Readers became so involved with this post we thought it was worthy of a rerun. Enjoy!
Remember when eating out didn't require keeping a careful eye on the right-side of the menu? Tight budgets have forced many of us to select restaurants and menu selections based on cost, rather than taste preferences.
A recent study by Zagat, the restaurant and review guide, indicated 33 percent of Americans polled now pay more attention to restaurant prices than they have in the past and 28 percent of diners have switched to cheaper restaurants. In an even bigger blow to restaurants' bottom lines, approximately 20 percent have cut out booze, appetizers and desserts. As a result, analysts expect 12,000 to 18,000 restaurants will close this year, ending a decade-long expansion in the industry.
In a desperate effort to make it through the recession, American eateries of all types have drastically cut back on expenses. Here are 23 changes you may have noted. (Note not all restaurants use these cost-saving methods.)
1. Reduced Portions
From bread baskets to entrees, portions have shrunk while some niceties have been eliminated altogether. That complimentary breadbasket may feature the cheaper breadsticks and a scant few pieces of bread. Some restaurants no longer automatically bring bread unless asked or charge extra. On the plus side, perhaps this is part of the reason the obesity epidemic is slowing down in America.
2. Disappearing Condiments and Fixings
Some sandwich joints have actually charge extra for more than the minimum of condiments and/or such basic fixings as lettuce, tomatoes, olives, etc. Apparently $5 only buys just the meat and bread.
3. Reconstituted Meats
We used to laugh that "parts was parts," but fast food joints are no longer the only places inclined to feature unidentifiable parts. Reconstituted meats have been ground down and mixed with water and other by-products, then pressure assembled to look like real steak or chicken. For some time now the FDC has required processed cheese manufacturers label products containing less than 50-percent cheese as "cheese food." Perhaps menus should start indicating when they're serving "chicken food" and "beef food."
4. Veal Substitutes
What you think is Veal Parmesan may actually be "Pork Parmesan. The look-alike meat is an easy cost-cutting substitution for diners who rarely taste veal. Look for your veal to be grey or light brown in color when cooked. A fried cutlet that's still white in the middle is a swindle.
5. Weaker Drinks
Restaurants and bars mark alcohol up 200 to 300 percent, but many still want to stretch their investment further. Tricks include stretching with seltzer water, using smaller glasses, increasing ice content and, of course "short pouring," or reducing the percentage of alcohol in your drink. Don't bother sending your drink back for more alcohol, either, as the bartender likely will just pour additional booze into the straw to fake a stronger drink. While we're on the topic, have you noticed those nice, comfortable wedges of lemon and lime are now wafer-thin slices.
6. Magic Plates
Check underneath your entree and you may find a porcelain hill that makes it look like you're getting a larger pile of food. Another popular trick is the "incredibly shrinking plate." The standard 12-inch plate is steadily shrinking until, ultimately, entrées will be served on dessert plates.
7. Adding Surcharges
Rather than raise prices, restaurants like to add a surcharge for an increased in fuel expenses, employee health care and serving us on holidays. Because the law allows restaurants to limit notification of surcharges in the fine print on their menus, you may not be aware of this extra cost until receiving the check, at which time it's too late to downsize your order...or walk out.
8. Recycling Buffets
Is the lettuce brown around the edges? Are the tomatoes rather tired. Does that tuna dish look awfully familiar? Then you're eating at a leftover buffet. Rather than toss uneaten food from yesterday's or last week's buffet, more restaurants are freezing everything for future use.
9. Iceberg Salads
Remember the days when salads contained arugula, watercress and colorful touches of red radicchio leaves? Today you could sink the Titanic on the iceberg chunks in our dinner salads.
10. Á la Carte Sides
Before you fork over $20 for an entrée, ask if that price includes any side dishes. You may need to budget another $5 to $10 if you want dinner salad or the formerly standard potatoes and vegetables.
11. Mystery Fish
Grouper used to be one of the cheaper fillets. Now even grouper is being replaced with the cheaper catfish. Last August, two teenagers in New York City collected 56 fish samples from stores and restaurants. Testing revealed 14 of the samples were mislabeled as a more expensive fish.
12. Shrinking Menus
It's expensive to keep ingredients on hand for a wide variety of dishes, so restaurants are cutting down the number of dishes offered. You'll also see more cross-pollinated dishes that feature the same ingredients in a variety of forms.
13. Cheaper Ingredients
Starting down the road to cheaper substitutions is a nasty one. The menu may mention butter but the kitchen recipe calls for "margarine." That whip cream may just be Cool Whip (aka coconut and palm oii), the seaweed is really cabbage and instant potatoes have stretched the mashed potatoes.
14. Is it Fresh?
Food distributors are charging restaurants fuel surcharges these days because of high gas prices. So, restaurants are trying to cut back on the number of deliveries they get. Instead of getting fresh produce every day, they order more food and less frequently.
15. Recycling Food
Preparing for a dinner rush requires a lot of extras, like rolls, desserts, side dishes, cuts of meat, etc. What happens to all those extras on a slow night? They end up in the buffet, reworked into meatloaf or worked into bread pudding. It's criminal to throw these foods away, but rumors are rampant some restaurants are removing leftover foods from plates and recycling them. Yuck!
16. Cheaper Paper Goods
I'm all for cutting down on the number of napkins thrown into a take-out bag and using cheaper take-out containers, but I really hate it when restaurants skimp on toilet paper!
17. Begging for Sympathy
More restaurants are posting signs asking us to appreciate they've had to make cutbacks and raise prices due to higher commodity and fuel prices. Understandably, they want diners to understand they're not just being greedy. I prefer this up-front approach to sneaker methods used by some restaurants.
18. Adding Comfort Foods
A restaurant I frequent serves a macaroni-and-cheese entree with lobster that is to DIE for. The New York bistro Artisanal recently launched Comfort Food Night and introduced a grilled-cheese bar to help bring people back to their childhood days. It's a brilliant concept as we tend to crave comfort foods when times are tough.
Your server suggests a loaded potato instead of a plain baked potato or adding a salad to your dinner. What they may not mention is these changes add to your bill (and the waiter's tip). Watch out for upselling and ask about any price additions.
20. Menu Engineering
According to The Independent, restaurants use a combination of pictures, bold fonts and careful positioning of items to upsell diners. For example, restaurants like to box off high-profit items and avoid extensive straight lists that allow you to easily compare prices.
21. Trendy Buzz Words
Truffle oil, heirloom tomatoes and cedar plank salmon sound scrumptious and tend to induce customers into shelling our more dough.
22. Credit Card Surcharges
Luckily this is not common, but the occasional restaurant may sneak in a five-percent surcharge if you’re paying by credit card. By law, this will have to be mentioned in the menu but the print may be tiny, tiny, tiny.
23. Paying for Water
Under the guise of environmentalism, restaurants bring water only when you ask for it. This saves wait staff time while cutting down on water bills and dishwashing expenses. In addition, more servers now ask if you'd like bottled water, at a hefty mark-up, of course.