How to Eat at Michelin-starred Restaurants Without Going Broke
The Michelin Guide has long been one of the golden standards of the restaurant industry, with its somewhat-mysterious star rating system. Despite its popularity around the world, the guide only covers four cities in the United States: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and—for the first time in 2017—Washington, D.C.
Eating at the best restaurants in the world is one of the major reasons why we travel, but the cost of fine dining can add up. Thankfully, there’s a way—in fact, many ways—to have a memorable and affordable dining experience.
Opting for bar menus and lunch deals are two classic strategies, but don't forget about going beyond the prix fixe or looking just outside the big cities. You might even be able to save on wine pairings by booking a BYOB restaurant.
And you should almost always book in advance: As news of the 2017 ratings spread, reservations will grow increasingly harder to come by. Here are some of our tried-and-true tips for saving money while eating some of the country’s best meals.
Sit at the (right) bar
Bar menus with smaller price tags are nothing new at high-end restaurants. But a handful of Michelin-starred places have reinvented the experience for bar patrons. Take the three-star Restaurant at Meadowood, one of Napa Valley’s crown jewels for carefully composed farm-fresh cuisine. Its snack program serves up seven bites of the chef’s fancy for $40—just a fraction of the $330 tasting menu. The bar bites are miniature but no less intricate than the full-sized courses, giving diners a taste of Christopher Kostow’s flair for food-as-art.
Try a mini tasting menu
On the East Coast, Aldea in New York City just launched a similar Seven Signature Bites bar menu in celebration of its seventh birthday. What we love about this new feature from chef George Mendes is that the Portuguese snacks are all bite-sized derivatives of the one-star hotspot’s most beloved dishes—meaning you’re not sacrificing the classic Aldea experience for price. Choose three for $21, five for $35, or all seven for $49. The uni toast with cauliflower puree, duck confit rice with chorizo, and salted caramel sonhos (fried dough) are all standouts.
Go for lunch
Many know that lunch is always more affordable than dinner, but we were blown away by just how budget-friendly Fiola’s lunch offerings are. Washington, D.C.’s restaurants have been rated for the first time, and this one-star Italian spot has a great deal with its $20 “Presto” lunch. You’ll get one entree—try the ahi tuna and hamachi crudo ($18 alone on the afternoon patio menu), mushroom risotto, or olive oil-poached halibut—and a beverage like ginger and basil lemonade or Prosecco spritzer.
Look for weekday specials
San Francisco’s Quince serves up contemporary Northern Californian fare with French and Italian influences. It just gained its third star, and its signature tasting menu is set at $220 for 12 courses. Dine on Monday through Thursday, though, and you’ll also have the option of a six-course seasonal prix-fixe for $165. It's still a splurge, but rest assured that you'll be enjoying the same delicious spiny lobster, Tsar Nicolai Caviar, and white truffle pasta for a relative bargain. (There’s also a salon menu with dishes ranging between $14 and $42, with an occasional premium item like the $80 white truffle risotto.)
Don’t rule out brunch
If you think that lunch is a good deal, don’t overlook the Michelin establishments that open for breakfast and brunch. For example, Longman & Eagle is a beloved destination for kicking off the best of Chicago weekends—dishing out classics like housemade biscuits and pork sausage gravy ($13), fried chicken and waffles with sweet potato and pork belly hash ($14), and sunny-side up duck egg hash with duck confit and black truffle vinaigrette ($14). A boozy brunch won't gouge you either: the PBR Breakfast includes a can of PBR alongside two eggs, house potatoes, and choice of breakfast meat.
Go à la carte
While you can find the occasional good prix-fixe deal, the truth is that tasting menus at many Michelin-rated restaurants start from $85 per person and up. For a cost-effective alternative, focus on establishments that offer à la carte options. At places like the Dabney in D.C., recently awarded one star, it's easy to share a few small but filling plates for under $35 per person. Try Mid-Atlantic delights like charred bok choy hush puppies ($13), roasted beets with smoked dried scallop ($14), whole barbecued quail ($18).
Choose your experience strategically
Chase exclusively after white glove service and your wallet will always take a hit. But go after refined food in more relaxed environments and you’ll find the sweet spot between quality and affordability. Case in point: The electric and buzzy Uncle Boons in New York, which snagged one Michelin star for its well-balanced Thai flavors. At this pub-like eatery, try whisky- and chili-glazed pig ears ($6); laab neuh gah, a spicy chopped lamb salad ($16); or khao soi curry with homemade egg noodles and chicken leg ($21). Wash it down with $7 brews or $44 pitchers of cocktails (also offered in $12 glasses).
Remember: Location, location, location
Here’s something that eating out and staying at a hotel have in common: It’s more likely to be cost-prohibitive when you’re in notoriously expensive cities like New York and San Francisco. So it makes sense to look to South Bay, covered in Michelin’s Bay Area guide, for a satisfying meal on the cheap. Rasa, which earned its first star for 2016, is beloved in Burlingame for elevated contemporary Indian driven by coastal and sustainable ingredients. Here, small plates start from $9, dosas are $14 to $18, and curries run $22 to $29.
Opt for prix-fixe over a full tasting
Further south in the Bay Area, Adega has the dual distinction of bringing San Jose its first Michelin star as well as putting a much-deserved spotlight on Portuguese cuisine—Aldea is the only other Portuguese restaurant in the country to hold any stars. Adega’s $65 prix-fixe menu features six courses, including the restaurant's popular oven-roasted octopus alongside regional specialties like sautéed cubed pork with fried potatoes and clams. (Not so hungry? Your meal here gets even more affordable thanks to an à la carte menu with starters from $10, entrees from $21, and desserts from $8.)
Bring your own beverage
If you love a good wine pairing but don’t fancy liquor upcharges, book at table at a Michelin-starred BYOB restaurant. The three-star 42 Grams, which got its start as an underground supper club in Chicago, stands out for sending patrons wine recommendations for each course ahead of their meal. Of course, you’ll still have to shell out around $200 for a blind tasting menu of roughly 12 courses. But at least you’ll be saving the $65 to $200 that traditional pairings require as you tuck into the chef’s fanciful, molecular-inspired creations.
Filter by the stars
This isn’t to say that restaurants with two or even three Michelin stars can’t offer great value, but the one-star options do tend to be the generally more affordable ones—and you’ll notice that most restaurants that we call out here for offering more than one menu, especially à la carte ones, also fall under this category. One great option: The Breslin in NYC, where the signature chargrilled lamb burger is served with thrice-cooked chips and runs $25. Share an appetizer like the popular scotch egg, or order your own Brooklyn brew, and you still won’t break $40 each.
The group purchasing power mentality, best embodied in coupon sites like Groupon, can be applied for dining out too. Experience this at Mourad, where the specialty is Moroccan fare spun from local Californian ingredients. The San Francisco restaurant offers five family-style options that come out to $25 to $40 per person, including one protein and four sides. Choose from 72-hour braised short ribs, lamb shoulder, lemon chicken, snapper with red charmoula marinade, and duck and sausage. For comparison, most meat entrées on the dinner a la carte menu run $36 to $40, while the sides are $8 each.
Final tip: Consider Michelin’s Bib Gourmands
Check out this list if a low bill total is your priority. To qualify for this distinction, restaurants must offer two courses plus either a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less (before tax and tip). Bib Gourmand restaurants aren’t eligible for Michelin’s coveted stars, but they’re frequently local favorites and absolutely worth a visit. Danny Meyer's Untitled in New York, José Andrés's Zaytinya in D.C., former Google chef Jordan Keao's ‘āina in San Francisco, and B. Hospitality Co.’s Bristol in Chicago are all recent additions.