Watching your dollars while dining

Pointers: There are lots of ways that you can avoid emptying your wallet as you fill your plate.

January 09, 2002|By Sylvia Rector | Sylvia Rector,KNIGHT/RIDDER TRIBUNE

Eat well. Save money.

Yes, you can do both. Here are 13 tips and suggestions to help you spend your dining-out dollar wisely, whether you're eating at the fanciest restaurant in a town, a popular chain at the mall or the mom-and-pop place on the corner.

Sign up for frequent diners' clubs. Even if you visit the restaurant infrequently, you'll usually get freebies, money-off coupons or other offers not otherwise available. And you may be surprised how your spending, like those frequent-flier miles, adds up to nice rewards.

Ask about prices. If you want one of the chef's special features that the waiter describes table-side, ask what it costs before ordering. Features should be in line with published menu prices, but don't assume they are. It's still your money, and there's no reason to be embarrassed about being a smart consumer.

Know what's included. When the waitress asks whether you'd like a salad with the entree you've just ordered, does she mean the salad comes with the entree, or is she trying to "sell you up"? It could be either, so ask whether it's included with the meal. The same principle applies to many other items. If it costs extra and you want it, great. But know what you're paying for.

Beware of phony bargains. Sometimes the entree comes with a long list of so-called free items - antipasti, salad, soup, pasta course and dessert. Do you really want them? Will you even like them? You might be able to spend less and be just as happy ordering a la carte.

Order appetizers as your main course. Restaurant portions are so huge these days, an appetizer is often plenty for a meal, especially when paired with a salad or a dessert. And often, they're more interesting anyway.

Patronize ethnic restaurants. Usually the prices are low, the value is high and the food can be amazingly good, especially at small, family-run places. You also may end up eating healthier because most other cultures use less meat and more grains and veggies than Americans do; Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian cuisines are good examples. Not sure whether you'll like the cuisine? It won't cost much to find out. Not sure what to order? Ask the waiter.

Do lunch rather than dinner. It's not unusual to find the same entree for 15 percent to 20 percent less at lunch than at dinner. This is an especially good way to try the cuisine of high-end restaurants without paying such high-end prices.

Watch beverage costs. Nobody pays attention to what coffee, tea or soft drinks cost; they just order them. But there are big profits in those cups and glasses. You could be paying 95 cents for that iced tea - or $2.25. At a casual-dining place, that's a big percentage of the check. Say the grilled chicken sandwich with lettuce, tomato, potato chips and some pasta salad costs $6.95 - a good value - but when the check arrives it's $9.20. What happened? You didn't notice the price of your soft drink when you ordered - and for the money, water might have tasted just as good.

Water isn't always free. At high-end restaurants, waiters often ask whether you would prefer sparkling or still water. They're referring to bottled water, costing $3 or $4 per bottle, but many guests don't realize that until the bill comes. Then they're embarrassed to mention such a small item and admit their lack of so-called sophistication. If the waiter doesn't mention "regular" water - the same stuff the chef cooks with - you can request it anyway. And if it isn't drinkable, do you really want to eat the food?

Dine with a friend. Split the plate and split the check. Sometimes restaurants will add a surcharge for split plates, but it's still a savings over ordering two entrees.

Avoid wasted leftovers. When you eat out with the idea that you'll take home enough food for tomorrow's lunch, think about what holds and rewarms well. You won't save money if those leftovers look too limp or dry to eat the next day.

Eat where half-portions are offered. Responding to consumer complaints about such huge portions, some restaurants are beginning to offer entrees in two sizes, which gives you the option of paying less for your meal.

Dine when others don't. The deals are best when business is slowest. In summer, when everyone's on vacation or grilling out at home, some higher-end restaurants offer two-for-one entrees, percentages off the check or other incentives designed to fill seats. Early in the week also is slow; look for promotional offers on Mondays and Tuesdays. And those nightly early-bird specials represent real savings for people who can arrive before the rush.

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