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April 2017

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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.