We adhere to strict standards of editorial integrity to help you make decisions with confidence. Please be aware that some of the products and services linked in this article are from our sponsors.
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 10 restaurant deals that may not be as savory or as savvy as they seem.
1. '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.
Save this email for the next outing with your softball team, so you can actually benefit from the savings.
2. Coupons with location obfuscation
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.
3. Vouchers that have 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. When a deal looks good and time is running out, you’re more likely to pounce.
So, a voucher may be valid only for a couple of weeks. That might work if you were already planning to go out to eat on a certain day — but don’t jump at a deal that will force you to rearrange your life.
4. The 'Restaurant Week' ruse
"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.
You could get better value — and a full meal — by ordering off the regular menu.
5. The booze blues
If you take advantage of a meal deal but you purchase a drink, you can kiss any potential savings goodbye. Restaurant profit margins on wine, beer and spirits 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%).
You and your date may want to save money by toasting each other at home before your next restaurant meal. Provided that you're not driving, of course.
6. 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.
But restaurants know 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.
Avoid this trap! Next holiday, cook dinner at home. If you want to take Mom or your significant other out to a restaurant, wait until the weekend after the holiday.
7. 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."
8. 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.
9. The old upsell
Upselling is one of the oldest tricks in the restaurant book. Servers have a double incentive to persuade you to buy higher-priced items: They make more money for the establishment, and they stand to earn larger tips.
Selling 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.
10. 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, then you might just want to pretend that you used it. You'll be out of luck because most restaurants don’t have a paper trail for gift card or gift certificate purchases.
Follow us on Twitter: @moneywisecom