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Small-business travel guide: eating there

The second he arrived, Josh Steinitz knew he had a problem. The potential client he had invited for dinner had chosen one of the most expensive restaurants in Santa Monica, Calif. — and had invited six of her colleagues to boot. When Steinitz approached the table, he noticed several empty wine bottles, and no one was talking business.
/ Source: Forbes

The second he arrived, Josh Steinitz knew he had a problem. The potential client he had invited for dinner had chosen one of the most expensive restaurants in Santa Monica, Calif. — and had invited six of her colleagues to boot. When Steinitz approached the table, he noticed several empty wine bottles, and no one was talking business.

As sales manager for startup Away.com, an informational Web site aimed at adventure travelers, Steinitz was in charge of wooing advertisers. But because he let his guest plan the dinner, a $100 meal for two turned into a four-digit disaster that drained an entire month's worth of his company's travel and entertainment budget in one gulp.

Steinitz has since started his own Web site that provides personalized travel recommendations. "In client-focused businesses like mine, a big cost is meeting with clients for dinners and lunches," he says. Luckily, he's learned a thing or two about how to keep tabs on the tab.

"Take control of the reservation," he advises. "I learned very quickly to confirm it would just be two of us. Set the agenda, set the location. As a startup, it's your hard-earned or hard-raised money!"

For many aspiring entrepreneurs, traveling to visit investors, scout manufacturing plants or entertain clients can blow a gaping hole in their income statements. Hence our Small-Business Travel Guide, a four-part series packed with advice on smart ways to squeeze pennies while traveling for business.

In the first three installments, Getting There, Staying There and Being There, we offered strategies for saving money on air fare, lodging and daily, on-the-ground expenses.

In this final installment, Eating There, we take on wining and dining. We enlisted the epicures at Zagat Survey to find two or three restaurants in each of 17 domestic and international cities that serve up tasty fare, in a variety of cuisines, at reasonable prices.

To qualify for our list, a restaurant had to have a Zagat food score of 20 or above — "very good" to "excellent." (Applebee's, McDonald's and P.F. Chang's China Bistro need not apply.) In the U.S. cities, the price target had to be $25 or below; that figure captures Zagat surveyors' estimate of the price of dinner, including one drink and tip. We loosened the rules a bit on the international picks, allowing the price target to fluctuate from $25 to $65. (Pickings were slim in Tokyo: One suggestion tipped the scales at $92 per head.) All currency conversions are current as of Aug. 3, 2006.

One reliable rule of thumb: Great deals abound on scrumptious ethnic fare. Like Chinese? New York offers a slew of authentic options, many at basement prices. How about Moroccan and Lebanese? Paris is your place. Mexican on your mind? You're in heaven in Chicago.

If you must rely on the hotel concierge, be sure to specify how much your company's credit card can handle: Concierges tend to sluice guests to the best place in town. In some cases, theater districts offer decent values, notably on prix fixe dinners. Better yet, be on the lookout for Restaurant Week, when top-tier restaurants might offer 50 percent discounts on mouth-watering menus.

If you really want your dining dollars to go further, knowing where to eat is just the start. One trick: Try a little game theory. Here, you are betting on what your guest will do based on your first move. For example, if you order a nonalcoholic beverage, chances are your guest will too, keeping a tight lid on the overall tab.

Then again, if you order a double Sapphire on the rocks, all bets are off.