On a budget? Still eat out in style by making smart choices

Budgets may be tight this year, but it's still the holidays.

We'll still gripe about the traffic jams at the mall, bake and eat too many cookies, over decorate the house and try to find just the right present for everyone on our list.

And we'll still want to eat at our favorite destinations.

If you think you can't afford to gather with friends or family at great restaurants this year, don't make it an all-or-nothing proposition. With a little forethought, you can enjoy great food, service and atmosphere without breaking the bank.

Here are five techniques for dining well without spending more than you mean to.

1. Be smart and flexible about where you go. Before you choose a destination, look in newspapers and on Web sites for venues with specially priced holiday menus or money-saving coupons. Some restaurants have frequent diner programs that offer good deals or discounts to guests who sign up and provide their e-mail addresses. Also, be sure to read the menu before you go so you're less likely to over-order.

2. Have a plan and stick to it. Don't feel obligated to order more courses than you want. A smart server will give you the same level of courteous service he shows to tables ordering more, so tip appropriately.

3. Share a starter or other first course. It's a time-honored way to expand your dining experience without over extending your budget or eating more than you want. It's not always apparent from the menu which dishes are the right size for sharing, so ask your server for suggestions. Sometimes the kitchen or server will divide the dish for you to ensure that it is appealingly presented. If there's a small charge for that, your server should mention it.

4. Know the price before you order. If you want to try a special dish described by the server or a wine he or she recommends, don't be embarrassed to ask what it costs. Do not blindly trust that the prices of specials are comparable to those of regular menu items. And it's not only a matter of whether you can afford it, it's a question of value.

For example, a trout dish might be appealing to you at $22, but it might seem over priced at $30. Don't be intimidated. Simply ask, "And how much is the trout you mentioned?"

5. Check your check at the end of a meal. Mistakes can happen, especially when restaurants are busiest. Are the prices on the bill the same as those on the menu? Are the prices of specials the same as the ones quoted to you by the waiter? Before you add a gratuity, note whether it is already a part of your total. Most restaurants add it automatically for larger parties, and they should say so, prominently, on the menu. Eighteen percent is typical, but 20 percent isn't unheard of.

While this has been a tough year for consumers, so has it been for restaurants. Most have altered their menus and lowered their prices to be as accessible as possible.

Between their efforts and your own savvy dining strategies, you may be surprised to discover that your wallet even has room for dessert.

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