seasonal lust wanted me to write about eating out vs. cooking in to save money. And that's easy, so here I go!
I live just outside New York City, one of the best food cities in the world. From 1992 through 2006, I lived in the city itself. New York's got a reputation for expensive restaurants, and it's got 'em, that's for sure. But you know, there was a time when I ate out almost every night. And I was living alone and making 30 grand a year back then. You just gotta know where to go.
Let's dive right into the economics. These are the average prices for some common food items you might need for a typical meal at grocery stores in NYC:
- 1 lb. of lean hamburger: $4
- Box of spaghetti: $1.30
- Jar of spaghetti sauce: $3.50
- 1 lb. of green beans: $3
- 1 box of butter (whatever weight that is): $5
- 1 container of parmesan cheese: $4
When you start to add everything up, you're spending at least $5 for a meal and that's basically if you're eating nothing but spaghetti all the time - it's more expensive to make almost anything else. (Instant ramen is cheaper, but what are we, in high school?) You may as well just get some street meat.
New York's got some great street vendors. There's even a contest every year called the "Vendy's" to name the best. Seriously, some of these guys are world class! There's every kind of food out on the street, from the basic hot dogs and sausages to authentic Greek, Middle Eastern, German and even Ethiopean food. A chicken over rice at an average Halal street vendor is maybe $5, maybe $6, and will probably taste better than anything you can make yourself.
By the way, my insult to instant ramen notwithstanding, you might want to check out some of my posts on ramen shops in NYC if you're looking for some more good, cheap eats. Of course, almost every block has a cheap Chinese restaurant, but you're taking your life in your hands there. (I admit I've done it plenty of times anyway - I've got the intestinal scars to prove it!) And there are plenty of other places in this city where you can get a good meal for less than 5 bucks.
This is kind of unique to New York. Eating out in most areas means going to a real restaurant. And unless you're taking your date to McDonald's every night (or your local Greek Diner) - which is probably not the best way to win a girl's heart - you're gonna be spending more than $5. But then, if you're trying to impress, you're not making spaghetti at home either. You're still spending a decent amount on ingredients, even if you cook.
This is a really bad picture but this is a little bit of the food at Sakagura, which is honestly probably the best all-around Japanese restaurant in New York City and also a great deal. I don't normally walk around with a camera when I go to real restaurants, so this is the best shot I have of their food. But here's the thing: you can spend $140 per person at Megu (which I have done) and get inauthentic, trendy food that nobody in Japan would actually eat, or you can go to a place like Sakagura and spend $40 per person (if that) and get both real food and a classy but genuine atmosphere. Not to mention the best selection of sake this side of the Pacific, or maybe even on either side of the Pacific! (Or you can forego the class and get food mostly just as good for even 1/4 of that price at Village Yokocho, which I believe now qualifies as having been in the East Village "forever". At least longer than any of the other Japanese places down there.)
By the way, I know I'm supposed to be focusing on economics but this must be mentioned as my favorite dessert ever:
That's Sakagura's black sesame creme brulee, and I think it costs six bucks. Yes, it has a scoop of homemade black sesame ice cream on top too. And a homemade black sesame cookie. It's black sesame-icious! I'd go so far as to say it's black sesame-rageous!
Real Japanese don't eat at places like Megu, just as I'm sure real Italians don't eat at the Rainbow Room and real Chinese don't eat at Buddakan. So why would you? I'm not saying you should never eat at these places. They're nice on special occasions, or yeah, when you're trying to impress. I'm saying there are plenty of places to eat out that have better food and cost a lot less.
The point is you could easily spend $1,000 per month just eating out in New York, but nobody in their right mind does. Most people spend about the same amount eating in as dining out and do both about as often. It's all just about knowing where to go.
A couple tips:
- Bars or pubs usually have the best food for the best prices. (Village Yokocho, mentioned above, is really a bar. Sakagura is too. They have real tables - they're restaurants - but their food exists to complement their alcohol, so it's cheaper.)
- Get a Zagat guide. It actually is a surprisingly decent indicator of quality and price. The internet, in my experience, is not. Neither is Michelin; at least not here.
- For everyday food, a good reliable street vendor is all you need.
- At almost any trendy restaurant, you're paying a large premium to be able to tell your friends you ate there. You're not paying for the quality of the food.
And the bottom line? Eating out doesn't have to cost more than eating in. And when it does, it doesn't have to cost much more. So live a little!