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    Restaurant Buying Guide

    Restaurant Buying Guide

    Consumer Reports no longer updates this product category and maintains it for archival purposes only.

    Of the 170,838 experiences 68,950 subscribers told us about in Consumer Reports’ latest restaurant survey, 17,056 were at five megachains that are household names: Applebee’s, Olive Garden, The Cheesecake Factory, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store, and IHOP. 

    What We Found

    Our survey results reflect subscriber dining experiences from mid-2015 to early 2016 at restaurants that run the gamut from informal home-style family restaurants like Elmer’s that harken back to the days of the coffee shop to sophisticated white-tablecloth dinner houses such as Mastro’s (“proper attire required”). For most chains, price is the median diners paid for their own dinner and drinks minus the tip. We’ve also included the median for lunch (including beverages but not the tip) for those chains that serve a mid-day meal, when we had adequate data. Scores for food, value, service, ambience and menu variety are relative. Our reader score reflects diners’ overall satisfaction.

    Food and ambiance aside, many restaurants attempt to stand apart by cultivating a particular mood. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville pays homage to the tropical lifestyle the fun-loving Cheeseburger-in-Paradise singer captures in his music. Buca di Beppo, Italian for Joe’s basement, serves “immigrant” food in a kitschy vintage atmosphere where the walls are covered with photos of ethnic icons like Joe DiMaggio and Sophia Loren while Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin classics play in the background. Other chains take a more laid-back approach. Chart House, for instance, is known for one-of-a-kind restaurants in historic buildings like the John Hancock Counting House in Boston, or spectacular settings such as a birds-eye view of the Ohio River and Cincinnati skyline.

    Ultimately, glitz and showmanship take a back seat to the cuisine, and nothing matters more in the choice of a restaurant than the taste and quality of the food, survey respondents said. But just 20 chains were judged to serve truly inspired fare—and only 11 offered better-than-average bang for the buck. Respondents rated the food at 30 restaurants as below average. As a group, the high-end steak and seafood houses dished out the most sumptuous meals – as well as great service and atmosphere—but quality comes at a price: at least $50 per person for dinner—and often a lot more. 

    Overall, subscribers were very satisfied with about half of the chains. But there’s room for improvement. On 16 percent of visits, respondents found their restaurant too noisy. During 12 percent, service was lacking, the biggest problems being inattentive waiters and long waits to order and get the check.

    Issues That Matter

    Many full-service restaurants have been struggling as a result of competition from limited service fast-casual chains such as Panera Bread, Chipotle, and Firehouse Subs, which are cheaper and also perceived as healthier than traditional fast-food restaurants. They’re also taking a hit from supermarkets reinventing themselves as “groceraunts,” industry-speak for food stores that incorporate restaurant-style sit-down aesthetics to win customers. In-store dining and take-out prepared foods from grocers have grown 30 percent since 2008, trend-tracker NPD Group says.

    Among table-service eateries, the fine-dining segment is flourishing as the affluent and expense-account clientele of chains like Smith & Wollensky and The Palm tend to be immune to bumps in the economy, said Darren Tristano, president of Technomic, an industry consulting and research firm. The hardest hit have been mid-priced restaurants in the Outback and Olive Garden class because of enormous competition among a plethora of seemingly indistinguishable chains. To stem the tide, many are attempting to focus more emphatically on value. A promotion at Maggiano’s Little Italy, for example, offered guests $10 off their next $30 visit, while Applebee’s teased half-price appetizers to late-night diners, and Ruby Tuesday served kids for free on Tuesday night. Even fancy chains are attempting to lure diners with come-ons. At Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, which is one of the priciest restaurants in our survey ($77 per person for dinner), guests could enjoy a priced-fixed $59 meal that included a strip steak or fillet, crab cake, salad, and side dish.

    Regardless of where people eat, it won’t be long before consumers have greater access to nutritional information. Beginning May 5, 2017, the law first introduced as part of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 is supposed to take effect. It requires restaurants and foodservice businesses with 20 or more locations operating under the same name and serving substantially the same menu items to post calorie information for standard menu items and provide guests with additional nutrition information upon request. While many restaurants already provide such information, it’s not always readily accessible.

