Avoid These 7 Restaurant Ripoffs

When it comes to restaurant food, cost and value aren't necessarily the same. A $24 steak aged for weeks may be the better, penny-wise choice than the $6 spring greens salad poured from a bag and dressed up with a few walnuts and raisins.

That's because restaurant value is commonly defined as the cost of ingredients plus the skill needed to prepare the dish. The most value-packed dishes are ones that use expensive and unusual ingredients prepared in time-consuming ways. A dish you can easily throw together yourself from items found at any market is a pound-foolish choice at a restaurant.

Of course, dining out isn't just about getting your money's worth. Ambiance, company and not having to scrub pans yourself are worth something. But you can get all that, and get the most for your money, if you avoid these low-value choices.

Avoid These 7 Restaurant Ripoffs
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Avoid These 7 Restaurant Ripoffs
Even with endless soda refills, you're paying $2 to $3 for tap water, carbon dioxide and flavoring that cost the restaurant pennies to spritz into a glass. A single tea bag might cost 10 cents, though the restaurant will charge you $3 to plop it into a mug of hot water. If you want value, ask for a cup of hot water and lemon, which is free at most restaurants.
No matter how you slice it, a wedge of iceberg with a dollop of Thousand Island dressing isn't worth the $7 a restaurant charges, considering you can buy a whole head of lettuce for less than $2. Even a serving of fancy spring greens costs only $1.50 from the market, compared to $8 eating out. Restaurants will throw on maybe $2 of grilled chicken or shrimp and bump the price to $10 to $12. Do you really need to eat salad out? Why not save the money, and put it toward a great soufflé you'd never bother to cook at home?
If you're going to order a sassy red to go with your entrée, spring for the bottle, which is a much better value than ordering wine by the glass. The $9 per glass the restaurant charges you for a run-of-the-mill vintage often pays for the entire bottle they buy wholesale. In fact, more expensive wines are often marked up one or two times, while less impressive vintages can be marked up three or four times. So, the $100 bottle could be a better value than the $36 bottle.
Throw a fryer into stock pot and cook up gallons of chicken soup that restaurants garnish with some noodles and carrots and charge you $6 bowl; add "Mom's" to the title, and restaurants will add another dollar to the cost, because it sounds warm and fuzzy. Bisques and creamed soups with lobster, clams or other pricey ingredients are better values. But remember, what you save in money you spend on calories.
Edamame, which has gone mainstream, is a starter that keeps your hands and mouth busy before the main course. The Japanese appetizer costs you $5 to $6 a portion, while the restaurant pays only about $2 per pound. And even though its name is exotic, its prep is simple, consisting only of steaming or blanching soybeans, then sprinkling on seasoning.
Pasta, pancakes and waffles are high markup foods for restaurants, which will spend less than 50 cents on the two cups of flour and a couple of eggs they fashion into linguini or flapjacks and charge you $8 to $15.
Any dish a waiter prepares with a flourish table-side is bound to cost you more, because now you're paying for the show, too. Omnipresent guacamole consists mostly of a mashed avocado, which costs restaurants 50 cents to $1. Add a handful of diced veggies, and a restaurant can charge $6.50 for the starter; but if the wait staff combines ingredients table-side with a traditional molcajete, the price doubles to $12. So unless your waiter recites Hamlet's soliloquy while he whips up the guac, skip the performance.
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