The world of dining and drinking is an obstacle course wrapped in a labyrinth wrapped in a logic puzzle — it’s full of pitfalls, gray areas, and bewildering questions that really shouldn’t even be questions (How do I find the bathroom?) and yet, somehow, are. Fortunately, your friends at Eater are here to help: Life Coach is a series of simple guides to the arcane rituals of modern dining. Have a question or a quandary you’d like us to tackle? Drop Life Coach a line.
Giving a restaurant meal as a gift has its practical benefits. It’s personalized without being too personal (everyone has to eat, right?) and it travels well (there’s no way that Instant Pot grandma gifted is making it into the suitcase, but a lightweight gift card will). Most importantly, though, the experience of a restaurant meal is something a recipient can look forward to after the decorations have been packed up and shoved back into the basement — the reward for surviving the holidays is getting to dine out and know someone else is picking up the bill at the end of the night.
Getting treated to a meal allows you to relax, sit back, and enjoy the food and company without worrying about prices on the menu or calculating the tip. However, giving a restaurant meal does have its logistical challenges. Here are a few strategies to consider:
1. Set a budget
As with any gift, it’s important to think about about how much you want to spend on a person. Setting a specific budget will help you tailor the experience and narrow your search to restaurants within a certain price point. A good rule of thumb is to consider how much the person will spend on a satisfying, full meal and tack on a little extra for incidentals and tip. If it’s a mid-range restaurant where the average person would spend $70 for a glass of wine, an appetizer, and an entree, for example, you might want to budget at least $90 to account for a 20 percent tip and wiggle room. And don’t forget who they might be dining with. People tend to eat out at least with a partner and it might take the pressure off the meal if the gift includes enough budget for two. It’s better to give too much than to give too little.
That’s not to say that all gifted meals need to be fancy. If the meal happens to be a nice lunch at a casual place where your friend or family member is a regular and where the prices are more within your budget, do that instead. Don’t feel obligated to break the bank on a gift. But do provide cash earmarked for the tip, in case the business doesn’t allow tips via prepaid cards and certificates.
2. Determine the duration of the gift
Gifting a meal doesn’t have to be a one-time thing or the gift that keeps on giving, so to speak. Decide whether the person your buying for would find greater value in a lot of credit to an inexpensive restaurant that they visit regularly or an all-inclusive, one-time meal at a special occasion-type place. The former can be a great gift for a baby shower. (For new parents, it’s always a bonus if the restaurant delivers. Just remember to account for the delivery fees.) The latter works great for events like weddings, anniversaries, and birthdays.
3. Know your audience
Not every restaurant is for every person. Be thoughtful about the recipient’s dietary restrictions, and actually take the time to do the research; don’t automatically assume that a restaurant can accommodate. If they eat primarily gluten-free, don’t send your friend to a spot where recent reviews have called out the wheat pastas and bread. If you know for a fact that your daughter hates spicy food, scope out the menu beforehand and don’t send them to a restaurant with a lot of spicy dishes.
It’s also important to think about what this person likes to eat and what kind of atmosphere they prefer. You want them to feel comfortable and enjoy themselves. If the recipient has a favorite neighborhood restaurant or splurge spot, it might be nice to treat them to a meal at that place. If they’re more interested in splashy, new openings, maybe check their city’s recent, well-received openings of the past year for suggestions. Don’t overlook establishments that serve something besides dinner; a nice evening of cocktails or dessert at a spot known for its cake can be just as special.
4. Consider a dining experience
For those who want to ensure that they’re covering the exact price of a meal and providing a memorable experience, it might be worth springing for a tasting menu or a ticket to a pop-up. Some words of warning here: Events can be a crapshoot. Stick to trusted, tested events — maybe something you’ve tried before. Also, unless you know someone’s schedule for a fact, don’t purchase tickets for one-time events, which are often non-refundable or non-transferable. Look for restaurants or venues that regularly serve tasting menus or host events, and reach out to see if they offer gift certificates or can accommodate your specific needs.
5. When in doubt, give cash
Sometimes a restaurant doesn’t have a gift certificate or a gift card, and that’s okay. You can still do all the necessary preparations and write a nice card with a suggestion for a restaurant meal. No one’s ever complained about a thoughtfully gifted fist full of cash.
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