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Restaurants

Restaurant buying guide

Last updated: July 2012

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Every day, Americans spend about $1.7 billion at the nation's 970,000 restaurants--close to the amount they spend each year on indigestion remedies. Clearly, diners deserve a sure thing: a clean place that provides tasty food and good value. To find the best bets, we surveyed 47,565 readers who ate a total of 110,517 meals at 102 table-service chain restaurants--a step (sometimes a leap) up from fast-food joints.

On one end are family-oriented, pot-roast-and-hash-brown restaurants with simple décor, sturdy tableware, and a bill of about $10 per person for breakfast or lunch. On the other, white-tablecloth, where guests can sample carpaccio and ahi tuna on fine china, sip wine in clubby surroundings, and pay more than $40 per person for dinner and drinks.

What we found

Respondents told us about 110,517 visits to full-service restaurant chains between April 2010 and April 2011. For most chains, price is the median diners paid for their own dinner and drinks minus the tip; but for family chains, price reflects the median for breakfast or lunch, including beverages and excluding the tip. Scores for taste, value, service, mood, noise, menu, and cleanliness are relative. Our reader score reflects diners' overall satisfaction.

On average, readers were very satisfied with about half of the chains. But there's room for improvement. Only one café received a top mark for value, and just 19 chains got especially high marks for taste. On one-fourth of all visits, readers found their restaurant too noisy. During one in 10 visits, the wait staff was slow, inattentive, pushy, messy, or mistake prone.

Although value, taste, and service still mattered most to respondents, they're not the only attributes that help restaurants stand apart. Many cultivate a particular mood. At the Hard Rock Cafe, live music blares, and guitars, jumpsuits, and other memorabilia fill almost every inch of space. For a taste of the old West, there's Saltgrass Steak House, where food is served in informal surroundings that might conjure thoughts of a cattle drive. Mimi's Cafe? It's reminiscent of a quaint French bistro. Then there's Quaker Steak & Lube, which grew from its origin in an abandoned gas station and is a monument to muscle cars, motorcycles, and cheap gas. Cars hang from the ceiling.

Chains earning raves for mood weren't the gimmicky ones but mostly staid, pricey spots such as McCormick & Schmick's, Ruth's Chris, and Chart House (usually on a waterfront) and less-expensive, laid-back places including Abuelo's Mexican Food Embassy and Biaggi's Ristorante Italiano.

Trends that matter

More Americans are ordering chain-restaurant food to go. Applebee's, BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse, The Cheesecake Factory, and Max & Erma's, among many others, let you order online and pick up curbside. Imitating fast feeders, Shoney's has added drive-through windows. Even Morton's has a "Prime To Go" menu.

More restaurants let you call ahead for quick seating. At Hard Rock Cafe, Texas Roadhouse, The Old Spaghetti Factory, and others, you'll get your name on the waiting list and save some time in line once you arrive.

Consumers are being given more info about ingredients, including allergens such as gluten and peanuts, the source of foods, whether sustainable farming and fishing practices have been followed, and how animals have been treated. Red Lobster, for instance, says it won't serve endangered or over-fished species. Outback Steakhouse requires beef suppliers to have a written and monitored humane-handling policy that meets or exceeds Department of Agriculture requirements.

Some chains are going green. Ted's Montana Grill (co-founded by Ted Turner) promises to be "99 percent plastic free." It has paper straws, menus on recycled stock, and to-go drinks in cornstarch cups.

There may be more healthful choices for vegetarians and diners looking to restrict sodium, calories, and fat or simply to eat less. Even The Cheesecake Factory, known for gargantuan portions, acknowledges the changing landscape with its new Small Plates and SkinnyLicious entrées with fewer than 590 calories.

Readers singled out First Watch and Legal Seafoods as most likely to offer healthful dishes. "Consumers' focus on health when dining out continues to increase, and we believe it is a long-term trend vs. a fad," says First Watch chief marketing officer Chris Tomasso. Least likely to sell healthful fare are Buffalo Wild Wings, Quaker Steak & Lube, Waffle House, Hooters, and Johnny Rockets, according to survey respondents.

The five chains readers cited in our 2008 survey for serving "too much food" again topped that list: Maggiano's Little Italy, The Cheesecake Factory, Black Bear Diner, Buca di Beppo, and Claim Jumper. But the percentage of readers who said they were overfed at each of those restaurants has dropped. For example, in 2008, 51 percent of respondents said Maggiano's served them too much to eat, compared with 40 percent this time.

