Restaurants are in the business of making money first and feeding you second. This means that their best "bargains" are really gimmicks designed to get you to spend more, not less.
Have a grain of salt handy for these 18 restaurant deals that may not be as savory or as savvy as they seem.
1. 'Restaurant Week'
"Restaurant Weeks" are popular events, when high-end eateries offer special "deals" on three- or four-course meals. While this may seem like a great time to try out that chichi seafood restaurant you usually can’t afford, the offer is rarely as great as it seems.
These fixed-price meals might cost $35 per person or more, which is hardly a steal. The restaurant will frame it as a significant discount, making statements like, “Get a $55 meal for only $35!” But this is hardly accurate.
The portions are often smaller than the regular-priced plates, and the menus are severely limited so you can’t substitute higher-value items at the lower price.
2. High-priced holidays
Restaurants are popular destinations on many holidays — and the industry knows it. To capitalize on the extra demand for tables, dining establishments often roll out special holiday menus that can be very expensive.
Restaurant managers assume that diners won’t make a fuss about the prices because of the special occasion. Nobody wants to seem cheap on Valentine's Day or Mother’s Day.
The holiday upcharge cycle starts hours before you enter the restaurant. Vendors charge restaurants more to deliver their supplies on holidays, and those markups get passed on to you.
3. Coupons that are worthless where you live
Reading the fine print on a restaurant coupon can save you time and aggravation, especially if you find that it says a deal is "available at participating locations."
Promotional offers may be valid only at select branches within a restaurant chain, so don’t assume that the spot down the street will accept your coupon.
Franchised restaurants are the worst culprits, because their owners may not be obligated to participate. Always call ahead and check if the restaurant location you’re visiting is running the deal.
4. Vouchers with time issues
Discounted restaurant vouchers sold by Groupon and similar sites might be valid only on certain days and at certain times — like not on weekends, or not during the restaurant's peak hours.
So, unless you want to be stuck telling your hungry kids that they'll have to wait until Saturday afternoon for your 2-for-1 pizzas, you'd better look very closely at the restrictions before you put a voucher in your online shopping cart.
Businesses also know that manufactured scarcity triggers impulse buying. So, a voucher may be valid only for a couple of weeks. When a deal looks good and time is running out, you’re more likely to pounce.
5. The specials scheme
There’s solid psychology behind the way servers rattle off the nightly specials without mentioning prices. Most people are too embarrassed to ask for prices in front of their dinner companions because they’re afraid of looking cheap.
Shy folks may hope a special dish costs less than other items on the menu, but this is rarely the case. In fact, you should always assume that the specials are more expensive.
And here’s some serious food for thought: Specials are often made using ingredients that need to be sold before they spoil. As Anthony Bourdain put it in his book Kitchen Confidential: "'Shepherd's pie'? 'Chili special'? Sounds like leftovers to me."
6. Menu 'anchoring'
Anchoring is pricing psychology at its best. Restaurants will often anchor their menus with an expensive item placed at the very top so everything else will look like a bargain by comparison.
"People think 'I wonder if anyone ever orders that?', without realizing that its true purpose is to make the next most expensive item seem cheaper," University of Oxford experimental psychologist Charles Spence told The Guardian.
This is especially common on the drinks menu, where the most expensive wine is listed first. It's basically just a decoy to make you more comfortable with buying the other overpriced wines on the list.
7. The not-so-happy hour
If you take advantage of a meal deal but you purchase a cocktail, beer or glass of wine, you can kiss any potential savings goodbye. Restaurant profit margins on alcoholic beverages can be massive.
"A restaurant that purchases a bottle (of wine) for $5 wholesale can mark it up a dizzying 600% to $30 without most diners noticing," writes restaurant wine steward Mark Oldman in his book How to Drink Like a Billionaire.
The typical markup on wine by the glass is around 300%, reports Crain's Chicago Business. Draft beer is far worse (600%), followed by cocktails (500%) and bottled beer (350%).
8. Watch out with soft drinks, too
Fountain drinks can be an even bigger rip-off than the harder stuff.
"When I worked in food service, the main things we made money on were soft drinks, and french fries," says one user on question-and-answer website Quora. "The mark up on these items is high, with soft drinks costing pennies per cup, while the charge is much higher."
So, that leaves water as your best beverage option. Just don't feel pressured by your server to pay for bottled water. A pitcher of free water from the tap should be just fine!
9. 'Freebies' that aren't free
Restaurant email headlines are designed to grab your attention and get you to click through, so read the details before you get too excited.
