Tuesday, August 19, 2008

By Request: The Economics of Eating Out vs. Staying In

Don't worry Carrie, Atlantis is coming next!

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!


  1. good article!! thanks for posting this. My parents, being savvy money saving asians, have always stressed that you save more money by cooking, and I, being not a cook and not possessing the patience of a cook have found some pretty cheap eats our my area...so for the longest time I was conflicted between what my parents always taught me and what I have discovered myself.

    awesome article, again. and i'll def visit the restaurants you recommended above. I am an avid restaurant adventurer.

  2. Argh, I gotta stop writing "articles" and get back to writing blog posts. I'm not really this formal sounding in real life. I dunno when this happened...

    Anyway I checked out your Yelp when you had that up on your blog. A couple of your restaurant reviews were pretty funny (the bad ones).

    But you should totally try Sakagura. You will enjoy it and you will get drunk :)

  3. btw, I realized I said a bunch of stuff up there about impressing girlfriends and whatnot, even though you were the one who suggested the topic. Hope you didn't think that was weird, I kinda was just writing a general thing, wasn't aiming that at anyone specific.

  4. it wasn't weird at all. it shows you consider the other person in your din-cision making. lol. okay corny jokes aside, i thought it was pretty well thought out and relatable.

  5. Hi Jeff!
    I'm coming up to NYC next month. I love eating out in New York. Our restaurants around here in VA are crud. There are a few decent Japanese, Indian and Thai places, but they require some travel.
    Can you recommend a good Japanese restaurant that I can take my friend to? I would prefer a place that isn't a bar. :)

  6. I still say you should try Sakagura. When I say it's "a bar", I mean it exists mostly as a restaurant so you can pair their food with the alcohol that they specialize in (and make most of their money from). They have around 250 varieties of sake, that was originally their big claim to fame. And they do *have* a bar, but most of the restaurant is like a regular restaurant. I didn't mean to scare anybody off by saying "it's a bar". They have lots of regular tables. I'll edit the post and make that clearer...

    This little mini-review has a picture of part of the restaurant, so you can see it's a regular sitdown place: http://events.nytimes.com/2006/06/21/dining/reviews/21unde.html

    I really haven't had better Japanese food in NYC than Sakagura and I've been to a lot of places, some of which are really expensive.

    If you want sushi, though, try Blue Ribbon Sushi or Yasuda (depending on where you are). Sakagura doesn't have a sushi chef. You can go crazy and pay outrageous prices for sushi like anything else, but those places are good and somewhat reasonable (by NYC standards).

  7. One last thing! The "sharing" style that the Times article I posted above talks about is pretty traditional for Japanese meals of any kind - I've never eaten a meal in Japan that was not family style, either at home or in a restaurant. So don't be scared by that either - it's pretty authentic. But you don't *have* to eat that way, either - they have some dishes that are intended for only one person. So you can eat how you want.

    Have fun!

  8. Yay! Thanks. I'll be in Brooklyn & Manhattan mostly. Where's Sakagura? I'll look it up.
    Let me know if you would like to meet me and my best friend for coffee or food on Sep 20th or 21st. If you're in the East Village, then I know we'll be in that area as I coerce my friend into visiting all of my favorite little shops.

  9. Sakagura's at 211E 43RD STREET B1F - it's one of those places you kind of have to know, because it doesn't have a big fancy storefront. It's in a basement of an office building. (Seriously, don't be intimidated, it's a cool place!) On a weekend, I would definitely make reservations. It looks like they actually just launched a new web site (new since I wrote this post): http://www.sakagura.com

    It would be cool to meet for coffee. I can try to be in the city that weekend, though I can't say for sure if I'm going to be or not as of yet. I think I still know some good coffee shops in the village... Cafe Gitane I think is still there, that's my favorite.

  10. I forgot to check your response! Sorry for the delay...
    Yes, I'll be there this coming Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Saturday or Sunday in the evening (6 or 7 or so) should be free time. I will also be trying to drag my friend to Sakagura, so thank you for the tip!
    E-mail me at mistybeethoven@hotmail.com if you think you might be around in the city!

  11. Goodness, I didn't see your last response until now, months later! I kinda thought you just blew it off (you probably thought the same after I didn't reply to this).

    I normally watch my email, where I have my comments automatically mailed, but very occasionally they don't come through. I think that must have happened this time... (I know, sounds like an excuse, but it really does happen.)


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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