Photo: StockFood / James Carriere
Eating out can be a minefield of pricey temptations. You have to know where to step. We spoke with industry experts who dished with us on the biggest restaurant markups along with the best deals.
Order the thing you can’t make at home. Because when you break it down, that dry-aged steak is actually a great choice taste-wise – and even price-wise (assuming you like a cut of meat for a meal).
"It seems like it’s expensive, [but] it’s probably a decent value," restaurant editor at Food & Wine, Kate Krader told us, pointing out, “You don’t have an aging room or salt slab [at home]. It will be cut of beef unlike you’ll get anywhere else.” Because it’s already a fairly costly dish to make, restaurants “can take a loss on that” or offer it not too far above cost.
There are also deals on seafood that’s fresh and local. For example, order lobster in the summer, or a delicacy like raw oysters, restaurant industry consultant Clark Wolf explained. The restaurant is able to purchase the ingredients at a lower peak-of-season price; “[it’s a] good markup for the restaurant and a good price for you.”
Don’t get soaked by the beverage menu. If you decide to wash that steak dinner down with a bold glass of Burgundy, prepare to take a bath. “You’re almost always going to be ripped off drinking something,” Krader said.
She noted that while bottles of wine are usually marked up 100 percent, a glass of wine can be as much as five times over what the restaurant paid.
Even if you decide you don’t need more than a glass or two, ordering the half bottle is a better bet than a glass alone, Krader noted. Just decide with your fellow diners to go for the bottle and split the cost that way.
"Specials" can be anything but… Although these off-the-menu recitations from your waiter might sound mouth-watering, there’s a reason for the one-time only deal: They’re probably leftovers, Sarah Zorn, editorial director of the food blog Restaurant Girl told us. “Specials are very often … kind of a way to clean house in the kitchen,” she said. “And they tend to be more expensive.”
Avoid fanfare. Anything made “tableside” is a no-no (except, maybe, guacamole.) For that matter, stay away from dishes with a “super fussy presentation,” Zorn advises. Also avoid anything set aflame, or with added fancy touches like caviar and gold leaf. “They’re angling for the big spenders. Gold leaf doesn’t taste like anything.” Zorn said.
Watch for good water. Ditch the bottled Pellegrino and keep a lookout for places where filtered water is offered. “If it says on the menu that the tap water served is purified and it’s complimentary, that’s a bargain,” Wolf said.
Don’t order a la carte: “Some restaurants will offer three-course prix-fixe deals as either a restaurant week promotion, a pretheater offering, or a weekly special,” noted Chef magazine contributor Jessica Harlan. Those options can often be cheaper than ordering off the menu. “But be sure to do the math to make sure!”
Try an expensive restaurant, but at lunchtime: “Often the prices are lower.”
Eat standing up. Another way to sample innovative culinary creations that won’t break the bank – skip the restaurants all together, and seek out your local food truck or market hall. It’s “real people making real food out of real ingredients,” Wolf said.
Happy eating (and bargain hunting!).