Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eating Cheaply in Boston. Brace Yourselves.

The greatest preparation I had for living cheaply was working for a budget travel guidebook called Let’s Go. I zigzagged across the Southeastern States on a budget of $75 a day. I reviewed restaurants, entertainment hot spots, and hostels. This two-month whirlwind tour of the South was done alone and it was the most rock’n’roll lifestyle I ever led. I slept in my rental car. I took showers in campgrounds. I even learned how to sneak into hotels for their continental breakfasts. And while my trip through the quiet towns and burgeoning cities of the South had to eventually end, the skills I learned as a broke but inquisitive traveler has stayed with me. I learned that sometimes the best places to eat aren't the flashiest or most popular dining hotspots, but the ones that have been able to weather the ups and downs of time.

First rule of thumb: don’t judge a restaurant, diner, or bar by its appearance. But this is not to say that you should simply throw caution—and your personal well being to the wind. If that lonely diner looks unsanitary or smells like rotten sea urchin, then you should perhaps see what's at the next block. In other words, trust your gut when checking out these places. Remember: trips to the hospital are expensive!

In an old, historic city like Boston, there are restaurants that have been around for decades for a reason. Their prices are consistent. The meals are served fast. They're dependable like an old friend. These restaurants aren’t likely to make it on a “Best of Boston” list. They'll never be on anyone's list as one of the most desirable places to dine. But if we judged these places on food alone, they would be right up there with Beantown's trendiest eateries.

The best thing about Boston is brunch. From greasy spoon diners like the Breakfast Club in Allston that serve up homely and comforting breakfast to the refined flavors of Latin American foods at places like Tu y Yo in Somerville. The menu at Tu y Yo is bound with humble descriptions of fantastic dishes that come with Latin staples like plantains, huevos rancheros with black beans. Diners can expect a heaping plate, usually served with perfectly smooth dollops of guacamole. And the best part? All entrees are under eight dollars. These are the tucked-away places that are not found in hotel restaurants or anywhere near Newbury Street. You'll have to go to the outskirts of the city to venture to places like Dogwood Café in Jamaica Plain, Masa in the South End, Steve’s Kitchen in Allston, and Ball Square Café in Somerville where various waves of cultural flair can be found.

Final rule: Eat out for lunch instead of dinner. It's easy and far more affordable. When you eat out at night, you feel the heat of the crowd bearing upon your comfort zone. You feel the billions of hungry Bostonians waiting in line for the next expensive mound of food in fancy presentations. Why not skip all of that and enjoy the quiet zen-like atmosphere of a restaurant without the hustle of noisy, hungry professionals? You can. Next time you’re hankering to hit your favorite establishment, take my advice go for lunch and not dinner. You will be happily surprised.

You don’t have to travel to far-off countries to try new and delightful foods. Boston’s many inexpensive and multicultural establishments, like the row of Russian eats in Brookline or the many Brazilian restaurants on Cambridge Street, make ours a worldly city to eat in. Staying in your comfort zone while dining out can be expensive and dull. What's the fun of hoping that the same dish was made the exact same way as the last time you had it? You've already tasted that before. It’s time for something different that tantalizes your taste buds.

Smart Girls Guide To Free Indulgences

At Mac Cosmetics in Boston, they don’t let you leave ugly. In fact, they want to make you happy even if you’re not going to buy any of their products.

I discovered this one quiet and cool spring night when I walked into the empty make-up store on Newbury Street where gossipy girls sat around looking gray with boredom. I was greeted by a woman dressed in all black with eye makeup that looked like neon green lasers were shooting from her eyes.

“Do you know what you want, hun?” she asked.
“I don’t know” I laughed, “Probably a change.”

The gal guided me to sit on a bar stool. She told me she was going to give me a special surprise. It’s Showtime! My makeup guide reached for my face and smeared concealer all over. Like an inspired painter attacking a blank canvas, she applied the stuff with broad, dramatic sweeps. Then she pulled a small fluffy brush out and gently applied a creamy eyeshadow that felt like liquid cashmere. She repeated this again and again until she had covered my entire face. I felt my hands tensed and began to sweat as I wondered what I should say to her if she ends up making me look like a drag queen. When finished, she stood me up, demanding the gaze of every eye in the place. I heard an explosion of applause. I opened my eyes and turned to the mirror. Is that me?

