While we all love dining out, most of us don't realize the one tool restaurants use to get us to spend more is the menu. It looks innocent enough, but if you're not careful, you and your wallet could be headed for a subliminal shakedown. Here are a few things to look out for during your next meal.
First, check the prices. According to a recent study at Cornell University, people tend to spend more when the menus don't include dollar signs next to the cost. The reason is obvious: dollar signs remind people that they're spending money. Keep this in mind, no matter how hungry you are.
Next, keep an eye out for flowery descriptions. Restaurants know what language works, so if you see a meal description that reads like poetry, don't overlook the price.
Some restaurants also use subtle strategies to control what you order, like offering a dish in two different portion sizes. This strategy is called bracketing. The larger portion, with a higher price tag, is usually there to steer customers into ordering the smaller size, which appears to be a great deal in comparison. Often times, any dish with a three digit price is only there to make the other stuff look like a relative bargain.
Also, watch out for the hard sell on the daily special. Specials usually cost more than regular items and generally don't have a price on the menu. That's no accident. Always be sure to check the cost or you may be in for a big surprise when the bill arrives.
Lastly, don't always assume your refills are free. While a lot of places offer free refills, people tend to think it's the industry standard, but it's not. If you're ordering refills for table of four, this can potentially add up to $20 to the tab.
In the end, you can still eat well while spending less. Keep these sneaky strategies in mind during your next dinner and see the savings for yourself.
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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.