Dining Well: Spending Less

Seared Salmon

What better way to experience some of San Diego’s finest culinary establishments than to do so at a fraction of the cost? Satisfying your palate as well as your pocket book can be achieved several ways: There are smart ways to order from a regular menu without incurring excessive cost. There are countless newspaper and online discount offers available to those who take the time to do the research. Happy hours have also become increasingly popular. Fortunately, “Happy Hour” doesn’t always imply simple bar food. Several upscale restaurants with business casual dress standards offer condensed versions of their menu at a fraction of the cost to tantalize their guests to return again and again.

Anytime you visit a restaurant, drinks alone typically drive up the tab. For two people, on average, at least 40% of the total bill is spent on drinks. This guesstimate is based on either one bottle of an economical brand of wine, or the average cost of two drinks for two people. One option to avoid this pricey killjoy is to consider bringing your own bottle of wine and paying a $15 - $20 corkage fee instead.

If you’re not dining during Happy Hour and you like mixed drinks, avoid ordering top shelf spirits (high end brands), and order well drinks instead (economical brands). Some mixed drink concoctions have so many ingredients, it’s hard to tell which brand of gin, rum, or vodka, has been used. Many imported wines offered by the glass are often very reasonable compared to some popular California, Washington, and Oregon labels. Shiraz and merlot from Australia can be a satisfying red wine alternative to a Cabernet or Zinfandel. Chardonnay from South Africa and Chile are also wonderful and affordable.

Another tip is sharing dishes with your dining guest —it’s a great way to stimulate conversation during your meal and save on the number of dishes you order. Salad and appetizer portions in a number of restaurants can be quite generous and ideal for sharing. However, there are a few restaurants that are less receptive to splitting an order on to two separate plates. It’s better to avoid asking your server to split the order; simply ask for an extra plate.

One such restaurant offering a happy hour along with exceptional food is Solare Ristorante & Lounge, tucked away within the NTC Promenade in Point Loma. Every Tuesday through Sunday, from 4:30pm-6:30pm, this fine contemporary Italian restaurant attracts locals and visitors to experience a first rate happy hour, with a complimentary House Appetizer to start. Guests enjoy sitting on the patio in the park-like setting as they sip diverse and uncommon wine from Italy, and sample various tapas such as the ever-changing ravioli special, which has a surprising new twist each day. The all around pleasure of dining at Solare, at a fraction of the price no less, goes even beyond the food -- the charm of the international staff will have you thinking about the next time you’ll visit before you’ve even left.

For a true California wine country-inspired dining experience, you only have to travel as far as Horton Plaza, in downtown San Diego. The moment you enter the Napa Valley Grille, there is an authentic feeling of being precisely where the restaurant is named. You are greeted by a friendly hospitable staff, and are instantly taken in by the warm colors in the room: rustic decorative accents and the heavenly aroma of freshly baked Foccacio Bread from the wood-fire oven. Members of the local business community and visitors to San Diego love the Napa Grille. Even in this fine restaurant, you’ll find an excellent happy hour offered from 3-6pm, Monday-Friday. What says rustic California but a rich smooth bowl of Butternut Squash Soup? A generous portion of this wonderful bowl of comfort can be enjoyed for only $6.25. Sautéed Clams are $7.25, and serve as a nice second course for one or two people. And requesting an extra serving of Foccacio to savor every last drop of sauce is definitely recommended. Another delicious dish is the Goat Cheese and Caramelized Peach Tart, for $6.75. If you crave something more hearty, try the Cajun Seared Pork Loin, for $8.25. Or if you’d rather order fewer courses, but still want a variety of flavors, order the small Harvest Platter for $12.50. Two people can enjoy this dish which includes smoked salmon, bruschetta, hummus, cheese, olives, and grilled asparagus. This is the Napa Valley Grille after all, so you must sample the grapes of Napa’s fine rich soil. Wine by the glass is only $6. If you’re looking to learn a few things about the wine you’re drinking, the knowledgeable attentive staff will gladly enlighten you.

In the neighboring Gaslamp Quarter is one of San Diego’s finest Indian restaurants -- Monsoon. Before you even enter the establishment, the exotic aromatics grab hold of your senses without letting go. Immediately at your service is a host ready to receive you as their guest, as if you’ve entered their home. As one would imagine, the dark intimate surroundings inside are reminiscent of a monsoon ridden jungle, and the sound of trickling water from the fountains inside, coupled with the tranquil Indian music, prepares you for the ultimate experience to come.

The frugal diner has an advantage ordering from the a la carte menu. Ordering from a regular menu consisting of all, or mostly, a la carte components translates into more mix-and-match dish options. A traditional dish to start with is the Samosa Appetizer (apuff pastry filled with your choice of potato with peas, lamb, or chicken). This more than satisfying favorite is priced between $5 and $6, and comes with a variety of pungent, spicy, and sweet sauces to die for. Naan – one of the most tantalizing versions of flat bread on earth -- ranges from $3-$5, and is served either plain, with garlic and cilantro, or stuffed with spicy onion and topped with cilantro. I also suggest ordering soup to accompany the naan. Monsoon offers three wonderful soups for only $5-$6. The choices include Aam (a mango soup), Dal (a lentil soup), and Murg (a chicken soup). These boldly flavorful dishes may tempt you to try something cool and crisp like the Lettuce Wraps. For under $3, one lettuce wrap will help put out the fire. Hearty appetites will also be satisfied with side dishes such as Sag, which is a creamy spinach curry, and Karahi, a spicy potato dish. Better yet, they will only cost you $5 per dish. With Indian food, light fruity non-alcoholic beverages taste best, and will save you a fortune if you refrain from the spirits during this meal. Try a Mango Lassi Smoothie to start, and a Chai Tea to finish. After tasting chai in an authentic Indian restaurant, you’ll never go back to the instant stuff they serve at most local coffee houses.

Whether you crave contemporary Italian, California, or Indian cuisine, you can experience them all in an upscale setting without spending a fortune. Now is a great time to dine out to help stimulate the economy, All the while enjoying the many flavors of San Diego.

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