And that's how I stumbled upon the free make over. There are plenty of ways you can get free products and free makeovers. Stores like Sephora, Mac, The Body Shop, and Origins give out testers of any products upon request. The grand thing about it all is that you'll usually get a fairly decent amount—samples can last weeks. And they're portable. The sample products come in perfect sizes to bring along on plane rides, pack on weekend getaways, or to carry around for a quick freshening up after the gym. Retail associates are paid to help you find the right product, so go on—ask for a tester. And it pays to recycle. When you collect six empty Mac containers and bring them back to the store, you'll get a free product.

Many of the top salons, including Vidal Sassoon and Aveda, have sessions for stylists and colorists still going through training. These classes present the perfect opportunity for anyone in search of a free hair makeover. The stylist gets to test out different techniques, while you get a high-end haircut. And don’t worry about leaving with the kind of cut that will have you wearing a hat for the next month; a senior stylist always closely observes the trainees. Be prepared for the cut or color to take longer than a normal haircut—stylists in training take longer to make sure they are doing their work on you correctly. For more information, contact the hair studios and ask if they are in need any models.

If offering your hair sounds like too much of a risk, then try other free pampering by contacting a nearby cosmetology school. Cosmetology students are always looking for volunteers to practice their manicure, pedicures, wax, and haircut techniques more. If you’re hesitant about the quality of treatment then you can always ask for someone who is near graduation. Like at a salon, professionals supervise every student giving a treatment.

Bringing Back the Barter System

There’s a bowl of things I’ve not learned in the new world of journalism. I can write, but that’s just not enough. I need to know my way around the Web. I have to learn about blogging and how to use multimedia in my articles. I never dabbled with these programs before and unfortunately watching the news alone doesn’t make you a videographer through osmosis.

I needed to get ahead somehow and turned to my one sure skill: cooking.

My photographer and videographer friends would complain about being too busy to eat proper meals. While I, being a food junkie, would try out new recipes and enjoy my creations alone. I came up with a plan: start a barter system where I would cook for my multimedia pals in exchange for lessons in their areas of expertise.

My guest is a videographer and a vegetarian; he’s setting up his computer, which he calls his “machine,” on my kitchen table. It’s a rare treat for him to eat a proper meal instead of dry cereal or day old pizza. Tonight, at his request, I’m making Chinese food with fried bananas in rum sauce and a dollop of fresh cream. This meal will get me video editing lessons that would cost seventy-five dollars per hour for free. Not bad for a dinner that costs about ten dollars to make.

This happy marriage of eating and teaching has gone surprisingly well. However, you don’t need to know how to cook to have a barter system work for you. There are plenty other examples of trade exchange. From simple skills like dog walking or gardening to more professional skills like photography, accounting, yoga lessons, and website design.

We all have cast suspicion on bartering. The most common bartering experiences we hear about tend to be over large purchases. And when we do barter, it's usually with people who are professionals. When buying a house, we butt heads with brazen realtors. When buying a car, we struggle through negotiations with charming but fast-talking auto salespeople. This leaves us exhausted and suspicious. Did I just get ripped off? Could I have gotten this any cheaper?

But it's time we re-think bartering. Bartering is simple to do. You can place an ad on your city’s Craig’s list or find official local bartering sites. (Some of these websites are item specific.) There is a growing community of bartering that helps the cash-strapped individual and in our current economy there are more than a few.

When you place the ad, all you have to do is include the service you provide and the service you’re looking for. You will be notified when another person can match your offer. Barter systems require a lot of trust, so it is helpful to come up with a written contract for the exchange. If you don’t feel comfortable bartering with strangers, you can exchange skills with friends or family.

Remember that recipe for Pad Thai that you always wanted to learn from your best friend? Well it’s time to do her laundry in exchange for a free cooking lesson.