4 Secrets to save money at restaurants

Sep 14, 2010 at 5:49 p.m. ET

If these crummy economic times have taught us anything, it’s that the days of paying full price for something are over. The same goes for dining out. Here are 4 secrets to save money at restaurants, from fancy bistros to grab-and-go delis.

Woman eating at restaurant

If you know where to look, you can even snag deals that are better than advertised, says couponing expert Mike Allen, the founder of Shopping-Bargains.com and other coupon and discount-code web sites. Allen reveals how to get a $25 restaurant gift certificate for $2 (really!) and other money-saving ideas for dining out.

1. Shop for discounted gift certificates online

You might be familiar with money-saving sites like Restaurant.com, which offers $25 gift certificates for $10 to select restaurants in your city, but did you know that there are even deeper discounts out there?

Allen's site, Shopping-bargains.com, occasionally offers coupon codes for Restaurant.com that take an additional 50 percent to 80 percent off the discounted price. With the extra discount, that $25 gift certificate will cost you just $2 to $5 dollars. Shopping-bargains.com offers limited time coupon codes for Restaurant.com about four times a month.

2. Visit the restaurant's web site before you go

Many restaurants offer printable coupons and freebies for joining loyalty clubs online. Houlihan's, T.G.I. Friday's, and Boston Market are just a few national chains that offer immediate deals for signing up for their loyalty clubs.

Also, follow restaurants on Twitter and become a fan of them on Facebook—many eateries offer spur-of-the-moment deals this way.

3. Pick up coupon books at your city's visitors' center

Sure, they're intended for out-of-towners, but residents can take advantage of the dining coupons that are found in visitor guides. You'll find two-for-one meal deals, free appetizers, and more for great local spots.

4. Make a few phone calls

Not every restaurant is great at getting the word out about the deals it offers. So, do a little research before you head out: Call and ask about happy hour, early bird specials, and discounts for seniors and kids.