Willie Degel, owner of Uncle Jack's Steakhouse and Jack's Shack, is best known for teaching restaurateurs the ropes on Food Network show "Restaurant Stakeout." This time, he's turning the tables and teaching customers how to get the most of their dining out experience. Degel shared his top tips on getting the best deal at restaurants.
1. Take advantage of special menus: If you don't mind eating early, many restaurants offer inexpensive pre-theater menus or early bird specials. Degel says to remember to ask if there are any set menus if you want more bang for your buck.
2. Follow the restaurant's social media accounts: Some restaurants, like Degel's own, give back to customers who follow their social media accounts. "As a customer, you have to get very connected to your favorite restaurants," says Degel. "If you love Uncle Jack's and you're on social media, we'll reward you. Nothing's better than a guest liking our food and advertising that on social media with their experience." Degel said he rewards faithful customers who post on Facebook or Twitter with freebies like a cocktail or dessert.
3. Ask servers about special deals: Servers may not tell you if there are any promotions happening in the restaurant, so the onus is on you to ask. "As soon as you talk to the hostess, ask if there are specials," says Degel. "Ask the bartenders if there's a drink of the day. Try to be informed." Work all of the angles and talk to managers, hostesses, bartenders and servers about special offers.
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Degel says not to forget to look up any coupons on sites like Groupon or LivingSocial - if you forgot to buy the voucher, ask the restaurant to match the price.
4. Mention special occasions: Many customers will tell their servers if it's their birthday, but Degel says they should mention just about any special occasion - even a first visit to the restaurant counts. "If it's your first time here, we'll reward you," says Degel. "All restaurants are looking for first-time customers. We want to make a customer for life so we want to make a good first impression." Degel adds that it is extra helpful to chat it up with hosts and managers in order to build a relationship.
5. Tip: A good tip can come back tenfold, says Degel, and a small investment can yield surprising returns. "Tip a hostess and you’re going to get a better table," says Degel. "Tip a manager - you’re going to get incredible treatment - and you may get a free drink and dessert. A couple of dollars goes a long way."
6. Drop the competitors' names: Bring out a manager's competitive streak and talk up rival restaurants. "Mention the competition's name - 'Yeah, I go a few times a month' - and I'm going to want to blow you away," says Degel. A restaurant will want to pull you away from the competition and may offer you better deals or free items to bring you back for more.
7. Ask for tastings: Not sure about that wine or a dish? Degel says it's fair game to ask for a tasting. "Don't be shy," he says. "You're the customer and our job is to make sure the customer is king."
Follow Andrea Park on Twitter: @andreapark