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

May 16, 1991|ELAINE DAVIS

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."

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