Monday, January 18, 2010

Dining Out

There was a commercial on TV the other day that proclaimed that dinner out for a family of four averaged about $45 and that, if you ate at home once a month, you could save more than $400 a year. (A quick bit of math based on that calculation says that you can save more than $12,000 a year if you eat at home all the time.)

When I was a kid, we went out to dinner about once a month, most often to the Stop 20 Diner, My favorite meal there was the roast turkey dinner, which came with mashed potatoes, stuffing, and string beans. We also got a cup of soup -- I was a big fan of the cream of chicken -- and the dessert was a scoop of ice cream -- they only had vanilla or chocolate and it always had chunks of ice in it -- or pudding.

On special occasions like landmark birthdays or graduations, we went to Cookie's Steak Pub. The one thing everyone who ever went to Cookie's remembers is the "salad" which consisted of a quarter of a head of lettuce and your choice of white, pink or orange dressing.

These days, our local diners offer a complete dinner for prices ranging from about $12 to $18, depending on the entree you choose. For that price, they give you a spinach pie appetizer, soup, a salad, coffee or tea, and dessert, along with the main course, which includes a potato and vegetable. You don't walk out hungry... and most people leave with a take-home bag containing enough food for another meal. Considering all the food they can give you and still make a profit, it's not hard to imagine how you could save $12,000 a year by eating a normal-sized meal at home.

One of the diners here even includes a glass of wine with everything else when you have the complete dinner. One time, Laurie and I went to the diner for dinner with an old friend. When the waitress asked what kind of wine he wanted, he asked if they had a Chardonnay. She said, "We've got red wine, white wine, and pink wine and they each come in a box. What color do you want?"

The only other time we had dinner out was Haircut Day, when my father would take my brothers and me to the "Mr. Haircut" barber shop in Hempstead where they had "18 barbers - No Waiting." We always assumed we made that fifteen minute drive because they charged 25c less than our local Elmont barber shop, but, while it was likely that economics played a role, it is far more likely that the last thing my father wanted to do was have to deal with two of us while the third was getting his hair cut. With eighteen barbers, all three of us -- and my father -- got our hair cut at the same time and we were usually in and out in less time than it took to drive there.

Our treat on the way home was to stop at Big Steer, which was a fast-food hamburger place in the days before McDonalds and Burger King took over the world. We would fill up on hamburgers and the world's greasiest french fries and my brothers and I thought eating out couldn't be any better than this. At the time, I think the burgers were 15c and the fries were a dime, so our entire feast probably cost about $2.

These days we have McDonalds and Burger King proclaiming the values to be found on their Dollar Menus. Recently, Mickey D has been advertising their McDouble cheeseburger. For those who might be wondering about it, it's what used to be the Double Cheeseburger, but now it only has one slice of cheese instead of two. About a year ago, when they put the double cheeseburger on the Dollar Menu, a number of franchisees complained that the profit margin was too low, so somebody figured out that they could cut the cost substantially by using half the cheese.

Meantime, BK has been advertising that their dollar-priced Double Cheeseburger has more meat than the McDouble (and, presumably, still has that second slice of cheese). Of course, neither chain is making lots of money on the burger. As always, their big-profit items are the french fries and drinks and how many people go to a fast food place to just have the burger? When you consider that the cup that your soda comes in costs more than the beverage it contains, it's easy to see that they're making a hefty profit on that $1 drink.


Though we still occasionally go out to dinner, usually to a restaurant that serves food we wouldn't make at home, Laurie and I prefer to eat in. We are always on the lookout for an interesting soup recipe or something different to do with chicken or beef.

And on special occasions like birthdays and graduations, we don't go out; instead, the celebrant gets to pick what he or she would like for the meal. Just yesterday, for example, we celebrated Rebecca's birthday with barbecued lamb chops, tortellini with pesto, and homemade eclairs. Oh, and there was a salad, but it was lot more than a quarter of a head of lettuce!


  1. Regarding the beverages: even if you can find someplace that still charges only a buck for a soda (I can't...), about half the time, they squeal like a stuck pig if you ask for a refill. This is when they should be saying, "Sure, we'll give you the depth charge size soda for twenty-nine cents more... and we'll rent you a bathing suit for just another five bucks!" :)
    I remain,
    Eric L. Sofer
    The Bad Clown

  2. I miss Cookies Steak Pub.