If you love hitting the road - and discovering great food along the way - AAA’s Five Diamond Restaurants list is the gold standard. Here’s how to do it on a budget.
AAA has unveiled the 68 restaurants that have earned its top Five Diamond rating over the past year (aaa.com), including eight new honorees. If your first reaction is, “I can’t possibly afford a restaurant that good,” we’ve got some good news: While, yes, these eateries are among the very best foodie hotspots in North America, and prices can be sky-high, there are also a few strategies that may help you enjoy certain Five Diamond restaurants (and AAA’s Four Diamond and other top restaurants) without breaking the bank.
RIGOROUS RESTAURANT EVALUATIONS
AAA has been inspecting and evaluating lodgings and restaurants since 1937 and has been publishing a Diamond rating system since 1985. Inspectors are experienced food-and-beverage professionals who evaluate restaurants in person with an eye toward quality ingredients, unique preparation, great service, and overall environment, as well as emerging culinary trends. AAA inspects and approves more than 31,000 restaurants, and only about .2 percent earn the Five Diamond rating.
RESTAURANTS THAT EDUCATE AND ENTERTAIN
“Five Diamond restaurants have evolved over the years to meet the changing expectations of restaurant enthusiasts who are increasingly sophisticated about cuisine,” says Michael Petrone, director, AAA Inspections & Diamond Ratings. “Guests want to learn about cooking techniques, ingredient sourcing, and the latest trends. They are looking for a wide-ranging dining experience that includes being educated and entertained. No longer does world-class necessarily mean formal attire and opulent surroundings. And that’s where AAA’s Diamond Ratings can help guide the discerning diner.”
Among the eight new additions to AAA’s Five Diamond list this year are McCrady’s, in Charleston, South Carolina, which shares a space with a tavern that offers a more casual menu; and The Catbird Seat, in Nashville, Tennessee, which grows its own produce in a patio garden and offers a $115 tasting menu that, while certainly splurge-y for Budget Travelers, is a relative bargain in the high-end restaurant world.
HOW TO DO FIVE DIAMOND RESTAURANTS ON A BUDGET
Speaking of menu prices, we asked AAA’s Petrone if it’s even possible for bargain-minded diners to partake of the bounty at Five Diamond restaurants. Although some Five Diamond honorees offer only a fixed-price tasting menu that may surpass $200/person, there are some money-saving strategies that will work at some Five Diamond restaurants, as well as at AAA’s Four Diamond honorees and other top restaurants:
Save money at lunchtime
Consider eating at a restaurant for lunch instead of dinner; check in advance as there is sometimes a separate lunch menu with more affordable prices.
Eat in the lounge
Instead of eating in the restaurant itself, eat in the lounge area, where more casual fare may be served and prices are sometimes less expensive.
Share or snack
If the restaurant allows more casual dining, look for shareable menu items or order snacks to get a taste of what’s cookin’ without going bust.
Check out the chef’s menu
Look for a chef’s menu with or without wine pairing, as that is often the best value.