    Our survey suggests labeling has the potential to impact consumer choice. While only 9 percent of respondents sought nutritional information online, among those who found it, 70 percent said the harsh realities encouraged them to order healthier. Among other trends gaining traction:

    Americans are becoming more adventurous eaters. Annika Stensson, director of research communications for the National Restaurant Association (NRA), said that consumers are eager to try innovative fare they can’t replicate at home. Those ages 18 to 34 consider the availability of unique, creative, and unfamiliar cuisine more important factors in choosing a restaurant than other age groups. 

    A hunger for cuisine with a conscience. More and more consumers are interested in local sourcing, “clean” food (foods free from additives and as close to nature as possible), and environmental sustainability. Sixty-eight percent of consumers polled by the National Restaurant Association said they’re more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced food items while 60 percent said they give preference to those that engage in practices such as water conservation and recycling. More diners also care about humane treatment of animals.

    Our survey confirms the growing appeal of cuisine with a conscience, and it’s changing consumers’ perception as to what constitutes healthy eating – moving beyond the traditional parameters of fat, sodium, and sugar.

    Thirty-eight percent of Consumer Reports subscribers said the availability of healthy menu options figures prominently in their choice of a restaurant; the use of locally sourced, or meat from animals that have been raised without antibiotics was critical to around 15 percent, while about 10 percent said they go out of their way to seek out restaurants that cook with organic ingredients. Another 12 percent are especially drawn to those that serve non-GMO foods.

    More of us want our food to go. Takeout and delivery services are flourishing among table-service restaurants. Today, the vast majority will box your meal to go. That includes even dressy chains like Morton’s The Steakhouse. Takeout will continue to be a big trend, according to Technomic’s Darren Tristano, driven by Generation Z (those born after 1995) consumers, the primary demographic that enjoys eating on the go and in their cars.

    Many full-service chains are making it easier for takeout customers by accepting online and mobile orders and allowing customers to pay for them electronically in advance; some also provide local home delivery and curbside pickup. With Outback Steakhouse, for instance, you place a detailed order, down to the smallest detail such as whether you want them to hold the butter or add extra cheese, set a pick-up time, and within 20 minutes your meal is ready. At Applebee’s, a staffer will hand you your order as you drive up. Still others like Bob Evans, Cracker Barrel, Legal Seafood, and Red Robin sell some of their signature items in supermarkets or online.

    For those who prefer to dine-in, you’ll find more chain restaurants accepting reserverations. Informal family-style eateries, which cater to a walk-in clientele, typically don’t take them. Fancy dinner houses do. Casual chains like Texas Roadhouse sometimes encourage call-ahead seating, which allow you to cut to the front of the line once you arrive by getting your name on the wait list before you leave home rather than after you walk through the door. Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s Italian Grill introduced a new twist called “Click-Thru” seating that allows you to monitor real-time seating availability at your local restaurant by computer or smart phone, and put your name on the wait list for now or later. Unlike a traditional reservation, late guests won’t be dropped from the wait list.

    How To Save

    Spirited competition among the chains means that you can use a toolbox of tactics to find bargains. Here’s how:

    You can spend a lot or a little on a meal out. It depends whether you’re interested in simple sustenance or making a memory. Our subscribers got a decent, albeit unspectacular, meal at most family restaurants for around $11 to $13 per person and for a few dollars more at burger and sandwich chains. Regardless of where you eat, here are some simple strategies to cut your bill:

    Scope out specials.  Visit the chains’ websites and social media pages to find standing and rotating offers like Joe’s Crab Shack’s $15 lobster dinner Thursdays, O’Charley’s Prime rib dinner for two for $27.98, Bravo! Cucina Italiana’s $5 dining discount off its Savory Summer Nights menu, and Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille’s four-course meal for $44 after 4 p.m. Zio’s Italian Kitchen has revolving specials five days a week, from all you can eat soup and salad ($7.99) to a $24.99 family meal to feed four.

    Dine when others don’t. More incentives are available if you’re willing to dine on weekdays or at off-peak hours. On Monday through Friday, guests at Saltgrass Steak House can have their choice of six dinner specials starting at $8.99. Similarly, early birds at Texas Steakhouse can have dinner for $11.99. After 10 p.m., wings, nachos, burgers, pulled-pork sandwiches and more go on sale at Smokey Bones for as little as $4. Applebee’s, too, has “late night” (after dark) half-price appetizers.

