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Smart Buying

Steal These Deals: Food

Food costs can add up, here are ways to save on a night out.

Deals on Fancy Meals

Ritzy restaurants are drumming up business with special promotions and prix fixe menus.

And you thought you were having a bad year. High wholesale prices and newly cost-conscious consumers have created “the most challenging environment for the restaurant industry in several decades,” says Hudson Riehle, of the National Restaurant Association. Even high-end restaurants, including those operated by big-name chefs such as Mario Batali, have responded to weak sales by offering diners reduced prices, prix fixe meals, nightly specials, free appetizers or desserts, and small plates at (relatively) low cost. Restaurateurs who try to hold out for le prix scandaleux do so at their peril, says Riehle. “With the competition so intense, consumers are quick to vote with their feet.”

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What constitutes a bargain at a ritzy restaurant? At Batali’s Del Posto, in New York City, that would be the tasting menu, recently reduced from $175 to $125 for a seven-item assortment that includes gourmet ingredients such as foie gras and truffles. One prix fixe lunch goes for a mere $32.

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But it’s not just pricey Manhattan eateries that are dishing out savings. Splash!, a seafood restaurant in Tampa, draws bottom feeders with such weeknight “stimulus” specials as the shrimp jambalaya for $5 (plus the price of a beverage)—about one-fifth the price of the seafood risotto from the regular menu. Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, where the average dinner tab runs $74, recently introduced a prix fixe meal that includes an appetizer, a side, a 16-ounce strip steak and dessert for $40.

Wine At A Palatable Price

Forget France and California. think red, white and bubbly from Spain and Argentina.

Argentina is the fastest-growing exporter of wine to the U.S. market. It’s not hard to see why: The country is producing impressive wines at reasonable prices. Wines made with Malbec grapes—lesser blending grapes from Bordeaux that have flourished in Argentina’s soil since they were transplanted there in the 19th century—are particularly hot. One elegant example is Bodega Luigi Bosca Malbec Reserva Lujan de Cuyo 2006 ($15 to $18), an inky red wine with raspberry and tobacco notes.

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Tucked away in the northwest corner of Spain, Galicia is bottling some stunning white wines at affordable prices. The region’s Albarino grape produces crisp, dry, aromatic wines that pair perfectly with shellfish and other seafood and make a refreshing summer aperitif. You can find many fine examples of Albarino wines in the $10-to-$20 price range. One is Nessa Albarino Rias Baixas 2007 ($13 to $15), a fragrant wine with citrus and mineral overtones and enough acidity to cut through that fish oil.

Champagne, the effervescent wine of northern France, has been priced out of sight due to sturdy global demand and tight supply. The French government simply will not expand the region’s tightly delineated boundaries. But you can do very well at a fraction of the price with a sparkling wine from Spain, such as Mont Marcal Brut Reserva Cava 2005 (or 2006), which costs about $15. Mont Marcal is made mostly from indigenous Spanish grapes you’ve never heard of, but it is a delicate, refined potion.

Popcorn $1, Drink $1

Baby sitter who works weeknights: priceless.

On most nights, you’ll pay at least $15 to see a first-run movie with popcorn and a drink at Carmike Theaters, a chain that operates 2,300 screens in 36 states. On Tuesdays, you get the show and snacks for only $10, thanks to a “stimulus” deal that prices the popcorn and drink at a buck each.