Restaurants have a whole host of sneaky tricks hidden under their chefs’ hats that are designed to make us spend more. Here’s how to avoid getting burnt and eat out for less.
If you know the common tricks of the restaurant trade, you can make the most of your meal out and lessen the risk of getting ripped off.
Of course, we’re not for one moment suggesting that all restaurants are out to fleece their customers – though unfortunately, many are guilty of using the tricks featured below.
But if you know what tricks to look out for, you can take steps to avoid them. In particular, be wise to the following 12 tricks:
1. The psychology of menus
Restaurants deliberately craft their menus to draw you to their most profitable meals – and mark those dishes as ‘special’ or ‘favourites’ to highlight some pricey options for you to stumble upon.
One classic restaurant trick is to have an ‘anchor’ dish. This is a really expensive menu item that makes the dishes surrounding it seem like a bargain in comparison. Of course, the dishes surrounding the ‘anchor’ are the ones that make the restaurant the most money – the ‘anchor’ is just to draw you in!
The flowery language on menus isn’t an accident either – restaurants amp up the descriptiveness on pricier dishes to entice you into thinking you’re getting more value for your money (would you rather have Scottish Atlantic salmon and crayfish fish cakes with lemon zest mayonnaise, or just plain old fish cakes?)
2. Super-friendly upselling by waiters
Ever had a super-friendly waiter or waitress? Good customer service is great – and having a waiter who knows their stuff is handy – but be wary of getting drawn into the slick sales pitch you can’t refuse.
Before you know it, you’ve got an expensive bottle of wine that apparently compliments your chef’s special meal (even though it cost as much as the food itself). Did you want a side order with that?
Watch out for restaurants that have already added a service charge. If you miss it, you could end up paying your tip on top
3. Swapping for cheaper ingredients
This is one sly trick that you may not notice unless you’re a regular customer, or because you notice that the dish doesn’t truly reflect what it says on the menu.
It’s one of those things that restaurants will do to make a bigger profit by substituting pricier ingredients for cheaper ones – by cutting down on the meat content for example.
It might be worth pointing out that your favourite risotto doesn’t seem to contain as much chicken anymore, or not the fancy mushrooms that you were expecting. Hopefully they’ll take note and do their best not to lose a regular.
4. Cheeky cover charges
A sneaky trick that restaurants try is offering bread and olives – it’s quite likely that they may charge you for them under a ‘cover charge’. Restaurants should state what the ‘cover charge’ is on the menu, so check before heading in.
Other restaurants will offer you genuinely free peanuts and olives… because they make you thirsty. More drinks please?
5. A chef’s special that isn’t that special
Some chef specials are actually the cheapest, quickest and easiest meals for the restaurant to prepare. They may even include leftover ingredients or food that is nearing its best before date that the restaurant wants to get rid of. You can get some good deals out there – so don’t automatically dismiss the chef’s special – but the chef’s special can often cost the same as a regular meal, and is anything but ‘special.’
6. Sneaky service charges
Watch out for restaurants that have already added on a 12.5% service charge at the bottom of the bill. If you miss it, you could end up paying your tip on top (about 10%) and then they’ll get a nice big juicy sum.
The smiley face on the bottom of the bill is another psychological trick (one study showed that people tip 18% more when they get one on the bill). But only tip more if you believe they showed better service.
7. Rip-off wine
We’re all too familiar with the high mark-up on the price of wine in restaurants – drinks are where they make the most profit. Apparently the wine with the highest mark-up is usually the second cheapest on the menu, as it’s usually the most popular. (This is because most customers want a good value wine, but don’t want to look like a cheapskate by ordering the cheapest bottle on the menu!)
Don’t fall for it – just opt for the cheapest house wine, or get better value for your money with the third cheapest option!
Also it’s always worth considering ordering a bottle between a group of you if you’re all drinking wine, otherwise you’ll just end up paying more individually for glasses.
8. Splashing out on mineral water
Feel embarrassed to ask for tap water when you’re out? Don’t be. That’s how they want you to feel, hoping that you’ll fork out for bottled mineral water instead.
You should be able to get tap water for free (although some restaurant aren’t obliged to).Those restaurants that serve alcohol are legally required to give you free tap water on request – but don’t bet on every restaurant doing this!
9. Sneaky extras added to your bill
Once you’ve finally got their attention for the bill (they often deliberately keep you waiting to see if you change your mind and order that extra coffee for the road) make sure you check it carefully!
It’s not all that uncommon for them to sneak on an extra glass of wine or dessert, especially if you’re in a big group. So watch out and get it taken off!
10. Set menu schemes
If you’re in a big group or eating out for a party, many restaurants may offer a set menu. But do they actually save you money?
Always do your research online first and check their menu before you book to get an idea of how much they would normally charge for their individual dishes.
11. Over ordering
Order tapas and side orders and your eyes can all too easily be bigger than your belly. Avoid wasting money and food by starting with just a few dishes and then adding more if you need to. If you do have leftovers don’t be embarrassed to ask for a doggy bag – you’re paying, so why not take it with you?
Special buffets sound appealing – but although you can get a great discount and a variety of food to choose from, buffet restaurants tend to pull out all the stops to minimise your eating.
You might notice that buffet lines start with low cost carbs and salads before you get to the expensive meat. Watch out for small plates that hold less food and don’t forget those uncomfortable chairs that put you off sitting for long periods of time.
Our top tips to remember
- Look out for the best voucher deals before you eat out – there are plenty of 2 for 1 offers and kids eat FREE out there
- Ask for a discount when dining out in large groups
- Check out BYOB restaurants to save money (alcohol and wine is usually double the price when you buy it directly from the restaurant)
- Dine out midweek – there are usually more deals about as restuarants want to entice customers to eat there when trade is slower
- Have an early dinner or lunch bite – these can often be a cheaper dining experience than peak time
Have you ever been a victim of a sneaky restaurant trick? Or perhaps you have a tip on saving money when eating out? If so let us know in the comments below!