COVER STORY : Taking a Bite Out of the Bill : More Restaurants Now Offer Coupons, Other Deals on Meals

Remember when it was embarrassing to fork over a coupon instead of cash at a restaurant? Or a two-for-one dinner signified a restaurant on its last legs? Perceptions of discount dining are changing as the economy forces consumers to dig deeper for value and restaurants to respond to stay competitive.

"I used to look at that stuff as a bunch of gimmickry," said Bob Vincent, an avid North County restaurant hopper. "Now I resent paying full price if the guy next to me pays half."

North County restaurants--from the basic to the lavish--are offering dining discounts for early eaters, children, seniors, coupon cutters and repeat customers.

"You name it and it's out there," said Paul McIntyre, director of the San Diego Restaurant Assn.

Discount dining is not new. It is a trend that has been evolving since the 1960s, when fast-food giants such as McDonalds, Burger King and Dairy Queen used it to promote new food products and remain competitive.

Traditional restaurateurs and their patrons were slow to look upon discount dining with respect. Within the past few years, however, discount dining has assumed new legitimacy.

Well-respected restaurants are buying into the concept. By offering meals at reduced fares during slack times, restaurants find they can afford to maintain staff and food quality, and develop loyalty among patrons who might not otherwise have tried the establishment.

On the receiving end is the busy American family that may be able to eat out for less than it costs to eat at home--if they are willing to shop for value.

Discounts vary according to individual restaurants.

Typically, the two-for-one discount carries the biggest savings, with one dinner free when another of equal or lesser value is purchased. Less grandiose, but still a savings, are the 10% to 15% senior discounts. In some cases, children eat free--an enticement to get parents into an establishment.

At one time, restaurant creativity was associated with food preparation. Now the emphasis on flair is often in the marketing department. Restaurants network with customers through direct mail, newspaper coupons, discount books and even grocery bag and register receipts.

Here's how discount dining works at some North County restaurants:

EARLY EATERS

If you're willing to eat before peak dining hours, there are lots of restaurants that will give you a break on the price.

The early bird special, also known as the sunset special, is one of the most popular restaurant trends to emerge in the mid-1980s. Originally targeting the senior population, early dining specials have also become a favorite with families.

"We can afford to take the kids some place besides McDonalds if we follow early bird specials," said one young mother.

Many major chains--Chart House, Red Lobster and Hungry Hunter--as well as independent restaurants offer discounts in the early evening.

Family-owned Brigantine Restaurants in Escondido and Del Mar do a big sunset business, according to owner Mike Morton. Menus are printed daily and highlight seven entrees, many of them fresh seafood.

With each meal comes soup or salad, vegetable, potatoes or rice. Sunset meals range from $8.95 to $11.95 and are available from 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.

Throughout the month, there might be three to four changes in the basic offerings. "We have a lot of regulars," said Mike Nelson, a manager at Escondido's Brigantine. "We also get a lot of Brigantine jumpers who eat sunsets at our other restaurants, too."

Also family-owned is Froelander's Quail's Inn in San Marcos, a local landmark. Said one restaurateur: "Most restaurants would die to have as many customers as the Quail's Inn."

A large restaurant with a lounge and a view of Lake San Marcos, Quail's Inn is open daily. Early dining discounts are offered Monday through Saturday, 4 to 6 p.m., and Sunday, 3 to 6 p.m. Prime rib, barbecue spareribs and veal Mornay can be had for $7.95 to $8.95.

"We've been going there for 17 years," said Beth Bergman, office manager for the Madrid Manor Mobile Home Park. "When we have people visit us, that's where we take them."

At the Boat House in Encinitas, high on a hill adjacent to the Radisson Hotel, sunset guests eat in a contemporary wooded restaurant with a panoramic view of the Pacific. Sunset choices include 13 different entrees and all cost $9.95.

For that fare, guests receive table-side salad service, fresh bread, vegetables, choice of potato or rice, nonalcoholic beverage and sherbet.

"The value is so great that we do get a lot of regulars," said Manager Craig Sills. Trout, catfish, mahi-mahi, teriyaki chicken and prime rib are just a few of the choices. Free valet parking is provided.

The Gentlemen's Choice began early bird dinners a few years ago. "The only thing that is unique about the early bird is the value," said owner Jack Dugan. "We take items right off our regular menu and discount them."

Dugan's early bird patrons receive a choice of beef, fish or fowl, all priced at $8.95. These specials run daily from 4:30 to 6 p.m., and Dugan says early birds help keep the restaurant filled during the slow times.

Brigantine Restaurants 421 W. Felicita Ave. Escondido Calls: 743-4718 also 3263 Camino Del Mar Del Mar Calls: 481-1166

Quail Inn Rancho Santa Fe Road San Marcos Calls: 744-2445

The Gentlemen's Choice Old California Market 1020 W. San Marcos Blvd. San Marcos Calls: 744-5215

Boat House 87 Encinitas Blvd. Encinitas Calls: 944-1338

SENIOR SPECIALS

Many early bird specials started out as senior specials.

