Tips for Dining Out Well – For Less

Even if a restaurant claims “you’re family,” you’re a customer, and they are in business to make a profit. Restaurants are good at separating you from your money: it’s their raison de etre. A severe case of sticker shock upon presentation of the bill can cause a lingering sour aftertaste. The most obvious tip for saving money on dining out would be don’t. There’s no question that dining out is a luxury compared to cooking meals at home. But there are special occasions – and a few not-so-special – when a restaurant meal is in order. In order to dine well but not go broke, the customer needs to read the menu carefully and communicate with waitstaff.

Note: this is not about trying to score freebies, cheat the restaurant or waitstaff, or occupy a table for hours while eating multiple baskets of bread. And those places that offer free peanuts or all the French fries you can eat? They aren’t really free. You’re still paying for them.

As soon as you sit down, waitstaff asks what you would like to drink. Keep in mind beverages make up 30% of a restaurant’s profits; most of the time you are not immediately offered a drink menu to check prices. What you may think is a $1.50 soft drink is more likely a $2.50 soft drink. If a family of four goes to a casual Mexican restaurant and everyone orders a drink, that’s $10.00 – more than the price of many entrees. Even if they offer unlimited refills that’s a large chunk of change. Consider asking for the menu to check prices before automatically ordering a beverage.

Any time you “call” a cocktail (specify the brand of liquor), the price goes up. If you have to have a Top Shelf Margarita, have at it – but it will cost noticeably more than a “well” drink (made from the lower-priced house brands). Ask if there’s a special cocktail offered which may be a good value.

Ordering by the glass is the most expensive way to enjoy wine at a restaurant. Virtually every restaurant has a house wine that is cheapest; often it can be ordered by the carafe, liter, or half-liter. Another option is to bring your own bottle. Not every restaurant offers “corkage” (a charge for opening and serving the wine you bring), but many do; call first to see if it’s allowable. Corkage usually is at least $10.00 and upwards – after all, you’re using the restaurant’s glasses and service – but it’s a much less expensive choice than buying wine from a wine list.

Restaurant menus are designed to feature the most profitable items. That doesn’t mean they are the most expensive items, but waitstaff may be told to promote them to increase the bottom line. Check out this report from MoneyWatch on how to “read” a menu.

When waitstaff recites the specials, they don’t always give the price, and that can cause an unpleasant surprise on the bill. Just because it’s special doesn’t mean it’s inexpensive. Always ask the price, the portion size, and what accompanies it. Rarely – but often enough – waitstaff will take your order and then ask, “Did you want a salad with that?” or “What kind of dressing on your salad?” or “Do you want shrimp on top?” What they didn’t tell you was that salad/shrimp is extra and not included in the price of the meal; the sentence is phrased so that you believe it is. This is, to M. de Joie’s mind, deceptive: again, ask, “Is that included?”

Dinner restaurants tend to open about 5:00 PM but really get busy at 7:00 PM. Check to see if Early Bird specials or Happy Hour specials are available – they can be enough of a bargain to move dinner time up an hour. And it’s not just Denny’s – Nello’s Restaurant offers a complete dinner before 6:30 PM that is a good value.

Not everyone has a large appetite, but some restaurants offer only jumbo portions. Consider asking for a split plate – sometimes this is free but usually there is a charge (around $5.00) for two people to share one meal. If that isn’t an option, take the leftovers home. Or ask if you can order from the child’s or senior’s menu.

Generally speaking, Asian, Mexican, and other “ethnic” restaurants offer less expensive dining options than all-American steakhouses.

Consider having a celebration lunch instead of dinner, when prices are nearly always cheaper.

Check the website or Facebook page of your favorite restaurant for special offers or coupons. There are websites like Restaurant.com which offer restaurant coupons (though there are no participating businesses in this area).

Finally, M. de Joie encourages diners to patronize locally-owned restaurants. The money stays local and you’re keeping small businesses going. Big Behemoth Restaurant Chain will continue to churn out corporate-designed meals without you; not so for Little Frank’s Spaghetti House. Without local folks to support him, the little guy will surely fail – so consider dining local.

Femme de Joie’s first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more or send her an email at femmedejoiefood@yahoo.com.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

Femme de Joie
Femme de Joie's first culinary masterpiece was at age 4, when she made the perfect fried bologna sandwich on white bread. Since then she has dined on horse Bourguignon in France, stir-fried eel in London, and mystery meat in her college cafeteria, but firmly draws the line at eating rattlesnake, peppermint and Hamburger Helper. She lives in Shasta County at her country estate, Butterscotch Acres West. She is nearly always hungry. Visit MenuPlease for more or send her an email at femmedejoiefood@yahoo.com.
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5 Responses

  1. Avatar Sue says:

    Good advice. Some places, like Cheesecakes offer splits and half portions. If you like smaller portions, consider ordering off the appetizer menu.

    Sue

    • Avatar Kirsten says:

      True- they do offer splits…….. BUT: they charge you $1.50 for the box, if you split the salad to take it home!!

  2. Avatar gamerjohn says:

    If we are all family, then as family members we kick in to make ends meet. At least we don't have to stick around to wash dishes and vacuum under the tables.

    Some local places make it hard to patronize them. Moonstone has weird opening hours so you can't hit them before the movies because they may not have fired up the stove and washed the veggies yet. Although it looks like the entire wait staff is in the back sharing a hand rolled cigarette, as you pull through the Starbucks drive through.

    Yuet Bistro seems like they would do anything to please you. The wait staff knows the menu even though it is a million items long. The food is great and impresses out of town guests from the big cities.

  3. Avatar Jamie says:

    Great advice here. You often CAN save by signing up on the facebook page of your favorite restaurant. When my family of 5 goes out to eat, we often split meals and forego sodas, but the biggest savings comes from viewing dining out as a huge treat, which we indulge in only occasionally.

  4. Avatar Paul Frye says:

    My friend, Dennis Ferrell, is from Texas. I try diligently not to hold this against him or think of him as 'lesser". He has taught me many things. One of the most helpful lessons is that , the easiest and surest way to gauge the quality of food at Mexican or Tex-Mex eateries is to try the chili rellenos. I learned this from him in the late '80s and, to date, this simple test has not failed me, to wit,"If the chili rellenos are good, the rest of the menu will be fine." If not, there are a number of places in town have good chili rellenos..

    My daughter, Meghan, and her family, are big fans of Puerto Vallarto (sp) on Hartnell. She says," Fair prices, large portions, family friendly, wait staff prompt, pleasant and knowledgeable. 12 years of patronage and no complaints". I have joined her and the g'kids there 3/4 times over the past few years. They do have good chili rellenos and they are very friendly to our large brood, 7 of us , when we all go. The g'kids, 5-10 years old like the place a lot.

    But, when the aforementioned Dennis comes back "in country", we "beat feet" for "Super Taco AUTHENTIC MEXICAN FOOD", the fonts are as printed on their menu. They are located out on Lake Blvd, 983 Lake Blvd 530-229-7855. Open ( I believe 7 days a week, nominally from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m, closing at 8 on the weekend, but I'd call and make sure that you don't drive out there and find the place closed). I think that they have the best rice and beans in town. To the best of my knowledge, the place is locally owned and is fairly new. If you should try the place and have any complaints, please let me know here as I have nothing but good things to say about the place.

    I feel guilty writing about Mexican lunch places and not mention Senor Rosa's on Eureka Way. They have the best burritos in town. Also locally owned. Their "HUM BABY" classic burrito with beef, chicken or vegetarian is sumptuos fare.