We all love going out to eat. Whether restaurant outings are an everyday event or only for special occasions, sitting down and being served (hopefully) delicious food and drinks is one of society's great pastimes. But if you've ever felt duped by a menu or ripped off when the check comes, that's because you probably have been.
Restaurants are businesses and their goal is, quite obviously, to make money. How much they make can vary greatly, depending on a number of different factors. As Amanda Cohen, the chef at New York City's Dirt Candy explained to Eater, "The price of ingredients barely enters into [the cost of a dish]. ... You're not paying $21 for your broccoli dogs, you're paying $21 to rent your table; I just trick you into thinking you're paying for the broccoli dogs because that's the accepted convention. 76% of that dish is actually paying for the A/C, my line cook's unemployment insurance, the gas and electricity. The toilet paper."
But some deals are better than others, and there are smarter choices you can make at a restaurant to get the best value and overall experience. Here are 12 things to remember the next time you go out to eat. They'll help you save money and maybe just have the best meal ever.
We'll start with a sad truth about one of our favorite appetizers: Guacamole is a huge ripoff.
While avocados are one of the pricier fruits, the amount some restaurants charge for their "best" guacamole recipe is insane. According to Forbes, restaurants pay about fifty cents to a dollar for a single avocado. You pay about the same price for one in the grocery store, but some restaurants think they can charge you up to $14 for a bowl of mashed avocados and cheap spices and vegetables, because their "authenticity" gives the dish "value" -- and because you love guacamole and are willing to pay through the nose for it. While you know you're always going to be paying more for restaurant food than grocery food, the markup on guacamole is specifically glaring. A few restaurants in New York City are particular fans of this con. Grubstreet reports that both Rosa Mexicano and Dos Caminos charge $14 for a single bowl.
Speaking of bad deals on appetizers: edamame.
Most Japanese restaurants pay about two dollars for a whole pound of edamame. To prepare your appetizer, they take some out, steam them and add some simple salt to the dish. In the end, you may end up getting charged up to eight dollars for some beans. A nice profit for the restaurant, a bad value for you.
In fact, appetizers are generally some of the worst values for your dollar.
For the most blatant examples of ridiculous price inflation on menus, simply compare the prices of appetizers and main dishes. Our brains are easily duped when scanning a menu. There is a stark fluctuation in prices between an appetizer and entree dish that include the exact same ingredients. Jody Pennette, the founder of CB5 Restaurant Group, revealed to Forbes that restaurants have been raising the prices of appetizers "disproportionately to the increase in food costs" over the past 15 years. Restaurants get away with this because customers "form their perceptions of value by looking at the price of entrees." That explains why you'll get a $7 order of edamame and not complain when you follow it up with a $14 tuna roll.
You're almost always losing money when you choose pasta over a meat-centric dish.
That's because it takes more labor and a wider variety of ingredients to make the dish with meat and accompaniments. Cooking up a basic pasta dish only takes a restaurant chef about twenty minutes, and they don't even use that many ingredients. The only time diners could be getting their money's worth is when they order an elaborate veggie-filled pasta dish. One chef told The San Francisco Chronicle that a properly made vegetarian pasta could be "surprisingly expensive" if the chef uses "seasonal and local farm fresh vegetables." And since diners expect pasta dishes to be on the lower-priced side, the restaurant feels it must keep the price of a pasta made with just vegetables at the same range as the other pasta dishes. Most of the time, chefs break even on those specific pastas.
But in general, Clark Wolf, a restaurant consultant in New York, told Forbes that diners most interested in value would be smart to choose "labor-intensive, time-consuming, complex dishes, that call for hard-to-find ingredients." Here's the rule: If the dish you're ordering seems like something you could easily whip up in your own kitchen for a lot cheaper than you're paying at a restaurant, you're most likely getting duped.
Before you think about that "special" entree, know this: Chefs are playing some serious mind games with those enticing dishes.
One of the first things you hear once you sit down at a restaurant could be one of the biggest scams. According to Sarah Zorn, the editorial director of the blog "Restaurant Girl," specials are just an expensive way for the chef to clean out his or her kitchen of leftovers. There's also a health issue to consider when you think about ordering the special: Dr. Oz reports that because the ingredients tend to be ones the chef needs to get rid of while still trying to make a profit, the dish will often include "aging meat and fish, old veggies and leftover sauces." The safest bet is to pick a signature dish that you know the restaurant always needs (hopefully) fresh ingredients for.
Brunch may be fun, but you might be getting cheated on those omelets and Benedicts.
We hope you have tons of fun going to brunch, because you're paying way too much for the meal itself. Almost everything on the brunch menu, from eggs to potatoes to sausage and bacon, is extremely inexpensive to purchase. Think about it: Eggs retail for ten cents a piece, yet order two eggs and toast at a restaurant and you're paying at least $4 dollars. Not cool. If getting a bang for your buck is your primary concern, your best bet is a dish that has an expensive meat or fish component, such as steak and eggs. Thankfully, the New York Times has just reported that many restaurants in the Big Apple are paying extra special attention to making elaborate brunch dishes. That could make some New Yorkers feel better about splurging on brunch.