Some restaurateurs received complaints from customers who felt senior discounts were discriminatory; yet, the majority of early bird diners are seniors.

"They don't like to be on the road at night," said restaurant consultant Jack Monaco. "They're also on fixed incomes and looking for the best value for their dollars."

Although senior specials are merging with other discount offers, restaurants are still attentive to the over-55 age group.

Among the many eateries that offer discounts specifically for seniors are Sizzler restaurants and the T-Bird Cafe. They provide customers 55 and over with a discount card that looks like a credit card--a typical practice among restaurants catering to seniors. Both Sizzler and T-Bird offer a 20% discount with limited restrictions.

The T-Bird's card is called the "Classic Club," and Sizzler's is the "Senior Club." By providing the cards, customers need not be asked if they qualify for a discount.

"I got into trouble for asking some people if they were over 55 when I first started working here," said a Sizzler cashier.

Restaurants that do not have their own senior cards usually have a sign posted that reminds customers to tell the cashier or server if they qualify for a senior discount.

While the T-Bird may seem like an unlikely place for seniors, with its '50s and '60s music and decor, the restaurant attracts a strong senior crowd, according to owner Dave Cohen.

"It's fun," said customer Mabel McCarthy. Hot turkey sandwiches, meat loaf and root beer floats are reminders of days gone by--as are prices for complete meals that range between $5.95 and $6.95 before the discount. T-Bird's offer is good Monday through Friday, 2 to 5 p.m.

T-Bird Diner 601 N. Broadway, Escondido Calls: 480-BIRD

Sizzler Restaurants Check telephone book for nearest location. Discount policies may vary according to franchise.

SMALL FRY

The trend to coordinate children's eating habits with parents' purses is in full swing.

Rarely will diners find a restaurant without burgers, fries, corn dogs, spaghetti or other taste tempters for young palates.

"When liquor laws changed in California, we changed, too," said Robert Villa, a manager for Carlos Murphy's. "We moved away from being a bar with a restaurant to being a restaurant with a bar and focused more on getting families in here."

At Carlos Murphy's, children under 12 pay for select items on the basis of their weight--a penny for every pound. They are weighed from a swing that is hooked to a large scale.

This offer is available from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, and applies to one child per adult. Popular foods are hamburgers, chicken bits and fries, and beef tacos with rice and beans. On days when the offer is not valid, children eat the same items for $1.95 to $2.95.

Sizzler restaurants all cater to children. Within the past few years, these franchises have evolved from steakhouse into more of a soup and salad chain, with a selection of popular meals still offered on the grill. Self-service items such as pizza, onion rings, macaroni and cheese and chicken strips are favorites with kids. These choices are included with the "Buffet Court," which also features soup, salad, fresh fruit and desserts such as apple cobbler and yogurt with toppings.

Children receive the buffet and a drink for $3.49; adults pay $5.49 for lunch and $6.99 for dinner, minus the drink. Some Sizzlers run "Buffet Court" specials for children at $2.99. Most children's dinners range from $2.99 to $3.99.

Food sharing is not allowed and children must be under 12 to qualify. Again, specials may vary with each franchise.

Marie Callender's in Carlsbad offers one of the best brunch deals in town, according to Carlsbad residents Pam and John Oliver. "We bring the kids here after church," said John Oliver.

Owner Dave Cortina says brunch is his restaurant's biggest seller. "We're one of the few Marie Callender's that offers the $4.95 brunch price for kids 10 and under," Cortina said.

Children 4 and younger eat free. Roast beef, homemade pasta bar, omelet bar, salad bar and a taco bar are some of the standard choices. The restaurant has quit doing many of their other promotions in favor of the brunch, which is served every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Adults pay $11.95, and reservations are suggested.

El Torito Restaurant and Cantina in Oceanside lets children under 12 eat for free Monday through Thursday, but they must be accompanied by a paying adult to qualify. A special menu has seven options, such as tacos, chicken and hamburgers. On days when the freebies are not offered, items ordered off the special children's menu cost $2.99. Offers may vary with each El Torito.

Carlos Murphy's 2525 El Camino Real Carlsbad Calls: 434-1758 also 240 E. Via Rancho Parkway Escondido Calls: 439-5932

Marie Callender's Carlsbad 5980 Avenida Encinas Carlsbad Calls: 438-3929

El Torito Restaurant and Cantina 2693 Vista Way Oceanside Calls: 439-5407

COUPONS and COUPON BOOKS

Coupons are everywhere. Once considered "junk mail," consumers are now taking a closer look inside their mailboxes and newspapers.

Val-Pak and Value Visor are two of the many direct-mail services used by North County restaurants--the former touts colorful coupons stuffed in an envelope, while the latter has booklets with detachable coupons.

Val-Pak is a national company that claims to serve about 48% of the homes in the nation. "We saturate an area such as North County for our clients," said Val-Pak representative Pat Farrell.

Although several plans are available, a restaurateur might contract with Val-Pak for a direct mailing to 10,000 people in a specified area. The cost for this type of service is approximately $400, according to Farrell.

