A Tale of Two Restaurants

March 29, 2011

The two most substantial discount restaurant gift cards I received (to wait staff joints) were Chili's and Red Lobster. Both of which I lump into the same category of national chain restaurants, the seafood being slightly higher in price, but similar in many aspects for a sit-down experience. Boy was I wrong.

First off, I found two Chili's gift cards for 11% and 12% off--on a $50 meal that means we score a kid's meal for free (which is huge as our children eat grown men quantities). Plus we get the added bonus of being able to use the Chili's gift card at Corner Bakery, On the Border and Maggiano's. Entree prices range between $8-$13 for most meals and queso and chips are free for signing up to receive Chili's email newsletter. Both visits to Chili's ran us around $27, including tip and tax, for good 'ole, no-fuss American fare and a comfortable atmosphere.

And yes, I ate lunch out with Sweet Girl and the Zoolander Hunk at Chili's today, by myself. They should give free desserts to moms and dads to try that kind of selfless stunt. The highlight of our time was when the boy ate half a crayon immediately before he hurls my iPhone into the window. Our food came out amazingly fast today.

Even with a slightly lower discount on Red Lobster Cards (10% off), the percentage would have to be nearer to 25% to come close to the value and quality of Chili's. Red Lobster serves up pinky-sized shrimp swimming in butter and slaps an $18 price-tag on it. No seasoning, no spice, just bland, butter-drenched, sea-dwelling dwarves who should have grown a bit more before boiling. Maybe that's what seafood is supposed to taste like in Yankeeville, but living closer to Louisiana we need some pow! in our fish. I will, however, vouch for their dinner rolls. Both hubs and I have never tasted a more delicious garlic butter bread. But the dinner salad looks like puny leftovers and the entrees weren't much better. Our saving grace during both trips? The lobster tank, which kept our little red mobsters entertained. Average cost per visit for same amount (but inferior quality) food: $46 including tip.

Part of this gift card journey is determining value--and it doesn't just mean the bottom line. If I enjoyed every morsel of $46 Red Lobster grub, it would be completely worth it for me. But it stands for all future gift card purchases that Chili's will be better for our value in all areas, and more practical for our stage in life. Does that mean I'll never order a Fogo de Chao gift card for an extravagant night out? Absolutely not! We love good food and will take advantage of 20% off restaurant gift cards to expensive places.

Generally speaking, the faster the service, the lower the discount. Chick-fil-a and Chipotle discounts hang around 8-10% off, where as sit-down service places have better bargains--but tip isn't an issue with fast food either. Even though most restaurants are more expensive, substitutions for fruit and other more healthy options ratchet up the bill considerably at faster places.

We're staying put for dinner the next few nights to give me a break, but a few more gift cards remain. I chickened out returning my receipt-less Target frames yesterday (which would give me an extra $50 there). Determined to get the job done today...

-Ashley

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