Consumer Reports recommends the following strategies for spending less while eating out:
"Look for bargains on the menu. CR found: buy-one-get-one-free appetizers and entrées; all-you-can-eat specials; lower prices for smaller portions; off-peak dining specials; low-cost upgrades (add chicken to a salad for $1); flat-rate discounts of as much as 20 percent; even free food and more on almost all of the chains in the ratings.
Sign up for e-mail alerts. Chain Web sites are the best source of menu specials, discounts, and other promotions. That’s how CR learned about IHOP’s national free-pancake-day campaign and Denny’s Grand Slam and Grand Slamwich breakfast giveaways. After signing up for e-mail at dozens of chains, we were flooded with coupons.
Show your age. Many family chains, including Bob Evans, Perkins Restaurant & Bakery, and Eat’n Park, have reduced-price menus for kids (usually under 10 or 12) and seniors (usually 55 and up). Some dinner chains offer incentives too, such as free meals for kids on Tuesday (Black-eyed Pea, Chevys Fresh Mex, and Beef O’Brady’s). If you reveal your birthday (sign up online), some chains are particularly generous.
Time your visit. On weekdays and at off-peak hours, there are many chances to economize. Texas Roadhouse, for example, features 10 $7.99 dinners Monday through Thursday. Lone Star Steakhouse has a $7 soup-and-salad-bar buffet on the same days, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Eat at the bar. Pricey McCormick & Schmick’s has a bar menu offering cheeseburgers and fries for less than $3, tuna rolls for less than $4, and jambalaya for less than $5. T.G.I. Friday’s has bar appetizers for a penny if you join its Give Me More Stripes frequent-diner program. It’s free.
Order takeout. Getting food to go at least saves the cost of a tip, and the list of chains accepting online and telephone orders is growing. So are the ranks of those allowing curbside pickup."
In a survey, Consumer Reports rated 101 chain restaurants and provided other money-saving tips in the July issue. _______________________________________________________