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5 Signs You Got a Bad Deal

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As the blogger behind The Bad Deal, Bloomberg News food critic Ryan Sutton chronicles some of the silliest and most deceptive dining offers on daily deal sites. Here, he reveals the warning signs that accompany bad restaurant deals.

Ryan Sutton

© Courtesy Ryan Sutton.
Ryan Sutton knows bad deals.

1. Your deal is a brunch deal. It’s Saturday morning. You’re hungover. You want to be in bed. But you purchased a deal that's only valid at brunch. And that deal expires today, which is too bad because most people pay in US dollars; greenbacks never expire. Maybe your coupon locks you into a dessert, which is pointless because you never eat dessert at brunch. Maybe your voucher involves multiple courses, like a recent New York event where six different breakfast courses were served at half hour intervals—that's three hours of brunch. Most brunch foods are already cheap, so is it really necessary to pay extra for something you don’t want?

2. Your deal includes mandatory wine pairings. Deals that come with a wine pairing for every guest may seem like a good value. But are you and your date going to be smashed after six pours of wine? Most likely. It’s usually cheaper to have the sommelier create an individualized selection of wines tailored to your own budget and alcohol tolerance. If you decide to stop drinking a pairing halfway through a meal, most good restaurants won't charge the full pairing price. But if you pay up front with a deal, that financial escape plan isn't an option.

3. You ordered a tasting menu at a neighborhood restaurant that never serves tasting menus. A ten-course, three-hour meal is a delicate ballet. Without rigorous pacing and precise portioning, you’ll overdose on food before the feast is half-over. These menus, whether cheap or expensive, are best ordered at restaurants that specialize in them. So it’s unfortunate that deal sites are turning tasting menus into ubiquitous commodities, an excuse to restrict choice and increase the bill at eateries that typically serve just appetizers, entrees and desserts. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If your tasting menu is only available through the dealsite, skip it. If you want something fancier, go to Le Bernardin.

4. The deal includes all-you-can-eat or all-you-can-drink. Do you usually leave restaurants feeling hungry and ripped-off? Do you think portion sizes in our diabetes-plagued country are too small? Do you want to be drunk during an 11 a.m. brunch? If you answered yes to these questions, then maybe you do actually want an all-you-can-eat-and-drink deal. For the more rational folk occasionally drawn to the offer of endless tacos, consider the following: Restaurants regularly impose strict fines if anyone else takes a sample from your never-ending basket of fries, a policy that defeats the communal experience of dining that attracts us to restaurants in the first place. Here’s a revolutionary alternative to the unlimited offer: Order something big and share.

5. You didn’t read the fine print. As economists often say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. That means a deal isn’t a gift, it’s a trade-off. In exchange for a promised discount, you’re giving up certain freedoms, like the ability to eat on certain days of the week, or to order off the full menu. Those trade-offs are almost always buried in the fine print—read it. Another necessary step is comparing the deal's price with the restaurant's regular prices. Deal sites can overestimate savings by hundreds of dollars, and a restaurant's everyday offerings are often more affordable than the deal. So comb through the menu; getting your restaurant information from daily deal sites is like watching infomercials to learn about world affairs.

Related: 5 Signs You've Picked a Bad Restaurant
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