Whether you’re celebrating a special day or just want to eat a dinner that someone else cooks off plates you don’t have to wash, dining out can be a welcome relief from the daily grind. It can also be a budget-buster with cocktails, appetizers, entrees and desserts eating up your food budget for several days in a single meal. Those working behind the scenes know how to trim the fat.
Click through to find out how restaurants are tricking you into spending more — and how you can put a stop to that.
Your Caring Server Has a Motive
Your friendly server might seem to be genuinely concerned with helping you have the optimal dining experience, and that’s a good thing. But good servers know suggestions that complement your dining experience will put more money in their pocket — and not just because a bigger bill will result in a bigger tip. Satisfied customers will often tip a larger percentage for good service and return again, sometimes even requesting to be seated at a table their favorite server is working.
The Server Is a Wordsmith
Just like your favorite author captures your attention so you stay up turning pages much later than planned, your server paints a word picture designed to make your taste buds take notice. From that innocent “would you like a glass of freshly brewed iced tea?” on a hot summer day to “I’ve just made a fresh pot of coffee” on a cold morning or “let me tell you about our specials,” mouth-watering wording has one purpose — to extract more money from your wallet unless you know how to avoid overspending.
Know What’s Not Included — or Ask
Servers routinely ask what type of dressing you want on your salad or how you’d like your eggs, but they might also pepper the conversation to trick you into adding extra, unnecessary charges to your bill that just take money from you. For example, one restaurant includes fries with burgers on their dinner menu, but not on the lunch menu. Unsuspecting customers asked if they’d like to upgrade to sweet potato fries or a side salad with their burger often respond that regular fries are fine — only to find an additional $1.99 tacked onto their bill for the fries — the same price as the side salad or sweet potato fries.
Don’t Dine Out When You’re Starving
It’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry, but the same holds true when going out to eat. You’ll tend to order bigger meals plus cocktails, appetizers and extra sides when you’re famished, especially if the restaurant is busy and you end up having to wait for seating or to order. Have some cheese and crackers, nuts or another light appetizer at home before you head out so you’re not in starvation mode when you get to the restaurant.
Order the Appetizers
Another benefit of not arriving at the restaurant hungry is that you can save money by ordering differently — try a couple appetizers instead of entrees. Dr. Ron Rosenthal, D.D.S., worked his way through dental school by waiting tables but didn’t discover his favorite fine dining money-saving hack of just ordering appetizers until years later. “Two or three were always enough to satisfy our hunger and gave us a wonderful selection of unusual and delicious preparations. They were usually more flavorful than their main courses.”
Go Out for Lunch
Nutritionists advise that it’s easier to maintain a healthy weight and cardiovascular health when you eat your big meal earlier in the day. Although some restaurants stay open late, going out for lunch instead of dinner can save money on your bill as well. Restaurant lunch portions are sometimes just as big as the dinner portion and in some instances can give you more food. For example, a $14 dinner entree at Szechuan in Sedona, Ariz., comes on the same size plate as you get at lunch and includes a side of rice. At lunch, the same entrees are cheaper and include an entree and fried cheese wonton.
Get a Kids’ or Senior Meal
“I’m not very hungry tonight. Is it okay if I order off the kids’ (or senior) menu?” is a question that can save you a significant amount of money. Although some restaurants indicate an age limit on both menus, servers are sometimes willing to bend the rules, especially if other people at your table are ordering full meals. A bonus: sometimes the menu items for the very young and the older generation also come with a drink. Leave a decent tip and your server will be more likely to bend the rules again next time.
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Skip the Drinks
At $2.25 for a fountain drink and up to $15 for a cocktail, beverages can add a significant amount to your tab. Quality places to eat filter all their water, so what’s coming to your table is likely healthier and better tasting than what’s in that $3.50 bottled water. Satisfy children’s craving for a sweet drink by squeezing lemon into the water and adding a packet of sugar for lemonade on the cheap.
Order Ala Carte
If you’re really hankering for a particular food item, order it a la carte to save money. For example, a two-enchilada plate with rice, beans and bit of lettuce and tomato will run you $7 at El Patio Mexican Restaurant in Canyon, Tex. Save a dollar by ordering two enchiladas a la carte, and you’ll save yourself a dollar and about 350 calories.
Order Take-Out (But Skip Delivery)
Save yourself the 20 to 25 percent standard tip by ordering food to go. Don’t have it delivered, as the delivery charge plus driver tip will add up to be greater than what you’d pay sitting down to eat at the restaurant. Maralee McKee, known as the Manners Mentor, advises tipping $3 or 10 percent when you pick up your order, whichever is greater. A server still went through the work of boxing, bagging, getting condiments and preparing your food to travel home.
The same bottle of wine you can buy at your local liquor store for $7.99 often runs more than $20 when you order the bottle in the restaurant. BYOB (bring your own bottle) establishments are gaining popularity in areas such as Northern California, Scottsdale and Montreal. Some don’t even charge a corkage fee, which covers service and use of the glasses.
Just like beverages, desserts can be big markup items in a restaurant. That tasty piece of pie might have been bought at Costco for $5.99 and sold for as much per slice at the restaurant. Cheesecake, carrot cake and layer cakes are other inexpensive Costco confections that come with a hefty markup when served at a restaurant table. You can always pick up ice cream at a cheaper spot on the way home, or store tightly wrapped slices of decadent cake in your freezer and thaw them so they’re waiting for you when you return home.
Take a Drive to Sister Restaurants
When vacationing at a popular tourist destination, check to see whether a restaurant has a second location within a reasonable driving distance. Often, prices at the less-popular destination are $1 to $2 cheaper per plate because of lower overhead. For example, eating pad thai at the Thai Palace in Uptown Sedona will run $1 more for lunch and $4 more per dinner entree than driving to a second location in Old Town Cottonwood 20 miles away.
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Get on Your Smartphone
Although being on your smartphone at a restaurant might be considered rude by some, getting on it ahead of time can score you a cheap dinner. Check out the restaurant’s Facebook or other social media page to discover special promotions not advertised elsewhere, and visit their websites, which often reveal happy hour and other special promotions. Or check out Restaurant.com to get deals like a $25 certificate for $10 and cash back offers through Groupon. Pulsd and Yelp are two other places to search for dining deals.
Check for Status Discounts
Ask your restaurant whether they offer any status discounts for which you might qualify. Seniors, military, law enforcement and teachers are common groups that reap cheap meals at some restaurants. If you’re a member of AARP, AAA or another organization, finding status discounts can be as simple as looking online for participating restaurants.
Click through if you want to save more on restaurant meals by making them at home instead.