Hola! My fiancé and I just returned from Mexico City two weeks ago and I can still feel the excitement of the city. Not only did I fall in love with Mexico, it was also my first international trip with my fiancé and our first trip since our engagement.
While in Mexico City, we celebrated both our recent engagement and love of food by eating at Pujol, a world-renowned restaurant headed by chef Enrique Olvera. Pujol has been on lists of top restaurants around the world for years now. This year it’s ranked number 20 on this list of the world’s 50 best restaurants.
While I don’t normally eat at fine dining establishments, I learned about this restaurant from watching an episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. The food looked so delicious that I wanted to eat it right through the television screen. So when the chance came up to celebrate at Pujol, I said yes!
As I sat in my booth at Pujol enjoying my course of soft shell crab, I wondered to myself, “Is fine dining compatible with frugal living?” After all, I write a frugal living blog and I try to live by the principles of frugal living. So can I spend a lot of money on a high-end dinner and still consider myself a frugal person? Here’s what I debated in my head.
When and why fine dining is worth it
1) It fits in your budget
I know we’ve all heard this line before. The budget is the first thing to consider when making any kind of purchase. I always ask myself if I can afford whatever it is I want. I actually ask myself a number of questions, but this is the first one. In this case, Pujol worked out budget-wise so I was free to enjoy it.
One thing to note is that fine dining in other countries may be a better value than in the US. I found many things in Mexico to be relatively inexpensive. We entered national museums for roughly $3.50 and ate tacos for about $1 each. So while Pujol is expensive by Mexican standards, it’s less than the equivalent meal would cost in the US.
2) You appreciate the culinary arts
Fine dining is worth it for those who appreciate the culinary arts. Cooking is a skill like any other. It takes education and training to become good at it. When a chef has top-notch skills, it shows in the food. A fish or meat will be of higher quality than at an average restaurant and prepared in an exacting, often unique manner. Complementary items are used and presentation is carefully executed. You won’t get your typical carb, meat, and vegetable meal all thrown onto one plate.
My appreciation for the culinary arts came about as I learned to cook more for myself over the past few years. I now know how to caramelize onions to different degrees, make a homemade pizza from scratch, and cut my vegetables however a recipe states. All of this has made me in awe of those who cook well. So I’m impressed when I go to a restaurant where I absolutely cannot prepare the food like the chefs do. It’s like watching a ballet or attending the symphony, but this you can actually eat.
3) You want a new experience
Fine dining will give you an experience to remember. At Pujol, we ate baby corn covered in a chile mayonnaise made with ants. Don’t worry, the ants were finely ground. I wouldn’t have known they were there if the server didn’t tell me. I didn’t know that insects such as grasshoppers and worms are popular snacks in Mexico, even dating back to pre-Hispanic times.
Restaurants like Pujol provide native foods that you may not normally get to try, like the ants above. Or sometimes they offer a new take on familiar foods, like their mole sauce that has been aging for over 1000 days.
4) You share the chef's values
Top chefs establish their restaurants based on their values. That could mean using only fresh and local foods, sourcing from farmers who follow sustainable practices, or sharing native foods prepared in a new way. If you support the practices of the chef, then it makes sense that you’d be more comfortable dining there.
5) You love food!
This almost goes without saying. If you love quality high-end food, then fine dining is for you.
When and why fine dining is not worth it
1) You’re struggling with finances
As much as I enjoy eating at nice restaurants, it can only be classified as a luxury and not a need. So if you’re struggling with your finances, it’s not in your best interest to eat at expensive restaurants or eat out much at all. Cooking economical meals for yourself is one of the easiest ways to save money is finances are tight.
2) You have other priorities
You might want to eat at a high-end restaurant, but maybe you have other priorities like paying your child’s school tuition or even something fun like a vacation. In that case, good for you for working towards your priorities first.
Frankly, that restaurant will probably still be there in a few months or years. If you find your priorities have changed by then and you still want to try it, go for it!
3) You aren’t interested in food or high-end food
Some people live to eat and others eat to live. If you’re one the latter, then fine dining with all its expense may not be for you. A friend of mine wishes she could take a pill that would give her all her nutrition. She doesn’t want to spend time on food preparation or eating or cleaning up. She would definitely pass on fine dining.
For those that do like food but don’t make a large distinction between different qualities of food, you might pass on fine dining too. I know many people in this category. My mother, for example. My mother likes food but she would be just as content eating at Olive Garden as Pujol. She feels that all food is good as long as it’s tasty and nutritious.
After debating the above ideas in my head, I decided that fine dining is compatible with frugal living. Frugal living is a lifestyle lived in different ways by each person who practices it. The goal of frugal living is not to inflict real or imagined deprivation either. I actually loved the experience of dining at Pujol and don’t regret it at all. In fact, I want to go back for a second time.
So what do you think? Am I justified in thinking that fine dining is compatible with frugal living? Are you a fan of fine dining yourself? If so, what are some places you would recommend? If you don’t think the two are compatible, why not?
Tips for Mexico City
I would recommend a visit to Mexico City, whether or not you are a fan of fine dining. The city has so much to see and do, including eating lots of delicious inexpensive food. Some days we ate tacos for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and finished with a dessert of churros.
Here are a few recommendations from my time there. These are not sponsored in any way. I’m sharing them because I liked them so much and think you will too.
1) Mexcity Tours
Mexcity Tours is run by English-speaking tour guide Leo Aguilar, who offers tours of the Teotihaucan pyramids, the historic city center, lucha libre matches, and more. He’s friendly and knowledgeable about Mexican history. Tours are very economical and well worth the cost for the American traveler. Trips may include pickup from your hotel. More reviews here.
2) Sabores Mexico Food Tours
Sabores Mexico provides several themed food tours. Our tour guide led us on a 4.5-hour tour of the historic center, providing history of the area and tastes of local cuisine. We tried mole, Mexican cheese, pre-Hispanic and exotic food (think boar and quail), edible flowers, and more before leaving the tour stuffed. If you like food but don’t have much time in Mexico City, this tour packs in a lot of new food experiences for you in a few hours.