Consumer Reports surveyed 70,403 subscribers on their dining experiences at 101 restaurant chains. COURTESY PHOTO

If you want to save your cash and eat out too, you’re in luck. Experts predict a sales decline at restaurants this year, so diners are in the driver’s seat.

Consumer Reports ’ survey of 70,403 subscribers who made 158,744 visits to 101 restaurant chains revealed good meals, good deals and choices for every budget and taste. Readers gave 21 chains top marks for food, and five very different chains earned exceptional scores for value: Black-eyed Pea (home-style comfort food), Sonny’s Real Pit BBQ, Azteca Mexican Restaurant, Cheddar’s Casual CafÇ (eclectic American), and First Watch (eggs, pancakes, and sandwiches).

At the other end of the spectrum, with lower marks across the board, were Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar, Joe’s Crab Shack and Friendly’s.

WHERE TO EAT? : For great meals for less than $20, CR ’s readers recommend: Mimi’s CafÇ, Abuelo’s, Cheddar’s Casual CafÇ, Elephant Bar Restaurant and Texas Roadhouse. Those restaurants earned better-than average marks for food and value. First Watch and The Original Pancake House were also standouts for food and value, but are limited to breakfast and lunch fare.

When dining at a chain for a special occasion, Houston’s, J. Alexander’s, Biaggi’s Ristorante Italiano, Bravo Cucina Italiano, Maggiano’s Little Italy, Il Fornaio, Bonefish Grill, McCormick & Schmick’s, The Capital Grille, Morton’s The Steakhouse, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and The Melting Pot all earned the highest marks for food, mood, and service.

Not many respondents ordered takeout food, but at more than 70 percent of visits, people who picked up food were very satisfied with the service. Respondents cited Famous Dave’s, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Olive Garden and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro as better choices.

WHAT’S THE PROBLEM? : While respondents were generally satisfied with their overall dining experience, they did have at least one complaint on 43 percent of restaurant visits.

Noise (from loud customers and crowded tables) was the complaint cited most often. The Texas Roadhouse, Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar, and Hooters were among the chains cited with higher than average noise complaints. Sloppy service (waiters or waitresses were inattentive or slow to bring food or the check) was next. The Rainforest CafÇ, Friendly’s and the Cheesecake Factory were among the eight chains with above average complaint rates.

Friendly’s, Shoney’s and Logan’s Roadhouse were among the chains cited for lack of cleanliness (bathrooms or floors were dirty, tableware was grimy). There were also complaints about long waits, which were more likely than average at The Cheesecake Factory, Rainforest CafÇ, Texas Roadhouse, Houston’s, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro and Outback Steakhouse.

DINE FOR LESS: CR found that diners are all but guaranteed to come out ahead if they try any of the following great ways to save:

• Look for bargains on the menu. CR found plenty: buy-one-get-one-free appetizers and entrÇes; all-you-can-eat specials; lower prices for smaller portions; off-peak dining specials; and low-cost upgrades (add chicken to a salad for $1).

• Sign up for e-mail alerts. Chain Web sites are the best source of menu specials, discounts and other promotions. That’s how CR learned about IHOP’s national free-pancake-day campaign and Denny’s Grand Slam and Grand Slamwich breakfast giveaways.

• Show your age. Many family chains, including Bob Evans, Perkins Restaurant & Bakery and Eat’n Park, have reduced-price menus for kids (usually under 10 or 12) and seniors (usually 55 and up).

• Time your visit. On weekdays and at off-peak hours, there are many chances to economize. Texas Roadhouse, for example, features 10 $7.99 dinners Monday through Thursday.

• Eat at the bar. Pricey McCormick & Schmick’s has a bar menu offering cheeseburgers and fries for less than $3, tuna rolls for less than $4, and jambalaya for less than $5.

• Order takeout. Getting food to go at least saves the cost of a tip, and the list of chains accepting online and telephone orders is growing.

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