How to eat like royalty on a student’s budget

One of the easiest ways to be seen as cultured and refined is to know about food, especially dining out. Think about it – most dates, and almost all first dates, involve some kind of meal. Some of the first impressions that people will have about you concern your knowledge and attitudes about food. There are other huge advantages to knowing about food as well. Nobody dislikes a good cook and a well executed dish will open doors what charm alone never could. The problem is that good food is normally expensive. How do you gain enough experience without taking out yet another student loan? There are secrets to becoming a culinary expert that don’t require a huge investment of time or money.

The secret is lunch. Most places that you would have to save money for months to buy dinner at actually have extremely reasonable lunches. Most often these lunches consist of the same items on the dinner menu, either in smaller portions or in different combinations. A lunchtime dining room is also usually far less formal than a dinner at the same place. It is the perfect time to ask questions that you might be embarrassed to ask at dinner. Not sure what rillets are? Now is the time to ask.

The cost for a lunch will generally run between $15 and $30, which is fairly steep for everyday eating, but these same places routinely run $60 to $80 for a full dinner. It is also not unusual for lunchtime diners to forego expensive extras such as appetizers, wine and dessert at this time of day.

Wildwood has a well-deserved reputation as one of the guiding stars for the emerging Northwest food scene. The last time I was there I had a salad of duck confit with caramelized walnuts. The salad was dressed with a balsamic reduction that I found far too sweet when paired with the sugary walnuts. At the same time, I was able to recommend the house bacon cheeseburger to a dining companion, which he thoroughly enjoyed. Now, if I have a reason to go there at dinner I know to avoid the salad. I also know that I will be able to recommend dishes, which always looks good. The menu changes often, but I usually go with the servers’ recommendations.

Another way of getting world-class food on a Portland State budget is the Portland Farmers Market, which happens every Saturday in the Park Blocks behind Smith Center. The opening day of the market was last weekend so the panoply of vegetables and fruits that will become the highlight of the market later on, haven’t yet arrived. The other vendors still make it a worthwhile trip, however. If the number of purveyors at the market is any indication, it seems like the local chocolate scene is booming. Also heavily represented are bakeries and patisseries. My favorite stall is still Viande, which offers excellent pates and terrenes by the slice. A box of crackers, a sweet white wine and a slice of the country pate would make an amazing snack for a lazy Sunday afternoon and will go a long way in improving your food cred.

Another way to improve your calorie-fu is research. Portland not only has an incredible number of great places to eat for a city our size, we also have an amazing number of people willing to write about them. There are a number of excellent food-reviewing blogs, including, and The fact that there are tons of reviewers means that there are more restaurants reviewed than any one person could get to in a year. You can also get an inside look at the food-scene gossip, much of which is too scintillating (and unconfirmed) to write about here.

The best thing you can do is to determine where your own tastes are and expand on them when you get a chance. Do you like Thai food? Why not try some Vietnamese? Are you a hamburger type of person? You would be surprised how much better they taste when made with top-quality meat. Don’t be afraid to go into the ritzy restaurants. You would be surprised how welcoming they can be. The servers get and keep their jobs by being congenial and the restaurants need to cultivate a young clientele if they are going to last.

It is worthwhile to gain an appreciation of what makes great food great. Even if you never end up cooking for yourself, having a culinary vocabulary will make your life more enjoyable and can come in handy in unexpected situations. It’s fun when people ask your opinion. Give yourself a little time and you will be able to talk about a meal at least as well as any critic.