10 ways to get the best deal in a restaurant

Annie Shaw / 01 July 2014

Saga Magazine's money expert Annie Shaw on how to avoid the rip-offs and pitfalls of eating out.



1. Read reviews before you visit

Don’t simply look at the recommendations that say the restaurant is good or has charming decor or attentive staff, check out what dishes other diners rate as well.

2. Be wary about extras

Cover charges can be a bona fide part of the bill and normally include bread or pre-starter nibbles, such as olives in an Italian restaurant, or pappadoms and chutneys in an Indian restaurant.

However, in restaurants where there is no cover charge, or nibbles are not included in the cover charge, be wary if the waiter asks you if you want bread or other bits and pieces while you are looking at the menu, as they will bump up your bill.

The same goes for pre-meal drinks. If you’ve done your research and know what you are eating before you set out, you can order your wine when you sit down. 

Like appetisers, cocktails and pre-meal drinks will certainly make an additional dent in your wallet.

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3. Avoid the house wine if you want your money’s worth

As the house wine is a popular choice, and usually the cheapest drink on the wine list, it will generally have the highest mark-up, making the most profit for the restaurant. 

While you will – of course – hand over more cash for a more expensive bottle, you will probably get better value for money with a better quality tipple.

You should probably avoid the second-cheapest wine, too: it also has a disproportionate mark up as it’s the one inexperienced wine drinkers order so their date doesn’t think they are tight-fisted.

4. Use vouchers

Look out for vouchers for popular restaurant chains on the relevant websites and in the press, or sign up to a voucher code email service. No one pays full price for a pizza these days.

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5. Study the menu carefully

Don’t get distracted when studying the menu. Just as supermarkets place certain items in particular places around the store to catch our eye, restaurateurs place the dishes with the highest mark-up in particular locations within the menu in the hope you will pick them. 

The inside right page of a four-page menu just above the centre is, apparently, the prime spot. 

That’s fine if you genuinely want that dish, but don’t be bamboozled into choosing something because you feel under pressure, or because everyone else has already ordered and the waiter is tapping his pencil impatiently.

6. Avoid booking on popular dates

Unless you are romancing someone on Valentine’s Day, or treating your parent on Mothering Sunday, avoid the dates when everyone else is eating out. 

When restaurants are full, chefs and waiting staff become harassed so you may not get the individual attention that makes eating out such a treat. 

You will often find that offers, such as voucher discounts, are suspended on popular dates and Saturday nights too.

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7. Be wary of asking the waiter’s opinion

While it can be a good idea to ask the waiter what he or she would recommend in a restaurant you know and trust, do be aware that in an unknown restaurant 'today’s special' may be less of the chef’s signature dish and more of a way to get rid of the leftovers from over-ordering the day before.

8. Check what’s included with your main course

Your main course may already have vegetables with it, or you may not want extra rice or potatoes if you have already had a substantial starter. Side dishes can make a meal more enjoyable, but don’t be persuaded to over-order.

9. Water, water everywhere

Many people prefer a particular bottled water with their meal, particularly if they like a bit of fizz in it, but remember that, if you just want something to quench your thirst, tap water does the job just as well and is free.

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10. A tip about gratuities

Many restaurants add an 'optional' service charge to the bill. Since tips may make up part of the restaurant staff’s remuneration, it is fair in this case that you pay something for service.

Don’t, however, feel pressured into paying the suggested amount if you think it is excessive, or indeed paying it at all if the service has been poor. 

Do watch out as well for the sneaky trick of leaving the option available for you to add service on the card payment machine when a charge has already been included with your bill. 

If in doubt, decline to add service on the card payment and ask staff if service is included. Then, if appropriate, give a tip in cash. 

That way at least there is more chance of your own table waiter, who actually delivered the good service, receiving the money.

Many restaurants do, however, require front-of-house staff to put tips into a pool and share them with kitchen personnel.

*Read Annie Shaw's money articles every month in Saga Magazine.