How to save money while eating out

HOUSTON Plenty of restaurant chains are offering exceptional values these days in an effort to keep customers coming in.

After surveying its subscribers about more than 150,000 visits to 101 restaurants, Consumer Reports has the goods on where to dine well for less.

"The dining deals out there today are incredible. But not surprising, it doesn't matter how good the deals are if the food isn't good," said Tod Marks of Consumer Reports.

Twenty-one chains received the highest marks for food, with steakhouses generally the priciest category.

In a steak taste-off, Consumer Reports found that Morton's has an excellent strip steak for $53 that bested the rest. But consider Outback, which has a very good strip steak for $22.

The strip steaks at Applebee's for $18 and T.G.I.Friday's for $17 were okay, but be careful how much lower you go.

"The fact is, none of the $9.99 'value' sirloins we tested at Applebee's, Outback, and Friday's were anywhere near as flavorful and tender as their pricier counterparts," said Marks, also known as 'Tightwad Tod.'

Marks said there are plenty of other ways to save money, starting with going online.

"I signed up for e-mail alerts at some of my favorite restaurants, and my inbox was flooded with all kinds of offers for freebies, including a free pound of shrimp cocktail from Legal Seafood," Marks said.

You can also join frequent dining programs at places like Friday's and get a free appetizer or dessert. Or consider eating at the bar where food can be cheaper.

Getting food to go, rather than sitting down in a restaurant, can also be a way to cut costs since you won't have to pay a tip.

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