Want proof that we're all hunting for good restaurant deals? Look no further than the 2 million free breakfast meals given out by Denny's on Feb. 3. After its TV ads ran Feb. 1 during the Super Bowl, the company's website got more than 40 million hits, causing it to crash.

Other than Ikea offering free breakfasts during its "Seize the Days" monthly offers, I haven't noticed many other companies hopping on the free-meal train. But restaurant specials are easier to find in this economy. "People still want to eat out and have fun," said David Garvis of Twin Cities Originals, a group of independently owned restaurants. "They just want a little economic incentive to do so."

Anyone with a Happenings book is used to buy-one-get-one-free deals, but some of the new incentives are almost giveaways. Restaurant.com, for example, occasionally sells $25 gift certificates for $5, an 80 percent savings. How can a restaurant afford it? Joe Kaplan, owner of Joe's Garage in Minneapolis, said he doesn't receive even the $5. "We get free advertising on the site and hope that we get first-time diners who will spend more than the minimum and come back," he said.

But there is no guarantee. Kaplan dropped out of one discount program after noticing that many of its customers ordered only the BOGO and water. He's hopeful that his restaurant will hold its own with entrees under $20.

We compiled a list of restaurants and websites offering incentives, but because it's only a sampling, feel free to send in your own tips or dining deals for a possible followup. When all else fails, call and ask the restaurant about specials, early or late dining deals, half-price-wine nights, happy hours and kids-eat-free specials. And remember to tip on the full amount of the check when using discount coupons.


Your mailbox. Open the envelope of coupons from Valpak or go to www.valpak.com. The blue Valpak envelope of coupons I received in last week's mail had three coupons for restaurants in my neighborhood. The site had online-only offers.

Daily newspapers and neighborhood weeklies. Check out the Star Tribune on Mondays for the 50-percent-off weekly deal at one featured restaurant. Past deals have included Palomino, Bloomington ChopHouse, Chez Daniel and Tryg's. Go to www.startribune.com/halfpricedining. Neighborhood weeklies such as Sun papers always have coupons.

Restaurant.com. Type in your ZIP code for restaurants in your area. You can get 50 percent discounts all the time, but for better deals, sign up for e-mail alerts when the discounts increase to 60, 70 or 80 percent. Selection is usually best on the first of the month when a new allotment of gift certificates is posted. Later in the month, the discounts increase if you use the discount code provided. Currently, use the discount code ENJOY to receive 70 percent off. In other words, a $50 gift card costs $15. The program is national, but more than 40 Twin Cities restaurants are listed, including Conga Latin Bistro, McCormick & Schmick's, Country Kitchen in New Hope, and Dangerfield's in Shakopee. The deals can be amazing, but check the fine print at each restaurant. The discount might apply only on certain weeknights, and there might be a minimum purchase amount or a limit of one certificate per table.

Restaurant websites. Many have Web-only specials. A check at www.murraysrestaurant.com showed a beef tenderloin for two for $70 on Friday nights. If you're not an Internet user, call the restaurant and ask about specials. At GreenMill.com, you can print a coupon for a free entree ($8 value) with the purchase of two drinks and another entree. Prima in Minneapolis (www.primamn.com, 612-827-7376) has a $28 prix fixe special for two that includes wine, salad, pasta and dessert (late seating).

Twin Cities Originals (www.tcoriginals.com, 651-286-6788). There are two ways to save. Get $10 credit on a rewards card for each $150 spent at participating restaurants. (Earn double points on Tuesdays.) Also, save 30 percent on gift cards during quarterly online sales. The 30 restaurants include Afton House Inn, Ike's and Murray's in Minneapolis, Luci Ancora in St. Paul and Thistles in Robbinsdale. The next sale is 10 a.m. April 14. Nearly all certificates sell out within hours, so sign on early. Each restaurant offers about 10 $50 certificates and 10 $25 certificates discounted 30 percent.

Thrifty Hipster (www.thriftyhipster.com). For those looking for cheap drinks and cheap eats, Thrifty Hipster's site organizes the Twin Cities' bar/restaurants into six 'hoods. Sample bargain: the late-night (post-9 p.m.) bargains in Uptown, including Lucia's $3 taps, discounted wine and bar menu.

Coupon booklets/cards such as Metro Dining Cards ($26, 651-459-0919, www.metro diningclub.com). The 166 cards that offer two-for-one dining once a month are targeted to five Twin Cities zones. The old standby, the Entertainment Happenings book, is currently discounted 35 percent with free shipping ($22.75) at www.entertainment.com or 1-888-231-7283. The Blue Sky Guide ($20) includes more than 30 coupons for restaurants, available in co-ops or at www.ecometro.com.

Parasole's dining club card is free. Sign up in one of the restaurants or at Parasole.com. Check out the "tender prices for tough times" specials at Salut, Figlio, Muffuletta and Pittsburgh Blue. The Minneapolis Warehouse District Business Association has a card, too (www.mplswarehouse.com or call 612-334-3131 for participating restaurants). Many cards add $10 after spending $150.

Costco. Save 20 percent on $100 gift cards to Palomino and McCormick & Schmick's (in store only).

Sign up for a restaurant's e-mail alerts or rewards club. Don Pablo's sends e-mails about specials. Last week in their Valentine special e-mail, they added a free dip sampler to the card and occasionally add $10 to the card credit for a birthday, Father's or Mother's Day or for being a good customer.

Kids-eat-free sites. Try www.twincitiesmom.com/freestuff.html, which lists more than a dozen restaurants that offer free kids' meals on certain days of the week. Call ahead to verify the deal is current.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. For more restaurant deals, go to www.startribune.com/blogs/dealspotter.