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.