Paul Frankel, owner of Kirby's Cafe in Del Mar, uses Value Visor mailings a couple of times a year. The coupon is for a complete dinner and can be used only once, said Frankel.

His mailing generally costs about 5 cents per household. A Value Visor coupon for his restaurant is normally worth $16.95, he said. "We serve a lot of pasta, fresh fish, vegetarian foods and low-cholesterol dishes--everything is made to order," said Frankel, who is also the chef.

Customer Connection in Escondido is a restaurant marketing firm used by Gentlemen's Choice.

"It's a real positive promotion," said Dugan, the owner. Guests fill out a registration card that asks for birthday or anniversary information. Dugan passes these cards along to Customer Connection, which sees that registrants are sent a birthday or anniversary card that can be used during the month of their special event. "It's my No. 1 marketing tool," Dugan said.

Only North County residents are targeted, and there is a $10 maximum on the redemption. All bookkeeping and reports are compiled by Customer Connection. "I know when a card is sent out, and it costs me less than the postage," Dugan said.

Entertainment Publications is touted by many restaurant owners as the Cadillac of coupon books.

These books offer everything from dining discounts to one hour of free flying lessons. Established in 1962, they are marketed through community and nonprofit organizations. The books cost $35 each, and organizations selling them receive a percentage of sales.

Dining discounts are divided into three sections: Fine Dining, Adventures in Dining and Informal Dining and Carry-Out.

North County restaurants make up nearly a third of the Fine Dining choices and nearly half of Adventures in Dining.

The Fine Dining portion of the Entertainment book makes use of a plastic identification card rather than a clipped coupon. The card is presented at the completion of the meal to obtain the discount. The card may be used once at each restaurant in the directory, unless otherwise noted.

"It's the only thing I use," said Guy Maussang of La Bonne Bouffe, a French Restaurant in Encinitas. Maussang has used Entertainment for four of his eight years in business. His restaurant seats 40 to 45 people; if he were packed every night, he wouldn't use it, he said, but that's not the case.

Entrees at La Bonne Bouffe range from a low of $12.75 for a stew in red wine sauce to a high of $21.25 for fresh Dover sole. Guests who belong to Entertainment receive a free entree when a second one is purchased at equal or greater value. Certain restrictions apply on weekends and holidays but, in general, Entertainment cards can be used Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. The restaurant is closed Mondays.

If patrons purchase wines and other accompaniments, Maussang usually allows them to use their discount card more than once. "If they are just here to spend as little as possible, then I couldn't afford to have them return," he said.

The tendency to tip the server a percentage of the discounted total rather than what the full price of a meal would have been sometimes creates a problem.

At Gentlemen's Choice, Dugan says, employees saw the two-for-one coupons and their attention to service dropped because they knew that people normally tip on the bottom line.

"We currently handle it by automatically adding a 15% gratuity to the bill," Dugan said. "My concern is for the customer--if I'm taking something away from the server, the customer will suffer."

The Heart Beat Cafe in Poway offers a $20 value that is valid any time except holidays. They also have a solo dining policy that entails a 50% discount when dining alone, not to exceed $10.

Owned by Scott Robert (also the chef) and mother Jeanne Buckley, the restaurant offers many items that are approved by the American Heart Assn. "Heart Beat" shrimp, at $15.95, is popular with coupon users. Stir-fry cashew chicken can be had for $10.95.

"We usually order the most expensive dinners when we use our Entertainment book," said Jack Rose, who was feasting on the prime rib and lobster combination that goes for $19.95--an inexpensive luxury on a two-for-one offer.

Kirby's 215 15th St. Del Mar Calls: 481-1001

Heart Beat Cafe 13385 Poway Road Poway Calls: 748-4886

La Bonne Bouffe 471 Encinitas Blvd. Encinitas Calls: 436-3081

HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF DISCOUNT DINING

* Ask management at your favorite restaurants what promotions they offer--early birds, manager's specials, coupons. You may not be aware of a deal right under your nose.

* Clip newspaper coupons and screen "junk mail" for discounts at restaurants you've enjoyed in the past or would like to try. Not every coupon is a match for your tastes. Watch closely for expiration dates and other exclusions.

* Consider buying a coupon book if trying new restaurants is appealing.

* Try dining out during non-peak times when specials are readily available.

* Study menus carefully before ordering and ask which meals specifically are discounted or on special.

* Some diners use what they've saved in discounts to splurge on extras, such as desserts and cocktails. If you want to keep your total cost down, hold off on the extras.

* Ask for a children's menu if the server forgets to offer.

* Ask friends where they dine; word of mouth is still the best source for good food and value.

* Pick up handouts and other printed material often found in restaurants that advertise upcoming specials. Find out where you should be looking for discount information--in the mail, newspapers, flyers.

* Check your guest check to see if a gratuity has been included in the total. If it's not already added in, your waiter or waitress will appreciate being tipped at a percentage of what the full cost of the meal would have been, rather than at the discounted rate.

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