“After the soup, it was over,” could either be the title of a rom-com that ends in culinary horror, or it could be Nate’s exact words as we left a restaurant that we chose for his birthday a few weeks ago. If you guessed the latter, you win a free bowl of soup! (Don’t get too excited, though. This free soup has been sitting in my pantry for a while. It’s clam chowder—the creamy kind.) Needless to say, Nate deserved a birthday do-over “tapas crawl” to wash away salty, overcooked shrimp memories.
Fortunately, there’s a place nearby called the Mill Creek Town Center, which has plenty of great restaurants within walking distance of one another. However, I soon discovered that putting together a tapas crawl on a budget would take extreme focus, an ability to guess the prices of food and beverages based on pictures from “Google Results,” and flexibility combined with wisdom when veering from the established plan after just one light beer. I pulled it off, but I don’t think I can open a “tapas crawl” business where I deftly lead groups of tourists safely through the appetizers and drinks menus of various establishments. I had a difficult enough time herding myself, Nate, and Alex to a whopping number of three restaurants and a grocery store.
Nate and I settled on a budget of $140, which increased to $150, which I thought was pretty generous for three people. I eagerly jumped online to look at restaurant menus and was shocked to discover that the menus often didn’t include any prices. So, I had to resort to take-out sites, where only some of the items were listed—and I couldn’t tell if they were “special deals,” lunch prices, happy hour prices or what.
I know. I could have picked up the phone and called each individual restaurant to figure out prices. In fact, here’s a list of questions one lucky host on “phone duty” could have answered, had I actually called:
–Hi, there! Can you tell me all of your menu items that are around $10 or less?
–What can we get for around $30?
–Will you take my grocery store coupons?
–Can you give me happy hour prices instead of full menu prices if I present a library card and tell you how many books I’ve read over the summer?
Instead, I relied on my instinct to assume that “fancy” soft drinks could be around $7, beer could be around $6, and cocktails/glasses of wine would probably run $11-$15. So, I figured that if we could keep the food items down to around $10 or so + tips and taxes at each place, I could give Nate a whirlwind birthday tour of two restaurants. I couldn’t wait to tell him. Here’s how that went:
Me: Okay—we’re going to two restaurants. You can’t guess which ones. They will be a surprise. I’m ordering for the table. It will be so much fun!
Nate: Two restaurants?
Me: Yes and yes!
Nate: Just . . . umm. . . two? Two restaurants?
Me: Okay, so I’ll try to get us to more restaurants. Hold on.
I returned to my office upstairs and tried really hard to imagine the budget as a pie. I thought about this pie and decided that I could make lots of little slivers out of it: drinks, taxes, and tips. Then, the food could be divided down even further into appetizers, whole meals we could share, or a combination of the two. When I sliced that pie down with my razor-sharp instinct, I suspected that even if we bought one main dish and shared it, we still would only get the same amount of food as an appetizer—but for a larger price. I’d just stick with the appetizers-menus then—and perhaps side dishes. By the time I was done with the pie, it looked like a bloody mess of slices with angry, bulging eyes and horns. I was hungry and had a headache, but I had increased the number of restaurants to three.
Me: I’ve upped the restaurant factor to three! Three restaurants! Woohoo! I know just what to order too—you are in for a treat!
Nate: Three restaurants?
Me: Well, we could do six maybe—and just order one thing in each one and drinks in every other one. But the budget pie is looking quite mangled at the moment. It can’t handle any more taxes and tips. It’s telling me to just go to one restaurant and stay there.
Nate: Okay—we could head to Central Market to buy fancy ice cream to take home afterwards.
Me: That’s the spirit!
And we were off.
When we got to the Mill Creek Town Center, I veered slightly from my original plans and decided to take Nate and Alex to an “upscale casual Mexican, Latin, and Caribbean-inspired” place for taquitos and drinks. However, there was a 35-minute wait, which seemed just too long for taquitos, so we headed to La Palmera instead and were seated right away.
Then, the guilt set in. We were there at dinner time, but we were only ordering three drinks and a round of taquitos. It seemed a bit . . . stingy:
Server: What can I get you tonight?
Nate: My wife is ordering for the table. She’s taking me out tonight.
Me: Yes—we’ll have the taquitos—the appetizer portion.
Server: Just for now? And I’ll come back to take your entrée order?
Me: Nope—just the taquitos. And the drinks.
Server: Any refill for your jumbo margarita, Sir?
Nate: No. That’s it.
Me (whispering to Nate and Alex): Fill up on chips and salsa—they’re free if you’re still hungry.
It was hard to not feel guilted into a platter of nachos or an enchilada/chimichanga plate, but the budget angry pie-face was shaking its fist at me. So, we demolished the taquitos, which were crispy and delicious. With tax and tip, the bill came to $39.34—and a promise to our super nice server that we’d be back bright and early the next day for tequila and entrees.
Next, we headed over to Tablas Wood-Fired Grill, where the menu prices were going to be a bit of a mystery for me. I was hoping to get one of the “tablas,” which comes with a variety of tapas served on a wooden board. Based on take-out order websites, I guessed that the 2-person price would be around $25-$30, which would keep us in budget, but when I saw the actual menu, each “tabla” would be around $50. So, we ordered our drinks first and then I tried to choose three items for $10 or less. Luckily, the drink prices were less than I had expected because the flatbread I wanted to order was $13. The budget pie was really giving me a headache, but I pulled through. We ordered some fantastic grilled vegetables, really tasty beef skewers, and a tomato/pesto flatbread.
“And that’s it?” the server asked.
Ahh! The guilt! I was expecting, “Hey, Big Spender” to resound over the loudspeaker. Our server was so nice and funny and attentive too. I could have just told her that we were sampling foods at various restaurants nearby, but that didn’t seem right, either. It would be like saying, “We’re just eating one or two things here so that we can cheat on you with other restaurants.”
Still, the bill with tip and taxes came to $69.38.
At this point, I’d had a light beer at the taquito place, a glass of wine, and just a few morsels of food, so I wasn’t going to attempt to add $39.34 and $69.38 in my head.
“Everyone—we’re just going to Kafé Neo next for either an appetizer or a dessert or both. Heck, I don’t care. I’m still hungry.”
At Kafé Neo, when the server found out we were ordering the appetizer combo plate and some olives and feta, she said, “Perfect!” which is a very nice way of saying, “That’s it?” The dolmathes, dips, and warm pita slices were absolutely wonderful. We ate our fill—spending $46.95 altogether.
“We went $5 or $6 over budget, but that’s not bad—not bad at all,” Nate said when he saw the bill.
But angry budget pie face grew another arm and slapped me with it all the way to Central Market where we spent $15 on very fancy, but local ice creams.
Your Turn: Have you ever gone “restaurant-hopping”? What was your experience?