    Eat at the Bar. Bar menus, when available, often feature smaller portions at lower prices. At Mortons The Steak House, guests can order from the Bar Bites menu (wedge salad, petite filet, cheeseburgers) for as little as $3.95. On weekdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Fogo de Chao diners can order Brazilian-inspired plates, cocktails, wines, and beers at a special price. Even the elegant The Palm has a half-price bar menu on Sunday through Friday at 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., featuring an assortment from cornmeal fried oysters to maple-glazed bacon.

    Show Your Age. AARP members can save 15 percent on food at middle-of-the-road chains including Denny’s, Outback, Bonefish Grill, and Carrabba’s, and 10 percent at elegant eateries such as Chart House and Oceanaire Seafood Room. While some chains have moved away from offering senior discounts by name, many feature smaller portions at lower prices to appeal to anyone with a lighter appetite.

    Look for restaurants that cater to kids. Only four chains stood out in our survey as really good places to dine with children age 12 and under, and it’s easy to understand their appeal from a child’s perspective: Cracker Barrel has a store in every location that sells games, toys, and candy. Ruby’s Diner has a kid’s club featuring collectibles and contests where they can win prizes; Islands Fine Burgers & Drinks has a beach-theme, with surfing videos playing nonstop and special menus for youngsters under age 6 as well as those seven through 12. The Rainforest Café cultivates the faux feel of the Amazon jungle with costumed characters roaming the floor and “wild animals” hanging from the walls. Ruby’s Diner also has a Tuesday evening promotion where children 12 and under eat for free. Many others promote similar limited-time kids-eat-free offers on certain days of the week, including Joe’s Crab Shack, Denny’s, Chili’s and Max & Erma’s.

    Join the club. Many chains offer discounts, promotions, and other perks if you’re willing to share your e-mail address or join a rewards program (at no charge). You’ll usually get something simply for signing up: a free appetizer, slice of cake on your birthday, 10 percent discount on your next visit. At Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s, Bonefish Grill, and Flemings Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, rewards members can dine for half off every fourth visit.

    Eat Smart

    We sent two reporters to an Applebee’s for lunch. One ordered impulsively, the other intelligently, yet both enjoyed a steak, salad, and side dishes. Our impulsive diner ordered a couple of days’ worth of calories (almost 4,500) and sodium (about 5,700 milligrams) and four days’ worth of fat (258 grams). And no, he didn’t eat all that food. Our sensible diner’s tally? Less than 1,000 calories and far less fat and sodium than our glutton would have consumed. Tips that apply to any meal: Share and take some home. Here, other ways our smart diner minimized guilt and gluttony. (Nutrition numbers are from Applebee’s.)

    Beware of Bread
    Some diners could easily scarf down these harmless-looking garlic breadsticks. But a side order has more than 1,100 calories and 78 grams of fat.

    Use Dressing Sparingly
    Our indulgent diner got a house salad (which included shredded cheese) and added a hefty serving of blue cheese dressing. Our sensible diner ordered a small, bare Caesar salad and dipped greens in the side-ordered dressing.

    Downsize Slightly
    Instead of the 9-ounce sirloin (shown here, 310 calories), our sensible diner chose a 7-ounce one.

    Save on Sides
    Our smart diner skipped this "loaded" baked potato stuffed with cheese and bacon bits (shown here, 400 calories and 23 grams of fat—more with butter and sour cream) and ate steamed herbed potatoes.

    Choose Smart Sauces
    The sauce and shrimp atop our indulgent diner’s Shrimp ‘N Parmesan Sirloin (shown here) added about 360 calories and 30 grams of fat. Our smart diner’s House Sirloin was topped with a light cabernet sauce, mushrooms, and onions.

    Drink Responsibly
    We’re not talking alcohol. The frozen strawberry lemonade our impulsive diner ordered has 260 calories in 20 ounces, compared with 0 calories for iced tea with lemon.

    Compromise on Dessert
    With 1,550 calories and 74 grams of fat, a cookie sundae was enough for a tableful of people. Our sensible diner ordered a bare cookie and shared.