified time, which tends to fall during a summer lull. In New York a Winter Restaurant Week is scheduled for January 22 to 26 and January 29 to February 2.


The Tavern Room at New York's Gramercy Tavern offers a more flexible menu.




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