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MAY 16, 2000


How to Put Your Meal Budget on a Diet

Tips and Web sites for helping you find "great, simple food" places anywhere

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Choosing the right place to seal your deals in an unfamiliar city may be challenging, but try doing it on an entrepreneur's budget. Small businesses already are picking up the tab for almost 40% of all business meals, according to the National Restaurant Assn., and those meals are only getting pricier. This year, says travel consultant Runzheimer International, meal costs are projected to grow 5%. Next year, they're expected to climb an additional 10%. And although legislation that would bump the business-meal tax deduction back up to at least 60% is wending its way through Congress, it doesn't look as if that will happen before fall, if then.

So, how can you stay within your budget? Appear adventurous, and hold down costs--without seeming cheap, by heading for a city's ethnic enclaves. You can't go wrong with Italian, Mexican, or Chinese. Or try a restaurant that specializes in unpretentious regional cuisine, advises Tim Zagat, who with wife Nina publishes the eponymous Zagat restaurant guides and Web site.

He cautions that entrepreneurs should skip Japanese (too pricey) and Indian or Thai (too risky unless you're certain your guest likes exotic food). When he's entertaining on the road, he eschews fancy restaurants. "I was just in Texas hill country last week and was delighted by the incredible barbecue places," he says. "It was great, simple food at a reasonable price."

More tips for the budget-challenged: Take an early dinner (often fixed-price), a late-night repast (you can eat lighter, thus cheaper), or lunch (about 20% to 30% less than dinner at the same eatery). Says Zagat: "The advantage to lunch, too, is that you won't get socked with paying for wine or drinks."

To ferret out a good restaurant within your budget, consult the Web. In addition to Zagat's site (www.zagat.com), try DineSite.com, launched in 1998 by Jim Hasan. On it, consumers post reviews of restaurants in 12,000 U.S. cities, and you can view some 3,000 menus. Says Hasan: "I like to look at the menu before I go for a meeting because I get so busy talking, I forget to look otherwise."

Also, check out www.concierge.com, Conde Nast Traveler's Web site, which uses as a base the Restaurant Index guidebook series from Fodors.com. OpenTable.com allows you to reserve online and e-mails your confirmation, while Foodline.com also allows you to make reservations and has columns on food trends, wine, and culinary events. With these resources close at hand, your expenses needn't get out of hand.


By Echo Montgomery Garrett in Atlanta

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