From bistros to buffets, restaurants are cutting themselves a bigger piece of the pie when it comes to what we spend on food.
The average American household ponied up $3,095 on food away from home from July 2015 through June 2016 — 6.6 percent more than the previous 12-month period, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s compared to $4,101 spent at grocery stores and other food retailers, which increased by just 3 percent year over year.
Rising menu prices are likely driving some of that spending surge, and dining out certainly costs more, on average, than cooking at home. But there are strategies for trimming food costs that don’t involve sweating over a stove. Try taking advantage of offers that cater to diners who prefer a late lunch or early evening meal.
Just keep in mind some restaurant locations don’t offer identical deals. Read on the see 10 early bird specials that will fill your tank without draining your bank account.
1. Chart House
The Special: The early dining menu offers a half-dozen entrees that each come with a starter and dessert.
Chart House operates seafood-centric restaurants with waterfront locations across the country. Its early dining menu, available from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, includes both surf and turf options, such as herb-crusted salmon and slow-roasted prime rib. Starters include classics like clam chowder and caesar salad.
With the right deals, you can eat out and save money on food costs. According to an online version of the menu, entrée prices range from $19.99 to $22.99, and all choices come with a starter and a dessert. Although prices vary by location, the restaurant’s regular dinner menu features entrees that range from around $21.50 to $43 and doesn’t include a selection of starters and desserts.
2. Yolanda’s Mexican Cafe
The Special: The early bird menu features eight entrees and includes a drink and dessert.
This small chain of Mexican cafes in Southern California is a good example of tempting early bird specials offered by neighborhood restaurants. Yolanda’s early bird entrees, all priced at $10.95, include classic standbys like arroz con pollo and carnitas, as well as house favorites like the chiquito burrito. Available from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily, each early bird entree includes regular iced tea or coffee, and a choice of flan or a scoop of ice cream.
3. Dixie Cafe/Delta Cafe
The Special: This chain offers its early bird senior discount from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
This home-cooking restaurant operates as Dixie Cafe at its Arkansas and Tennessee locations and Delta Cafe in Oklahoma. Its early bird special offers a straightforward discount to seniors, who get $1 off their meal purchase if they dine between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. daily. Menu favorites include chicken-fried steak and pot roast.
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4. Famous Dave’s
The Special: As one example, the two-meat combo at some Colorado locations is $9.49 on the lunch/early bird menu.
Many Famous Dave’s locations offer their lunch menu until 5 p.m., with some franchise owners also advertising it as an early bird special. And, depending on what you order, savings can be significant.
For example, the menu at the Aurora, Colo., location offers a two-meat combo, which comes with one side and a cornbread muffin, for $9.49. Compare that with the two-meat dinner combo, which comes with two sides. That starts at $16.49 and can cost more depending on barbecue lovers’ meat selection.
5. Golden Corral
The Special: Some locations offer early bird discounts for seniors buying the buffet.
Golden Corral’s buffet serves up grilled-to-order sirloin steaks, pizza, fried chicken, meatloaf and an array of sides and baked goods, including carrot cake. Buffet prices vary by location, but you can still get great bang for your buck at this buffet. In one example, the early bird buffet discount listed on the Restaurant Meal Prices website runs from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., when seniors pay $9.98 for a beverage and access to the buffet, compared to the regular rate of $11.59.
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6. Olive Garden
The Special: The Early Dinner Duos deal includes 11 entree options, with free all-you-can-eat breadsticks and soup or salad.
Olive Garden’s Early Dinner Duos deal allows diners who visit between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday, to pair unlimited breadsticks and soup or salad with an entrée. Soup options include minestrone and pasta e fagioli, among others. Entrée options include perennially popular menu items such as spaghetti with meat sauce, lasagna classico and chicken piccata. The restaurant chain’s website lists the deal at $8.99, but follows up with fine print that prices may vary.
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7. Rich & Charlie’s
The Special: All three full-menu locations of this family-owned restaurant in Missouri offer special menu options.
Rich & Charlie’s opened its original location 50 years ago in the St. Louis area, and now operates three full-menu restaurants and a location focused on pizza and sandwiches. Each of the three full-menu restaurants offers an early bird special, though prices and timing vary.
As an example of the offerings, early bird specials are available from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, at the Crestwood, Mo., location. Specials include chicken spiedini or chicken mudega, served with a salad and side of mostaccioli for $9.99. The early bird menu offers customers some entree options not available on the restaurant’s lunch menu. It also offers a deep discount over those dishes’ dinner menu pricing of $17.99, which includes unlimited soup or salad and a wider variety of sides.
8. Saltgrass Steak House
The Special: Many of the restaurant’s locations offer an early dining menu.
The fare at Saltgrass Steak House emphasizes the chain’s Texas roots with a focus on certified Angus beef and Lone Star-inspired sides, including beer bread. Many locations offer an early dining menu, though prices and timing can vary.
Sample specials include signature menu items like Maudeen’s center-cut filet, served with a side and cup of soup or salad. Prices can vary by location. But the early dining menu at the Saltgrass in Oklahoma City — available between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Friday — offers the 6-ounce filet for $16.99, compared to its dinner menu price tag of $23.99.
9. Texas Roadhouse
The Special: Many locations offer a selection of entrees on their “Early Dine” menu.
Texas Roadhouse locations offer an “Early Dine” menu that features 11 entrees, including a 6-ounce sirloin, country fried chicken and a pulled pork dinner, among other options. Hours and pricing can vary by location. For example, items on the Early Dine menu are priced at $9.99 at the Texas Roadhouse in Corona, Calif., compared with $8.99 in locations including the one in Memphis, Tenn.
10. Western Sizzlin
The Special: Some franchise owners offer early bird discounts for seniors buying the buffet.
Western Sizzlin’s lunch buffet is stocked with steaks, home-style vegetables, baked goods and cold foods, such as salad fixings and fruit. Some franchise owners offer discounted early bird rates for seniors.
For example, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday, the Western Sizzlin in Florence, S.C., offers seniors a beverage and access to the buffet for $7.19, compared to the regular luncheon buffet price of $8.79, which doesn’t include a drink. And the Western Sizzlin in Scottsboro, Ala., showcases senior buffet prices of $5.79 from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday. That compares with regular buffet prices that range from $7.99 to $10.99, depending on the time and day of the week.
About the Author
Charlene Oldham specializes in education, workplace issues, consumer finance, health and wellness and business personalities. A former business news staff writer for The Dallas Morning News whose varied resume includes a stint with Teach For America, Charlene has written freelance works that have appeared in publications including the Orlando Sentinel, SUCCESS, Organic Gardening and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.