And you're not off the hook if you order pancakes.
Forbes claims that the kitchen crew at restaurants gets "the last laugh" when people order the pancake dish at brunch. During brunch (which is usually busy), pancakes are one of the cheapest and easiest dishes to make: Mix up some eggs, flour and milk and throw them on a griddle for a few minutes until they cook. And you've probably spent more than $10 on a plate of pancakes a few times in your life. Make sure to eat every single piece of fresh fruit that comes on that plate -- they're probably the most expensive items.
No matter what meal you're eating, side dishes are bad deals. That's why vegetarians have it worst when it comes to fair prices.
Because vegetarians are often left with few meat-free options, they frequently turn to overpriced side dishes to fill them up. For example, restaurants will sometimes charge $5 or more for a baked potato or a side of fries, when the average cost of that dish is 65 cents. There's a reason restaurants price these sides and small items so high, and it's not just about making as much money as possible. The Wall Street Journal writes, "Straying outside a certain price range can be risky for a restaurant. A $3 soup on a menu where most appetizers are in the $8 to $12 range will either cause a run on the soup, or scare people away because they think something is wrong with it."
And it just gets worse for vegetarians: Some chefs have 'fessed up that their advertised "vegetarian" dishes aren't always meat-free.
While we would like to think this doesn't happen a lot, in a Food Network survey, 15 percent of chefs said the vegetarian dishes on the menu might not be completely vegetarian. One chef said he even saw a cook pour lamb's blood in a vegan person's pasta primavera.
Pescatarians aren't safe either: Some of the fish you're eating in a restaurant isn't the kind you think you're eating.
Think about all of the times you've browsed a menu at a swanky restaurant and seen "Chilean sea bass" under the entree section alongside an outrageous price tag and thought, "Wow, that's some fancy fish." And if you ordered it, it probably looked like this:
Well, "Chilean sea bass" is not a even technically a bass. It's this menacing looking cod called the Patagonian Toothfish. And it looks like this:
Restaurants changed the name of the fish because "Patagonian Toothfish" sounded so scary. And the Chilean sea bass isn't the only deceptively named fish: As populations of Atlantic and Pacific fish like halibut, sole and flounder have dwindled in recent decades, restaurants have taken more common fish and replaced their unappetizing names with made-up and exotic-sounding monikers. The slimehead fish, another cod fish, named for its "distinctive mucus canals," now appears on menus as "orange roughy."
Even more, in 2012, ocean conservation group Oceana released a nationwide report that tested the authenticity of fish samples from 674 restaurants in 21 states, including New York, California and Florida. It concluded that 33 percent of the 1,215 fish samples they collected were mislabeled. A couple of startling findings: Only seven out of the 120 red snapper samples were actually red snapper, and 84 percent of "white tuna" -- (which is really albacore or toro) samples were actually escolar, a totally different fish that is not even in the tuna family and is notorious for causing gastrointestinal problems in some people. Restaurants most likely use escolar in place of white tuna because it's cheaper.
If you're looking for value on fish, don't even think about getting salmon.
Salmon shouldn't be billed as a fancy dish. In fact, it's much cheaper than what you're paying for it, and sometimes, restaurants are telling lies when the menu claims the salmon is "wild-caught." The University of Washington Tacoma ran a study in 2011 and found that 38 percent of salmon samples from restaurants in the Tacoma area were promoting Atlantic farm-raised salmon as wild-caught Pacific salmon. Most of the salmon lies occurred at inexpensive sushi and teriyaki places, and while it's hard for the customer to tell the difference between farm-raised Atlantic and wild-caught Pacific salmon when the fish is cut up or cooked, Erica Cline, one of the study's leaders, said responsible restaurant chefs should be able to tell the difference by "the feel of the fish and its oil content."
And if you need a drink with dinner to get over these unfortunate truths, make sure to go for quantity.
It helps if you have a decently sized party to share with. All wine and beer is seriously marked up at restaurants, but if you're considering a glass of wine with your meal and you want to get the best deal, you should almost always buy the entire bottle. Joe Campanale, the beverage director for a number of restaurants in New York, including L'Artusi, Anfora and L'Apicio, told Zagat that while each restaurant in the industry varies on the amount they mark up a glass of wine, the "industry standard" is to "charge for a glass what the restaurant pays for the bottle."
Juliet Chung reveals in the Wall Street Journal that how much a restaurant marks up a bottle and a glass of wine depends on how expensive the wine was when the restaurant bought it at wholesale price. For example, an inexpensive bottle of wine may get marked up three to four times its wholesale price, while a pricier bottle could only get marked up one or two times its price. But overall, if you are looking to "maximize the value per ounce," you may be better off opting to invest in a more expensive bottle over a severely overpriced glass of mediocre wine.
We apologize for being a Debbie Downer, but ... WOMP WOMP