10 Ways To Save On Your Restaurant Bill

In my universe, eating out is a special event.

Even if I could afford to eat out in a good restaurant every evening, I wouldn’t.

Aside from the effects on my waistline and my life expectancy, restaurants would lose their appeal. That would be a shame because I really enjoy eating out.

The things that feel like rewards for a job well done or an effort made should be protected. If we overuse these reward systems, we become habituated. That means we don’t notice them anymore, we take them for granted. In addition, if I eat out all the time, eating at home will start to feel like I’m depriving myself of pleasure, when the opposite is true. I love cooking and serving a really good meal around my own table.

That said, when I go out for a meal, I expect to get good value, and there are a number of things I bear in mind before I reserve, and once I’m in the restaurant, to ensure that my money is well spent.

1. Do Your Research

If this is not a restaurant you’ve been to before, check the reviews and try to see the menu before you go. A series of terrible reviews in the last two months is a definite warning sign. A menu with nothing you want on it is also a problem.

Some disappointments can be avoided before you even set foot in the establishment.

2. Eat lunch, not dinner

Lunch is almost always much cheaper than dinner, for the same quality food, in very slightly smaller portions. If going out is a treat on a weekend and you can arrange it around lunch instead of dinner, you’ll save a packet.

If it’s possible, try to order the lunch dishes at dinner. Perhaps the lunch menu remains available? I’ve never managed this but you never know…

3. Share a dish

Portion control is a staple of any diet, but it’s also helpful when you’re trying to control how much you spend on a night out.

Take a quick look at the other tables. Are the servings huge? If they are, you can probably get away with a starter each and sharing a main course. This obviously works best if you’re with a date or your significant other.

You can sometimes trade up to a dish you might have found too expensive, and by sharing it end up with a lower bill.

4. Don’t buy bottled water

There’s a restaurant near my apartment. Every week they receive a pallet of bottled water.

A pallet.

That’s around 2000 bottles of water. Each bottle is sold at a huge markup and around a quarter of bottled water is just repackaged tap water anyway. Just don’t buy it. Some restaurants seem to serve tap water that has been “purified” with something that gives it the taste of iodine. I don’t know this for a fact but I suspect they do it to encourage you to buy the bottles.

5. Check for offers

Restaurants are like any other business – they drive their sales with special offers. Of course they don’t want people who would have come to the restaurant anyway to be discounting their meals. The offers typically exist inside the sales channel, either on the restaurant’s website, or in some third party reservation system.

It is very unlikely there will be a special offer available from any literature on the table. Why would they bother? You’re there already.

Check the restaurant’s website, and the applications you can use to reserve a table – TheFork, OpenTable, Zomato and others. You should also search for the restaurant name online to see what comes up. Do this before you order, preferably before you show up. TheFork discounts require you to have reserved through the app and come with terms and conditions.

6. Bring your own booze, if you can. Or pre-party!

Alcohol is one of the most marked up items on a restaurant menu. That $12 gin and tonic paid for half the cost of the gin bottle, and they serve 22 drinks out of that bottle before it’s empty.

Wine is typically marked up at least to three times the cost of the bottle. Wine by the glass is typically marked up such that the first glass poured from the bottle … pays for the bottle.

Check what the corkage charge is and see if bringing your own bottle is worth it. It usually is.

If you’re a regular, try to negotiate a personal BYO policy where the owner allows you to come with your bottle and waives the corkage charge.

If none of that works, have a cocktail party at home before you go to the restaurant. Drink lots of water too. That way you’ll minimize the amount of alcohol you drink in the restaurant and save yourself a lot of money.

7. Check the menu plans, do the math

A lot of restaurants will have an “à la carte” menu and a set menu. The set menu allows you to choose form a reduced list of items for a fixed 2, 3 or 4 course meal. Usually there are good discounts to be had.

Our instinct here is often to think that if the restaurant is offering a special deal there must be a catch.

In fact, it’s often a win-win proposition. Not only are these dishes that the restaurant can afford to sell you at a lower price (because of economies of scale, or particular purchasing agreements, or whatever reasons are personal to them), but they are also some of the dishes the restaurant is most practiced at.

If the options on the set menu look appealing, it can be a great deal.

8. Be a member

The Electric Diner on Portobello Road in London is a very trendy local hotspot. It also has a secret club. If you have a “Diner’s Card,” exclusive to the Electric, you can get 50% off all your food at certain times.

Nobody seems to know about this.

There’s a very sophisticated process to get the card…

You have to ask for it.

That’s it. There’s nothing else. You ask, you get, then it’s 50% off from that point forward if you order within the designated times. You can even ask for the card and benefit from the discount immediately. It’s written right there at the bottom of the menu and yet nobody seems to notice.

The Italian restaurant around the corner, Luna Rossa…. same deal. But they don’t write it down anywhere – you have to ask the waiter to find out about it.

Ask in your neighborhood restaurants if they have any deals or discounts for regulars or locals. Even if they don’t, they’ll probably make an effort for you, especially if they’ve already seen you a few times and you’re good, friendly, repeat customers.

The same applies if you’re a student, teacher, elderly, young or suffer from a disability. Ask. It’s like dating: The discounts want you, but they won’t tell you about them unless you make the first step.

9. Happy hour is your friend

The business model of a restaurant is very simple.

They start by losing a ton of money on rent. Then they work really really hard selling food to make up the difference.

They know they’ll be full from 8pm to midnight, but they’re empty between 6pm and 8pm. If you can eat and drink at that time, they’re willing to give almighty discounts because you’re helping them absorb the cost of their rent.

Take advantage. Turn up during happy hour. Everybody wins.

10. Spend More

Ok. This one is a little counterintuitive, but bear with me.

Some dishes are very cheap to make. Think pasta with pesto. That might be on the menu for $14, and looks really cheap compared to that $27 rib-eye steak.

The thing is, the restaurant makes $9 on the pasta and loses $2 on the steak.

The rib-eye is a loss leader for the establishment. They have to have it on the menu to draw in the clients, and they can’t charge a proper markup for it because of competition from other restaurants. So they sell it at a loss and count on the starter, dessert and drinks sales to make up the difference.

It may be the most expensive thing on the menu, but it’s the best deal in the joint.

Bonus Items

Ten is a nice, round number. I didn’t want to mess up the aesthetics.

  • Check for “kids eat free” restaurants to avoid spending a fortune on food for your children that they end up spreading on their clothes.
  • If kids don’t eat free, ask for an extra plate and serve them a piece of your food, if that’s enough to satisfy their appetite. Portions can be huge.
  • Don’t over-tip. We all want to be that person who’s super generous, and we will be, when we’re rich ourselves.
  • Avoid dessert. They’re high-margin items that are, in most mid-level restaurants, sub-par compared to the other dishes. If you’re in an Italian restaurant and the Tiramisu is to die for, share it.
  • Eat slowly. Your stomach takes time to distend. When it does, it stops releasing Ghrelin. What’s that? Ghrelin is a hormone that travels to the brain and causes the sensation of hunger. If you give yourself time to stop feeling hungry, you won’t even want that dessert.
  • Check for local events. Cities (especially Paris) have restaurant weeks where top tables go for tiny prices. You won’t be the only person looking for a reservation so be quick on your feet.
  • Avoid specials. They’re typically much pricier, even if they are often the pride of the kitchen.
  • Can you legitimately claim this as a business expense? Worth thinking about, but don’t cheat on your taxes, the consequences are not only awful, they’re deserved.