USA Today | Feast on these great dining deals
July 29, 2011
Chefs have reached rock-star status, and the emphasis on palate-pleasing food has skyrocketed, thanks in part to an orgy of television food shows. Foodies are everywhere, but those with champagne taste on a beer budget should find solace in the cornucopia of dining deals across the nation.
Tim Zagat, founder of Zagat Survey, says diners are much more price-sensitive these days. "They're reading the menu from right to left rather than left to right," he says, referring to the prices customarily being on the right side of the menu and the dish on the left. "The industry has been responding to this, and we've seen virtually no price increase."
What has increased is the number of discounts offered. Zagat surveys show that 55% of the respondents are finding better deals at restaurants since the economic downturn. Here are several ways to save money when dining out:
This dining promotion dates back to 1992, when Zagat and the late restaurateur Joe Baum created a goodwill gesture to 15,000 reporters coming to New York to cover the Democratic National Convention. Now it seems that every major city and many minor ones — Downtown Allentown (Penn.) Restaurant Week is going on now — set aside a period at least once a year when diners can enjoy upscale meals at modest prices. New York's Restaurant Week, which now takes place twice a year for two weeks at a time, runs through Sept. 5 and offers special three-course lunches for $24.07 and three-course dinners for $35 at more than 320 participating restaurants. At Toloache, just off Times Square, the dinner menu offered an entree choice of black sea bass, seven-chile-rubbed skirt steak or chicken breast.
"Restaurant Week is a great value for diners and a way for us to drive more business for the future," says Toloache's chef/owner, Julian Medina. "While some restaurants like to limit the options to the more affordable dishes, we like to take this opportunity to offer great seasonal options to wow new guests and get them back in for another meal."
You can buy $25 gift certificates that never expire for $10 — or some as low as $2 during one of the frequent sales similar to one running through July 31 — at 18,000 places in the USA through Restaurant.com, which claims to have saved customers more than $500 million since launching in 1999.
Oodles of sites, such as Yelp.com, Groupon.com, BloomSpot.com, LivingSocial.com, GiltCity.com and Amazon.com, frequently e-mail dining deals to subscribers. About 10% of Restaurant.com's eateries fall into the fine-dining category, including The Jockey Club in Washington, D.C., The Walnut Room in Chicago, Dolce Enoteca in Atlanta, Mark's in Houston, Strip Steak in Las Vegas, AJ Maxwell's in New York and Todd English's bluezoo in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Restaurant.com CEO Cary Chessick, who adds about 500 restaurants each month, says the stigma about using an online certificate has decreased significantly.
"Once the economy crashed there was this consumer shift toward 'saving is savvy,' and it significantly changed the perception. Why would you not want to save money?"
Skip the la carte menu and look for the often less expensive fixed-price menu. For example, entrées at Patina in Los Angeles start at $40, but the four-course Market Menu is $59. Pair that with the waived corkage fee on Tuesdays for a real savings. At Michael Mina, San Francisco, enjoy a three-course, prix-fixe lunch for $49 or pay up to $65 when ordering the same items individually at dinner.
"We understood the importance of timing for diners during the lunch hour and created a prix-fixe menu designed to be simple and approachable yet refined with a wow factor at an unexpectedly affordable price point," Mina says.
Reverse Happy Hour
Night owls can take advantage of the increasing popularity of discounted late-night menus — a variation on pre-dinner Happy Hour. From 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sundays and Mondays, The Hudson in West Hollywood offers $3 drafts, wells and selected wines plus a $6 Happy Hour menu that includes mussel frites and short-rib tacos.
"It's fun, social and less expensive," says Brett Cranston, co-owner of The Hudson. "Obviously people can save money if they eat and drink during Happy Hours — about 40% less."
Like, friend, follow and check in to receive deals through social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. In New York, check in on Foursquare to receive your second margarita free (after you buy your first) at Toloache, 20% off bottles of wine at Yerba Buena Perry and half off desserts at Coppelia. Restaurants such as Nirvana in Beverly Hills and Vu in Marina del Rey, Calif., use Facebook and Twitter to spread the word about their special insider deals.