Dining out can be tough especially for the most frugal among us. Between appetizers, drinks, dessert, and an entree, the check can become bloated with extra charges really quickly. How do you get the best deal when you’re out on the town?
The best advice you can follow to save money while dining out is this: know what you’re eating ahead of time. Once you’re holding a thick menu full of alluring dishes, it can be hard to stick to a budget.
That’s precisely why we scoured national restaurants to bring the best value for your dollar in terms of cost, portion size, and taste. Examining hundreds of dishes on these three criteria, we were able to compile a list of best dishes along with tips to get the biggest bang for your buck.
Tip #1: Check the specials online.
Some national restaurants like Olive Garden, Chili’s, P.F. Chang’s, Applebees, and Outback Steakhouse offer nationwide specials on full meals. Most restaurants current specially priced meals cost between $12.95-$25 (with the exception of P.F. Chang’s). These are the prices whether you’re in NYC or Omaha, and they include a wide variety and large portion of food.
For example, usually meal deals of this nature include some type of bread, a salad or soup or appetizer, one or more entrees, and possibly dessert. Some restaurants like Bonefish Grill have an appetizer sale on Wednesdays and post local specials on their website regularly.
Tip #2: Pair an inexpensive entree with filling sides.
In the above table, you see you can get a variety of dishes to satisfy most anyone’s hunger. At Outback Steakhouse, you can get a smaller cut of steak and pair it with heavier, starchy dishes from the side menu to get a more substantial meal without spending more. A 9 oz. steak with rice or potato will be just as filling as the 12 oz. with salad or steamed veggies. The sides don’t change in price, so you have automatic savings built into your meal – the 9 oz. is only $15.99 compared to the 12 oz. at $17.99.
Tip #3: Order to the restaurant’s strengths.
The food the restaurant specializes in will almost always be a better value in terms of cost and flavor. At Bonefish Grill, skip the American Kobe Beef Burger and go for seafood dishes like the Ahi Tuna Sashimi or dine on Wednesdays and get their Bang Bang Shrimp appetizer for only $5. You really aren’t missing quality; real Kobe beef is imported from Japan and is priced very expensively, but the Kobe beef served at most American restaurants is imitation yet still has a hefty price tag. On the other hand, the Ahi Tuna Sashimi is a filling, healthy, and tasty sushi-style dish, making it a better deal for your taste buds and your health as well.
Tip #4: Know your spending cap.
It’s easy to get carried away when you’re already out, so deciding your limit beforehand can be a crucial step to getting the best deal on your meal out. By determining which treats you want and how much you’re willing to pay, you’ll be able to instantly identify which dishes are your top choices. You can use our list below as a guide.
The chart below is the results of our restaurant research, with pricing available for three metro areas with different costs of living. We found that on average a dish in Los Angeles, CA costs 15.5% more than Houston, TX, for example. Many of these restaurants have menus available with their local pricing online, so be sure to check those out before the big night.
Tip #5: Make substitutions that are healthy, you will eat less and your wallet will thank you for it.
Instead of the Shrimp and Parmesan Sirloin at Applebee’s, try the Zesty Roma Chicken and Shrimp for a less expensive and healthier meal. The Zesty Roma Chicken and Shrimp has only 410 calories and 11 grams of fat, using a tomato sauce to add flavor, not calories. The Shrimp and Parmesan Sirloin is a cheesy, fattier dish with 590 calories and 30 grams of fat. It also costs almost $5 more than the $10.95 Zesty Roma Chicken and Shrimp at $16.69.
Spending $6.39 a piece for a couple slices of cheesecake at Chili’s would total $13.78, while the Chocolate Molten Lava Cake is only $6.95 and makes a fun treat to split with its volcano shape and rich chocolate filling.
The Lettuce Wraps at P.F. Chang’s are one of the restaurant’s most popular appetizers based on its great taste and ability to be shared among friends. The Spare Ribs are a pricier option ($9.95 versus $8.95 for the Lettuce Wraps) and aren’t nearly as healthy or shareable.
Tip #6: Take advantage of the free stuff.
By planning your dinner out around the Happy Hour at McCormick and Schmick’s, you can save a ton of money without even trying. A popular and delicious appetizer, the Lump Crab Cake is going to set you back $14.99 during normal hours—but, if you plan accordingly their Happy Hour Burger which is a fan favorite is only $3.95. It’s no slider, either— this full size burger comes with an essentially free side of fries as well.
At Olive Garden, the Chicken Parmigiana is $16.29 and comes with a side of spaghetti— that’s a lot of food at a restaurant which includes unlimited breadsticks and soup or salad with their entrees. The Lasagna Classico is a smaller portioned meal and costs only $13.95, and by taking advantage of the unlimited items, you’ll walk away from the restaurant just as satisfied.
Where are you dining tonight?
Whether you are in a large city or a small town, visiting a restaurant with a national presence usually means you can find a great deal that includes a wide variety of foods for a good bargain. Don’t forget to check out local Yelp! reviews of these food chains’ locations to be sure you can count on their consistency and quality, which means greater value for you.
So, we have to ask, where do you go for a great dining deal?