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Eight ways to save when eating out You're all but guaranteed to come out ahead if you try any of the following

You're all but guaranteed to come out ahead if you try any of the following. For example, by registering his birthday our reporter could have treated his wife to a $21 filet mignon dinner at Black Angus Steakhouse and scored a free top-sirloin dinner (worth $19) for himself.

Look for bargains

We scanned the menus of almost all the restaurants in our Ratings (available to subscribers) and found plenty: buy-one-get-one-free appetizers and entrées; all-you-can-eat specials; lower prices for smaller portions; off-peak dining specials; low-cost upgrades (add chicken to a salad for $1); flat-rate discounts of as much as 20 percent; even free food. Chili's Grill & Bar, for example, had 10 meals for less than $7, and Outback had 15 meals for less than $15. On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina served two favorites with rice and beans for $6.99. Black Angus had half-price bottles of wine. Saltgrass Steak House offered half-price appetizers.

Perhaps because the recession has hit the fine-dining segment hardest, even Ruth's Chris Steak House and Morton's offered bargains, at least by their standards. Morton's had a $99 filet mignon dinner for two that included appetizers, side dishes, and dessert. Ruth's Chris had a $40 (for one) special.

Clip coupons

Many chains have stepped up their promotional activity. Look for coupons, especially in newspaper inserts and on Web sites.

Sign up for e-mail alerts

Chain Web sites are the best source of menu specials, discounts, and other promotions. That's how we learned about IHOP's national free-pancake-day campaign and Denny's Grand Slam and Grand Slamwich breakfast giveaways. After signing up for e-mail at dozens of chains, we were flooded with coupons for free dessert (Bugaboo Creek Steak House and Black Angus), a $5 discount (Logan's Roadhouse), a 20 percent discount (Denny's), free chocolate fondue for two (The Melting Pot), and a free pound of shrimp cocktail (Legal Sea Foods).

Show your age

Many family chains, including Bob Evans, Perkins Restaurant & Bakery, and Eat'n Park, have reduced-price menus for kids (usually under 10 or 12) and seniors (usually 55 and up). Some dinner chains offer incentives too, such as free meals for kids on Tuesday (Black-eyed Pea, Chevys Fresh Mex, and Beef O'Brady's). If you reveal your birthday (sign up online), some chains are particularly generous.

Take a survey

From time to time, chains poll guests who have agreed to receive e-mail from them. Fill out the survey and you get a freebie. (You might need to enter a guest number from your last receipt.) But beware of unsolicited e-mail or pop-up ads that promise free food, gift cards, or coupons if you answer an online survey. Those are spam, and the fraudsters are interested only in harvesting your contact information. Restaurants won't honor the phony freebies.

Time your visit

On weekdays and at off-peak hours, there are many chances to economize. Texas Roadhouse, for example, features 10 $7.99 dinners Monday through Thursday. Lone Star Steakhouse has a $7 soup-and-salad-bar buffet on the same days, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Red Lobster has crab and shrimp specials on Monday and Tuesday, respectively.

Eat at the bar

Pricey McCormick & Schmick's has a bar menu offering cheeseburgers and fries for less than $3, tuna rolls for less than $4, and jambalaya for less than $5. T.G.I. Friday's has bar appetizers for a penny if you join its Give Me More Stripes frequent-diner program. It's free.

Order takeout

Getting food to go at least saves the cost of a tip, and the list of chains accepting online and telephone orders is growing. So are the ranks of those allowing curbside pickup.

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