An email with the subject line "Free entree inside" usually comes with a catch. Chances are you’ll have to pay for more entrees before you get your freebie.
These kinds of offers are designed to make you spend more than you ordinarily would. You'll save money only if you can pull together your entire family or a larger group of people.
10. The old upsell
Upselling higher-priced items from the bar is the fastest way to drive up a bill, and it’s easy to achieve. Alcohol lowers inhibitions, and if a server manages to sell a customer one pricey drink, odds are good that the person will buy another.
Sometimes upselling works without much of a sales pitch. Rather than suggesting a type of rum for a cocktail, the bartender or server may just ask customers which brand they want.
Most people will say one of the more expensive names, the only ones they've heard of. Here's a better plan the next time you’re asked this question: Just say you want the house rum.
11. The no-dollar menu
If your server hands you a menu with no dollar signs in front of the price amounts, it's probably not an attempt by restaurant to seem hip and cool. And it doesn't mean the prices are special deals either.
Instead, it's a common and scientifically based restaurant trick to get you to spend more money.
Researchers at Cornell University found that diners given menus without dollar signs "spent significantly more" than those whose menus had prices either showing dollar signs or written out in words ("eight dollars").
12. When buffets are no bargain
You might wonder: Don't those all-you-can-eat places give you great value? You pay one price, load up your plate (maybe two or three times!) and get a lot for your money, right?
Buffet restaurants hope not. According to Psychology Today, they use a variety of tricks to keep the math in their favor.
These include: putting out only smaller-size dinner plates; offering huge drink cups, so you'll fill up on water or cheap soft drinks; and not replacing your silverware when you get up to refill your plate. If you want to keep eating, you'll have to use the same dirty fork.
13. Menus that play with pennies
Another menu trick restaurants use is to shave pennies off their prices so you'll subconsciously think you're getting a better deal. Doesn't a $9.99 lunch special sound better than $10?
Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer and consultant, told The New York Times that prices ending in 95 cents work even better than those ending in 99 because they're "friendlier."
You're not likely to see dollars-and-cents prices on menus at steakhouses and other higher-end places. They wouldn't want to do anything that might seem to cheapen your experience.
14. The gift card gambit
Unlike money, gift cards and gift certificates don’t last forever, so always get out your magnifying glass and look at the small print.
The good news is that federal rules state that gift cards and certificates can't expire for five years from the purchase date. The expiration date must be clearly visible.
If there’s no date, then there’s no telling if the card or certificate will be accepted. And sadly, if you lose a gift card, you'll be out of luck because most restaurants don’t have a paper trail for gift card or gift certificate purchases.
15. Small pizzas, big mistake
In the case of pizzas, it's go big or go home — with something terrible. A chef tells Oola.com lower-priced small pizzas are the worst option you can buy.
"You can fit more pieces of the dough into a tray, so a tray of small will be pulled out and sitting there all day," the chef explains. "Dough that has been sitting out for a long time almost always equals bad tasting/shaped pizza."
The chef says large pizzas are better quality and are more cost-effective, because you'll probably wind up with great leftovers.
16. Desserts straight from the supermarket
Has a restaurant's website or printed ad ever lured you with a mouthwatering photo of desserts? They may be nothing more than cut-rate confections from the nearest grocery or big-box store.
That's often the case with restaurant desserts, chefs said recently on Reddit.
"Most of our desserts are purchased from the Walmart directly across the street then marked up 500%," said one. "For the price of a couple of pieces of cheesecake, you could just go across the street to Walmart after your meal and buy a whole one."
17. When you get 'rolled' by a sushi chef
At sushi restaurants, be skeptical of the signature, fancy items. Another of the chefs on Reddit says he once worked at a place that heavily advertised its $7.25 "Volcano roll."
The chef says it was really just the $3.75 California roll plated differently: "The Volcano roll was a Cali roll cut into the shape of a triangle and topped with spicy mayo that has been heated up with about 10 cents worth of fish, literally just a few bits."
Pity the poor customer who once asked for the Volcano roll with no spicy mayo. "Basically this guy paid $7.25 for a roll that would have cost him $3.75," the chef says.
18. A 'gift' course that isn't
Beware if a very friendly server tries to give you food you didn't order. Don't assume that it's a gift from the kitchen.
A tourist from Birmingham, England, told The Independent he was having lunch in Venice, Italy, when a grinning water put a plate of fresh oysters down on the table and seemed to brush off questions about the cost.
The customer says he also was served the most expensive entree on the menu, though he had ordered something more modest. The final bill for the man and his parents was 526 euros, or more than $600. The tourist sent a complaint letter to the Venice mayor.
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