We Americans will eat anything and everything away from home. Turkey sandwiches? Sure. Burgers? Check. Popcorn? I’ll take another bag, please.
Did you know certain menu items are heavily marked up? It’s no accident. Restaurants are businesses and need to make money, too. But if you’re looking to stretch a buck and get something that’s worth your hard-earned dollars, there definitely are some foods to avoid. On the flip side, there are also many foods that are a good value for your dollar.
Anything with truffle oil
At best, truffle oil is made similarly to tea solely by steeping truffles in some oil. At worst, truffle oil is actually a synthetic mixture. The result is a garden-variety oil with a fancy label slapped on it. You get very little actual truffle flavor, but the restaurant gets to call it a “truffle dish” and bump up the price even more.
To get the most value, splurge once in awhile and order a dish with shaved truffles. You’ll pay a premium for it but at least you know you’re getting the real thing.
Basic egg breakfasts
Consider the much-loved egg breakfast combo, such as two-eggs-any-style. This usually includes some mass-cooked eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast. These ingredients set restaurants back about a single buck (two, if you’re fancy), yet restaurants charge eight to ten times that amount.
Plain ol’ salads
Some salads certainly do have a lot of money put into them, especially if there are super-premium ingredients or fancy meats. But your average entrée Caesar or garden salad typically carries a high markup — not to mention the infamous wedge salad (it’s literally just a hunk of iceberg lettuce with some dressing plopped on top). Better to focus on other high-value healthy options, such as dishes that contain avocados or rare/fresh ingredients.
Beverages like tea, coffee, and soda come so cheap it’s almost silly. People expect to pay more, however. “When restaurants charge even a reasonable amount of what a person expects to pay for a beverage in a restaurant, say $3, they are still making a large profit margin,” according to Jeff Hands, president of TracRite, a software company that helps restaurant business managers track inventory.
Unfortunately, alcoholic drinks don’t get a free pass either, especially for wine. According to Executive Chef Joel Bickford at The Gantry Restaurant and Bar in Sydney, Australia, “the markup can be around 600% at some high-end restaurants, depending on the brand and whether you order by the glass or a full bottle.”
Here’s a tip: Call ahead and see if you can BYOW (bring your own wine). Many restaurants allow it, although they may charge a corkage fee.
Restaurants buy pasta for as cheap as a buck a pound or less. In turn, assuming you aren’t getting any extra meats with your noodles, “a pasta dish with some vegetables at a high-end restaurant might go for around $25,” according to Bickford.
The best value comes from restaurants that make their own pasta from scratch each day.
Ah, the humble pancake. Consider the stuff they’re made of: flour, milk, baking powder, and a dash of salt and sugar. Add in one hot griddle and Bob’s your uncle. Pancakes cost just pennies to produce, yet you’re likely to pay at least a buck or two for them in a restaurant. Sure, that won’t break the bank, but if you really want to get over your pancake fix, you can do so at home for much cheaper.
Think back to pancakes. Most desserts are based on simple and cheap ingredients: flour, water, eggs, milk, and some chocolate for good measure (OK, a lot of chocolate…). Still, most desserts cost pennies to prepare, yet you’ll be charged at least a few bucks per item.
Choose desserts you couldn’t easily whip up on your own. That way, you’re paying for the real value of the dish, which comes from the time and labor required to make it.
Looking to stretch a buck? Choose these items instead
Salmon is more than healthy for you. It’s also a great deal. Most restaurants typically charge a very low amount in relation to what they charge you for this dish. And if you see fresh salmon? Snap it up; it’s an especially good deal.
Anything with hollandaise sauce
Although eggs Benedict is the traditional bearer of hollandaise sauce, it can go on other things too, such as asparagus and potatoes. Anything with hollandaise sauce drizzled over it is likely to be a good value, because while it seems humble, hollandaise sauce actually takes a lot of work and skill to prepare. This isn’t something your average Girl Scout can make on her way to her cooking badge.
Remember when we said egg dishes were cheap? It turns out that omelets are actually an exception. They take more time to prepare than regular ol’ scrambled eggs. Each omelet must be individually handcrafted by the chef. Not only does that take more time, but it also messes with a chef’s flow.
Slow-cooked or smoked meats
Even though a lot of smoked or slow-cooked meats can be cooked in bulk, it still takes a lot of time. The chef can’t just go out for an eight-hour siesta while that’s going on; they still have to be there checking the meat as it cooks.
Crab and lobster
Crab and lobster are already pretty spendy already, but they can offer a lot of value for the price. The prep time doesn’t take too long (just throw it in a pot of boiling water!), but the raw ingredient cost for crab legs and lobster tails is incredibly high.
According to Bickford, “a seafood item like the Dungeness crab is going to end up being a bargain for the consumer because it's an item that is always going to be expensive no matter what.” In fact, he even says that many restaurants will include crab on their menu “even if they are just breaking even” because the allure is so high.
“Strip loin and filet steak will have a food cost of 45% or so, which gives a great cost per dollar spent ratio for the customer,” according to Hands. Fortunately, this extends beyond just the simple slab o’ meat itself. So, if a whole steak isn’t your thing, you can rest assured you’re also getting a good deal with steak salad, steak sandwiches, etc.
MagnifyMoney is a price comparison and financial education website, founded by former bankers who use their knowledge of how the system works to help you save money.