For millions of Americans, going out to eat was one of the first casualties of the recession.
To lure consumers back, many restaurants began offering great deals that can let you go out, without leaving your wallet empty.
To find out where the best deals, food and service were, 70,403 Consumer Reports' readers rated 101 different restaurant chains.
The Consumer Reports survey rated restaurants from family-friendly establishments like the International House of Pancakes to prime white-tablecloth affairs where one would expect to pay at least $40 per person.
Check out these strategies for stretching your dollar while eating out.
Show Your Age
Don't forget to show your age because it can save you a lot of money. Lots of family chains, like Bob Evans, Perkins and Eat 'N Park, have reduced menus for kids (usually under 10 or 12).
But they also have them for seniors (usually 55 and up). There are even dinner chains that offer free meals for kids on Tuesday, like Black-Eyed Pea, Chevy's Fresh Mex and Beef 'O' Brady's.
Plus, if you sign up ahead of time and let the restaurant know it's your birthday, then you can celebrate your special day by saving big bucks.
Look for Bargains
Don't forget to look for bargains, because if you seek the bargains, you'll find them.
In the Consumer Reports study, they scoured the menus of almost all of the 101 restaurant chains and found plenty of bargains.
There was everything from all-you-can-eat specials to buy-one-get-one-free appetizers and entrees and even off-peak dining specials. Some eateries also had low-cost upgrades, like adding chicken to a salad for $1. And some had lower prices for smaller portions.
Sometimes you can even find free food. Chili's Grill & Bar offers a deal for 10 meals for less than $7. Outback Steakhouse has 15 meals for less than $15.
Fine dining has been hit especially hard by the recession and that's why outlets like Ruth's Chris Steakhouse and Morton's offer bargains, like a $99 filet mignon for two with two appetizers.
Sign Up for E-mail Alerts; Complete Surveys
There are savings in it for anyone who takes the time to sign up for e-mail alerts and fill out surveys.
The Consumer Reports survey-takers looked on the Internet and found out about IHOP's National Free Pancake Day campaign and about Denny's Grand Slam and Grand Slamwich Breakfast Giveaway.
By signing up for e-mail alerts at dozens of restaurant chains, they were inundated with offers on everything from coupons for free dessert to a 20 percent discount.
Time Your Visit
There are plenty of opportunities for the frugal diner to cash in on savings by timing your visits on weekdays and off-peak hours.
For instance, Red Lobster offers crab ($15.99) and shrimp ($13.25) specials on Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Other chain restaurants offer soup-and-salad buffets from Monday through Thursday ($7 at Lone Star Steakhouse).
Eat at the Bar
Some chains offer bar menus that allow you to order for less.
For instance, pricey McCormick and Schmick's offers cheeseburgers and fries for just $2.95. They also offer tuna rolls for less than $4 and jambalaya for less than $5.
Are All Steaks Made the Same?
Tasters also were asked to sample steaks at 12 different restaurants in five states. The bottom line is that the steak at more expensive places, like Morton's, delivers on taste, but so does the steak at Outback Steakhouse.
Plus, everything at Morton's is served a la carte, whereas Outback includes sides in the cost of your meal, so you can get a steak of similar quality and deliciousness with all the trimmings thrown in.