How to save

Spirited competition among the chains means that you can use a toolbox of tactics to find bargains. Here's how:

Sniff out specials. Visit the chains' websites to find standing and rotating offers. Outback, for example, recently featured a three-course steak dinner for $11.99; IHOP, seven meals for $7; Denny's, all the pancakes you could eat for $4; Red Robin, a double-patty burger with endless fries for $6.99. Even Morton's has deals: for instance, steak, seafood, and dessert for $59.99 a person--a bargain, by the chain's standards. If you're dining with children, look for specials like the one at TooJay's Deli that let a kid eat free in April and May after 4 p.m. with the purchase of an adult meal.

Eat when others don't. That's a surefire way to save. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Red Lobster customers get a discount on some shrimp entrées. At Applebee's, the reward for late-night dining is half-price appetizers.

Eat at the bar. At Bravo Cucina Italiana, guests can sit at the bar and order off the Bar Bites menu for as little as $3.95. Until 7 p.m., Fleming's offers five cocktails, glasses of wine, and appetizers at the bar, each for $6.

Show your age. On Tuesdays at Fatz Eatz & Drinkz, guests 50 and older can order from a special menu ($6-to-$8 entrées) between 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. For people 55 and older, Perkins has inexpensive lunches and dinners with two sides every day. Saltgrass Steak House and Chart House will take 10 percent off the bills of AARP members. And at The Cheesecake Factory, birthday celebrants get a free scoop of ice cream.

Join an e-club. Almost every chain offers freebies if you're willing to share your e-mail address. You'll usually get something simply for signing up for alerts (at Maggiano's it's $10 off your next visit; at Don Pablo's it's a dip sampler). At some chains, the more you spend the more you save. Red Robin will give Red Royalty Club members their 10th burger free after they've bought nine and $20 off their sixth visit if they eat at the chain five times during their first five weeks of membership. T.G.I. Friday's Give Me More Stripes program lets customers accrue points toward free food with each dollar spent and tosses in one "jump the line" pass to let them avoid waiting for a table.

Eat with others. Applebee's, Chili's, and O'Charley's have "two for" deals consisting of one shareable appetizer and two full-sized entrées for $20. P.F. Chang's has a four-course Meal For Two for $40. Maggiano's and Buca di Beppo serve heaping portions on large platters, family style, and Buca di Beppo also has smaller platters designed for two or four people.

Clip coupons. "A decade ago, there was a stigma to using coupons," says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of industry consultant Technomic. "Today sites like Groupon and Living Social have helped couponing go mainstream. Consumers don't have to worry about getting funny looks anymore." Some chains, particularly casual ones, distribute coupons in the mail or via newspaper inserts.

Check in on Facebook. That's where many restaurants reveal their latest promotions. By "liking" the restaurant or just visiting the page, we found offers and clickable coupons for a free appetizer with a paid entrée (Chili's), free dessert when buying the Italian dinner for two (Romano's Macaroni Grill), and $10 off the purchase of two dinner entrées (Carrabba's).

Order to go. You can leave a smaller tip.

Eat smart

We sent two reporters to an Applebee's for lunch. One ordered impulsively, the other intelligently, yet both enjoyed a steak, salad, and side dishes. Our impulsive diner ordered a couple of days' worth of calories (almost 4,500) and sodium (about 5,700 milligrams) and four days' worth of fat (258 grams). And no, he didn't eat all that food. Our sensible diner's tally? Less than 1,000 calories and far less fat and sodium than our glutton would have consumed. Tips that apply to any meal: Share and take some home. Here, other ways our smart diner minimized guilt and gluttony. (Nutrition numbers are from Applebee's.)

Beware of bread. Some diners could easily scarf down these harmless-looking garlic breadsticks. But a side order has more than 1,100 calories and 78 grams of fat.

Use dressings sparingly. Our indulgent diner got a house salad (which included shredded cheese) and added a hefty serving of blue cheese dressing. Our sensible diner ordered a small, bare Caesar salad and dipped greens in the side-ordered dressing.

Downsize slightly. Instead of the 9-ounce sirloin (shown here, 310 calories), our sensible diner chose a 7-ounce one.

Save on sides. Our smart diner skipped this "loaded" baked potato stuffed with cheese and bacon bits (shown here, 400 calories and 23 grams of fat--more with butter and sour cream) and ate steamed herbed potatoes.

Choose smart sauces. The sauce and shrimp atop our indulgent diner's Shrimp ‘N Parmesan Sirloin (shown here) added about 360 calories and 30 grams of fat. Our smart diner's House Sirloin was topped with a light cabernet sauce, mushrooms, and onions.

Drink responsibly. We're not talking alcohol. The frozen strawberry lemonade our impulsive diner ordered has 260 calories in 20 ounces, compared with 0 calories for iced tea with lemon.

Compromise on dessert. With 1,550 calories and 74 grams of fat, a cookie sundae was enough for a tableful of people. Our sensible diner ordered a bare cookie and shared.

   

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