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Dining on a Budget: Tips for saving money at restaurants

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Times are tough. From the print industry to the restaurant industry, the shaky economy is impacting everyone. For foodies, however, that can be a good thing as restaurants desperately try to lure diners back to their tables with fixed-price menus and discounted wine. So whether you're eating at Olive Garden or a 4-star restaurant, below are a few suggestions to help you keep it cheap.

Take advantage of Restaurant Week
From Los Angeles to New York, Restaurant Week is a great time to try a new restaurant or head back to an old favorite. During these weeks, participating restaurants provide fixed-price three-course meals in an effort to lure in new customers. (Some restaurants provide fixed-price lunch menus as well.) The menus are designed to give patrons a taste of each participating restaurant without customers worrying about going over budget. Restaurant Week varies by city and typically occurs once or twice a year, although some places, such as New York City, have been known to extend the week by a few days, or as the case was this summer, all season long. As you can imagine, the more popular restaurants fill up quickly, so it's best to be aware of upcoming promotions and reserve early. Google Search and Open Table are good starting points for discovering upcoming restaurant weeks in your area. (Note: None of these restaurant weeks are available now, but many have basic information on next year's promotions.)

Bring your own wine
Whether you're drinking wine or enjoying a cocktail, oftentimes it's a restaurant's drink menu that increases your bill to sky-high proportions. To save money, you could go dry for the night, or better yet, look for restaurants that don't have a liquor license, particularly BYOB restaurants. This way you bring a bottle of wine that you like, and you're not charged an exuberant amount of money for a bottle that typically costs under $20. (However, watch out for corkage fees, which some restaurants may charge.)

Use coupons
You use coupons for everything else, why not use them for dining out too? Restaurant.com is a website that offers gift certificates for restaurants throughout the country. Just enter your ZIP code to see the list of participating restaurants in your area and after purchasing your ticket, present it at your participating restaurant for the discount. Restaurant.com almost always has a promo code (typically 50% off) and sometimes cuts as much as 90% off the price of a gift certificate, so you should never pay full price for a certificate. Be sure to check out our latest Restaurant.com coupons before making any purchase.

Sign up for newsletters and look for member discounts
Many chain restaurants offer rewards cards that can help frequent customers save money every time they eat out. Other restaurants encourage you to sign up online to receive coupons and promotional deals. (We suggest giving them an alternate e-mail specifically for this purpose.) Red Lobster, Applebee's, Johnny Rockets, and T.G.I. Friday's are just a few chain restaurants that offer such discounts and rewards programs. (We list many of the most popular promotion in our Restaurant Deals category.)

Go out on your birthday
Many restaurants offer discounts if you eat out on the day of your birthday. Usually all you need is a driver's license or some form of identification to validate your date of birth. Birthday offers can range from $20 off your final check to a free meal. Hey, it's free and Free Birthday Stuff keep updated lists of restaurants and chains offering birthday discounts.

Eat early
Believe it or not, but the time you eat can play a big role in how much money you'll pay in the end. For major cities like New York and Las Vegas, early diners can take advantage of pre-theater specials, which include discounted prix-fixe menus and discounted bar drinks. Although these specials are aimed at theater goers, there's no reason why you can't partake in the discounted menus as well. If you're particularly early, you may even be able to order from a restaurant's lunch menu, which is typically less expensive than the dinner menu. However, not every restaurant will offer a pre-theater discount, so it's best to check with the host or eat at restaurants located within your city's theater district to increase your chances of finding a theater special.

Look for culinary academies
Having a chef-in-training prepare your dinner might sound like a recipe for disaster, but contrary to popular belief, eating at a student-run restaurant can win you a tasty dinner and help you save money. Many culinary academies offer such restaurants, so look for them near your local culinary schools.

With the help of the above tips, you can enjoy eating out without feeling like you're putting a strain on your wallet. However, if all else fails, you can always try the miscreant's approach to dining out.

Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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