Dear Glutton: Fancy Dining on a Sizzler Budget

In the pursuit of affordable eats, try the tasting menu

Cafe Josie (Photo by John Anderson)

Dear Glutton,

My partner and I are looking to expand our date nights at Sizzler routine by going out to fancy Austin dinners a few times a month (no shade to Sizzler; that salad bar is amazing). She moved here from Utah to be with me, and I want to show her the bright lights. The only problem is, I'm in graduate school and we're on a pretty restricted budget. Where are some good places in town to have a nice, fancy-feeling meal on a Sizzler budget? Help these broke girls out! – Budget Lovers

Dear Broke Girls,

Let's skip the obligatory grad student jokes (which are emotionally difficult for me, because we are, after all, the worst people) and simply acknowledge that this rather delightful problem – being young, in love, and interested in expanding your palate beyond what chain restaurants have to offer – is more universal than you might think. Even certified grownups with jobs want to take their sweetie out for a night on the town without breaking the bank. For much of America, midlevel chain restaurants are an affordable way to do that. So while I admire your commitment to the great American institution that is the Sizzler salad bar (shout-out to my fellow Slums of Beverly Hills fans), I think it's wise to recognize Austin as a city with much more to offer than reasonably priced steaks and free refills on fountain sodas.

In the pursuit of affordable fine dining, your best friend is the tasting menu. This sounds a little counterintuitive, I'll admit. When we think of tasting menus, we have this image of some fancy dude nibbling at plate after plate of jewel-like vegetables, or enjoying the omakase at Uchi – both wonderful options to celebrate your ship coming in (and publishing that dissertation). Tasting menus were originally introduced as a low-priced method of pawning off excess ingredients. Other countries are better at honoring those humble origins than we are here in the United States, where prix fixe menus are usually priced sky-high and reserved for holidays, but if you do a little research, they can be an excellent option.

So, let's assume you're on board with this. You're wearing your one elbow-patch-free jacket; your shoes are shined. You're ready for an affordable night on the town. Austin is home to many great prix fixe menus offered one night a week, or irregularly throughout the month. (Olive & June, with their three-course Sunday night chef's menu, is my favorite one from that camp.) As a confirmed buffet enthusiast, however, I expect you'd be more interested in a more expansive, anything-goes style of prix fixe dining.

Cafe Josie's ridiculously opulent approach to all-you-can-eat prix fixe, which they (somewhat dramatically) refer to as "The Experience," perfectly fits the bill. For just $45, you can eat as much as you want from their chef's tasting menu. Obviously, how good a deal this is depends on how much you and your partner are physically capable of consuming, but as lifelong salad bar enthusiasts, I have total faith in your abilities. Cafe Josie's menu covers enough ground that you both will walk away satisfied – everything from the requisite fancy macaroni & cheese (featuring bacon onion jam, natch), to the more unexpected items like sweet potato hummus with spicy dill yogurt, and smoked chicken served with green scallion pancakes and oyster sauce. These country-hopping, flavor-mashing combinations will make you happy you branched out and tried something new.

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