12 cost-cutting hacks for dining out

Whatever you do, don't order a side

Food hacks
(Image credit: (iStock))

A glass of wine here, an appetizer there...and before you know it, that fun night out can quickly turn into a not-so-fun night of stressing about the damage you've just done to your checking account.

But it doesn't have to be this way. You can treat yourself at a bar or restaurant without breaking the bank.

In fact, here's proof — straight from six industry experts who know a thing or two about cutting costs when it comes to drinking and dining out.

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Ways to save when ordering drinks

1. Buy a bottle of wine.

If you knew what the average wine mark-up was in most restaurants, you might swear off ordering vino with dinner. It's not uncommon for an establishment (especially a high-end one) to charge $8 to $15 for a glass of wine — which is what the place likely paid for the entire bottle!

There are about four six-ounce glasses in a bottle, so you're paying about four times the actual price when you get a glass. One solution? "If you're out with at least one other person, consider buying a bottle — the cost per glass is much lower," says Madeline Puckette, a Seattle-based sommelier who runs the blog Wine Folly.

Bonus tip: Remember that if you don't finish the bottle, you're allowed to take it home.

2. Look for special wine lists.

You can snag a bargain if you ask the sommelier to point out the "pocket list" or "end of bin list." According to Regina Arendt, general manager at Smith & Wollensky in Chicago, "It means that the restaurant has only one or two bottles left, so they sell it at a discount to move the product."

3. Pick an unconventional pour.

When picking out a bottle of wine, don't be afraid to wander off the beaten path, advises Puckette. "Well-known wine varieties, like cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, tend to cost more than lesser-known varieties," she explains. "[And you can often] get the same bang for your buck with a cheaper option, like shiraz."

4. BYOB.

If the restaurant allows it, bring your own bottle and pay the corkage fee, suggests Sebastien Tribout, general manager of Meat Market in Miami. Depending on how upscale the place is, the corkage fee can be as low as $10.

5. Pick a high-octane cocktail.

You'll get the most for your buck if you order a drink made with a few types of alcohol, says Los Angeles–based bartender David Diaz.

"Most people are familiar with the Long Island Iced Tea, but there are other types of teas that are just as tasty," Diaz says. "The Boston Iced Tea, the Long Beach Iced Tea and the California Iced Tea all contain vodka, gin, tequila, and rum, but in these drinks, you'll get three to four ounces of alcohol, rather than the one to 1.5 in a drink like a rum and coke."

Other cost-efficient cocktails: martinis, hurricanes, and mai tais. By the way, avoid the gigantic mixed drinks — those usually don't contain more alcohol, just more ice.

6. Skip the pricey liquor.

For those who prefer a simple mixed drink, like a vodka and cranberry, don't bother upgrading to an expensive brand of liquor. "Just get the house vodka," Waiter Rant author Steve Dublanica, who explains that the juice overpowers the vodka in a basic drink, so you won't taste the difference.

7. Opt for a domestic pint.

If a bottle of beer is $5 and a pint is also $5, you'll get more for your money (16 ounces versus 12) by picking the pint. And domestic beers are usually cheaper than imported ones, so stick with what's brewed close to home.

Ways to save when ordering food

8. Be strategic.

A lot of restaurants offer deals on slow nights of the week or at slow times of the day, so "take advantage of a promotion that drives business in [during those times]," Tribout says. You can also sign up for daily deal coupons via websites like Groupon, Amazon Local, and Living Social — all these can help you find out about deals in your neighborhood.

9. Just order an appetizer.

When many people eat out, they immediately turn to the "entrées" page — but that's not always necessary. "Main courses tend to be just slightly larger than the apps in most restaurants, but double the price," says Hoboken, New Jersey–based Jennifer Iserloh, a chef, nutritionist and author of 50 Shades of Kale. So ask your server to highlight the more sizable appetizers on offer, and forgo getting an entrée.

10. Skip the side dishes.

They're major rip-offs. How come? "Sides usually range in price from $5 to $7 — but only run the restaurant about 50 cents in food costs," Iserloh says. "Instead, look for meals that already have veggies built in."

11. Ask for a half order.

This may not work at fancy places, but, hey, it's worth a shot. "The portions in an entrée may be huge, so see if you can get a half order," Dublanica says. "A lot of places will do that with pasta. It won't be half the price, but you'll save some money."

Or ask if you can split an entrée with your dining partner. "My wife and I went to a very nice steakhouse recently, and one menu item was a 15-ounce ribeye steak," Dublanica says. "I think 8 ounces of beef for anyone is enough — anything else is overboard. So we split it." Even if you throw the server a few extra bucks for ordering only one dish, you'll still come out ahead, financially speaking.

12. Watch for the "double grat."

No matter what you order, beware of this sneaky server trick whenever you're dining with a group of six or more. Some waiters and waitresses may try to "double grat" you by dropping the check without telling you that the gratuity has already been added. Translation: They're hoping that you pay gratuity on top of that inflated total.

In fact, some servers will go so far as scribbling "Thanks!" or their name or a smiley face precisely over the part of the check that points out the added gratuity. "It's not the right thing to do, but it happens every night at some restaurants," Dublanica says. "Customers have to be careful."

This story was originally published on LearnVest. LearnVest is a program for your money. Read their stories and use their tools at LearnVest.com.

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