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No dessert, please

Rohan Anand | Monday, April 30, 2007

The average genius knows that the restaurant industry is proliferating.

According to smartmoney.com, Americans now spend roughly half their food budget dining out. In fact, this year, restaurants are expected to earn $537 billion in revenue, a 67 percent jump in the past decade. Why are we dishing out more sums of cash for dishes that haven’t really changed in the past few years?

True, population growth calls for more mouths to feed and raises the demand for outside dining if it’s less time consuming or expensive than preparing meals at home. But the real reason is that restaurants possess some wily marketing tactics to lure the watering mouths – and wallets – of the American people.

One popular trick is the “dress-ups” for dishes and beverages, where you fork over cash for a meal worth four times as much as it cost the restaurant to prepare. Coffees, teas, and sodas costs them no more than 15 to 20 cents a serving, yet even moderately priced restaurants charge up to $2.50 for these beverages, often without free refills.

The rip-off value multiplies with main course meals. Pasta literally costs pennies for restaurants, but with fixings like sauce or vegetables, they can be “dressed up” and sold for $25 a dish or more. Additionally, restaurants will juxtapose a $15 pasta dish on the menu with a $21 chicken dish, and then the customer will fall for the trap, opting for the pasta mistakenly thinking they’ve found a bargain.

Watch out for fishy things with seafood. These items tend to be the priciest on menus if you’re not at a renowned seafood restaurant or chain, and you might not get what you expect. Many customers fall for the illusion of “Maryland crab cakes” that never came from the Chesapeake Bay at all.

Maryland-style crab? Come on. Your crabs were most likely imported from Thailand or Vietnam at a frighteningly cheaper price than what you paid. Also, sometimes restaurants substitute inexpensive fish, such as pollock, for something pricier, such as cod.

You might want to remember to protect your arteries as well. If you think that a seafood, pasta and salad dish is “healthier” because you’re avoiding red meat and cholesterol, think again. No limitation on butter usually means the average restaurant meal carries a sickening load of 1,000-1,500 calories. For instance, a burger at restaurant like Ruby Tuesday contains twice as many calories and fat grams as McDonald’s Big Mac.

Be wary about how much you tip. In many restaurants, the 10 dollars that you offered gratuitously to the nice, pretty waitress may not make it home with her after all – instead, it may be divided up amongst the bartender, the apprentice waiter, etc. “Tip pools,” as they are called, especially take in effect when restaurants state a 20% service charge for larger parties.

Now, this isn’t to discourage you from eating out at restaurants – be adventurous! Try new things, new restaurants, and get some fresh air with the family. However, don’t let your guard down. Check restaurant reviews, customer satisfaction ratings or seek advice from trustworthy friends, otherwise you may end up doing yourself more harm than good.

As an old saying in the restaurant industry goes, sometimes “sauce and gravy cover up a lot of mistakes.”

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