I haven’t been inside a restaurant since early 2020, save for dashing in to retrieve my takeout. So, I’m really looking forward to the restaurant experience; the low hum of conversation, eating food at the perfect temperature, a creative cocktail, and yeah, just being waited on.
One thing I’m not looking forward to? The cost. I asked experts to share some easy ways to shrink that check at the end of the meal.
Pay With Gift Cards or Vouchers
GiftCardGranny.com* has a full page dedicated to discounted gift cards for restaurants. Just buy the gift card at a discount—some as much as 10% off—and use it to pay for your meal. Most of the gift cards are digital and can be easily purchased online or via their app. You can also buy discounted restaurant vouchers on Restaurant.com, where you can find deals like $20 worth of food at a local restaurant for $10.
Many restaurants offer free loyalty programs with a number of benefits. Toronto-based author and chef Jordan Wagman likes the Outback Steakhouse rewards program, which gives you 50% off your first meal in the first six months of signing up. He also highlighted PF Chang’s program, which offers 10 reward points for every dollar spent—2,000 points gets you a free entrée—as well as the Panera Bread program, which gives you a free pastry.
Download Restaurant Apps
Many restaurants have their own app and using it can help save you money with exclusive discounts and the ability to earn points toward free food and drinks, says Ian Sells, the CEO and co-founder of savings site RebateKey. “Some, like Sonic and Chili’s, even give their app users birthday freebies,” he says.
Use Savings Apps
Wagman recommends MealPal for people who frequently dine out, which can deliver “significant savings.” A MealPal subscription (available at participating restaurants in over a dozen cities), offers you 20 lunches at $5.99 a pop, or 12 lunches at $6.39 each. And Sells suggests that frequent diners also check out the app Hooch, which lets you earn rewards that can be redeemed for future food and drink purchases, as well as gift cards, hotel rooms and entertainment. He also likes OpenTable, which is more than just a reservation service. “You can book a reservation and collect OpenTable points,” he says, noting that the points are not accrued if you don’t show up. “They can be redeemed for future meals at partner restaurants, hotel stays through Kayak, Amazon gift cards and magazine subscriptions.”
2-for-1 or Kids Eat Free
Chef Jamie Hunt, a private chef and caterer based in Piscataway, N.J., says restaurants that have “twofer” specials, like Applebee’s and TGI Fridays, are a great way to save money. “These specials normally offer one appetizer that two people can share, plus two entrees,” she says. Another favorite: spots where kids eat for free, such as IHOP.
Sells likes Groupon, which allows you to search for discounts on food and drink. “One of the best features is the ability to find deals that are local to you, which you can filter by price, distance, location, etc. You can even opt for Groupon to notify you if there are potential savings nearby,” he says.
*The author of this article is a freelance paid partner of Gigapoints and GiftCardGranny.
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Trae Bodge is a lifestyle journalist and shopping expert with a passion for helping people save money.