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Mel's Diner: How to Eat Cheap

Chances are your interest in going out to eat hasn’t waned at all since you dutifully started to reel in your T&E spending; you may, in fact, find yourself wanting to get out to eat even more since cutting back on the official wining and dining. But believe it or not, there’s some good news about the recession: Feeding your dining habit out of your own hard-earned ducats can actually be done less expensively than it’s been for years, no matter how resourceful you are (or aren’t).

If you’re the sort of person who still subscribes to the weekend paper for all the coupons stuffed in there, your instincts can serve you very well in your hunt online for intel. And I will get to some suggested sites to start with in a moment.

But even if you’ve never so much as looked at the price ratings in Zagat’s or you will find yourself stumbling into deals these days, even at the fancier places as many of them attempt to keep up full-room appearances.

Restaurants from New York to L.A. are offering recession specials and extended happy hours. With limited-to-no research I have found myself pleasantly surprised by special menus at go-to spots, like Resette in Manhattan for lunch last month, or one of my weeknight favorites in LA, Mirabelle on Sunset. My buddy Jen and I were so happy to find earlier this year that we could keep up our pre-recession “Mirabelle Mondays” tradition, as the restaurant started to make its Happy Hour menu available until midnight a couple nights a week.

One of the most effortless-and brilliant-things to come along during these hard times is something called Screw the Recession. Even for the most casual deal-seeker, this is a no-brainer. A friend at a talent agency forwarded me an email with the web address several weeks ago and the word is spreading. On March 3, I became the 1,744th member of the site’s fan group on Facebook. On April 5, the group has 3,233 members.

The founders of Screw the Recession gathered a bunch of top restaurants in L.A. to participate in a program where they designate a day to make their entire menu discounted by half. You have to RSVP within the week of a restaurant’s given day and table availability is of course limited by the venue’s capacity. The site says the point “is to introduce people to new restaurants and sustain local businesses during tough economic times.”

You obviously have to be a little spontaneous and decide if the restaurants appeal to you and fit your schedule. But I can report the process is quick and simple. I attempted to give it a shot with the restaurant The Kress, slated for the deal on April 2. I’d been there once before for an event and I got the email two days before its assigned night. The email offered a link to request a reservation via Opentable, which took me to a page set up with the appropriate date at the appropriate restaurant. The Screw the Recession email also had directions to RSVP with Screw the Recession. Once I did, they quickly sent an email back with instructions to print out it and bring it with me to get the discount.

In all, it took me about three minutes, including the call to my dinner date. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make the dinner after all, but canceling was one-click easy on Opentable.

There are several other places online that keep track of restaurants, events and deals. Among them: Zagat’s lists events and deals in NY, LA and San Francisco. My pals Mike and Maria Schneider’s Franklin Avenue blog has long featured a section called Rate-A-Restaurant, which features more than 200 first-hand accounts of a range of dining experiences around town. Regional blogs such as LAist and Gothamist also keep tabs on what’s happening with local restaurants. And you can always call around to see what specials there are if you’re debating where to go.

What are your tips for finding dining out deals? Your favorite recession specials? Please let us know in the comments below or send me a note to

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