Cheap eats aren't quite what they used to be. In the past couple of years, fast-food chains including McDonald's axed dollar menus in favor of slightly pricier rosters of value-focused fare. And some casual-dining chains have pulled back on coupons and other offers that hurt their bottom line as the economy improved, according to Nation's Restaurant News.
But we've found that there are still great offers that can help consumers stretch a buck, whether you love burgers, pizza, or something in between. Just remember that many deals are offered only for a limited time, as many restaurants opt for seasonal deals over fixed value menus. Prices also may vary by location.
The nation's largest fast-food chain has long tried to provide a lot of bang for the buck. While its much-loved Dollar Menu is no longer around, the chain has resurrected that idea with the $1 $2 $3 Dollar Menu. A buck will get you a McChicken, cheeseburger, sausage burrito or any size soft drink. Spending $2 will get you a Bacon McDouble, among other choices; $3 can buy a Happy Meal.
Burger King has a fairly robust value menu, including a $1.69 double cheeseburger, $1 hamburgers and cheeseburgers, and $1 chicken sandwiches. Keep an eye out for limited-time offers, which right now include any two of three different sandwiches — cheeseburger, the bacon cheeseburger, or Chicken Jr. — a small fry, and a small drink for $3.79.
There are plenty of cheap eats to love on the Jack in the Box menu, which includes two tacos for 99 cents, $1 value fries, a $1.29 chicken sandwich, and a $1.39 Jr. Jack burger. Recent limited-time deals include three kinds of Sauced and Loaded Fries for $3, and a spicy chicken club sandwich combo for $4.99.
Wisconsin-based Culver's — found mostly in the Midwest, Florida, and Arizona -- has developed a loyal following with menu favorites like cheese curds and frozen custard. If you're eating there on a budget, a $5 Snackpak value meal will get you chicken tenders or one of the chain's famous ButterBurgers, crinkle-cut fries, and a small drink.
One of the best deals at Little Caesars is aimed at the lunch crowd: Customers can get a lunch combo that includes a four-slice deep dish pepperoni pizza and a 20-ounce drink for $5 every weekday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The chain also offers its Hot-N-Ready pizzas all day. They start at just $5 for a large pepperoni or cheese. Offers are pickup only.
Pizza Hut usually has a robust menu of rotating deals. Right now, pizza purists can get a large pizzas with any toppings for $5.99 each, or $7.99 for a large two-topping pie if they order online. Can't decide? You can also get a $10 Dinner Box with a medium one-topping pizza, five breadsticks and dipping sauce, and 10 cinnamon sticks with icing.
Cook Out, a drive-through burger joint found throughout the South, offers a great deal in the Cook Out Tray. Customers can choose an entrée such as a double burger, quesadilla, chicken sandwich, or two hotdogs, then add two sides and a drink for just $4.99. Upgrading the drink to one of the chain's 40-plus milkshakes costs $1.
Captain D's latest specials include $4.99 for a Nashville Hot Fish and Popcorn Shrimp meal that includes two sides and hushpuppies. For a few bucks more, you can get a Grilled Whitefish and Shrimp Skewer meal that comes with two sides and a breadstick. Families can opt for a 10-piece fish or 14-piece chicken value pack that includes two large sides and hush puppies for $20.
Found mostly in the South, Taco Bueno offers a "Pick 3" deal for $2.99. You'll have a dozen choices including tacos, burritos, nachos, quesadillas, tostadas, potato sticks, and churros. Still hungry? Add-on items won't break the bank, as the chain has an extensive menu of choices under $2.
Need a sweet treat after your pizza dinner? For $16, you can get a large pizza any way you want it, plus a medium chocolate-chip dessert pizza at Pizza Inn, located across the South. The restaurant also has an all-you-can eat lunch and dinner buffet with pizza, pasta, and dessert; prices vary by location.
If you're after some cheap, filling Asian cuisine, head to Pei Wei with a $5 bill. That will get you a regular-size bowl of orange chicken and rice any day of the week. On Mondays, it also buys a small Mongolian beef and rice bowl; on Tuesdays, it will buy a small teriyaki chicken and rice bowl.
Casual-dining giant Applebee's offers a couple of notable deals: late-night half-price appetizers and a two-for-$20 deal that includes an appetizer and two full-size entrees. Choices and participation may vary by location, but past selections have included wings, mozzarella sticks, a sirloin stir-fry, chicken pasta, and a burger.
One of the best values at Olive Garden
https://www.olivegarden.com/specials/lunch-duos-combosis on the lunch menu: For $6.99, enjoy an Italian meatball or eggplant parmigiana breadstick sandwich; grilled vegetable piadina; or spaghetti mini pasta bowl with salad and breadsticks. Spending $1 more opens up choices like fettuccine Alfredo; $2 more buys favorites like lasagna.
TGI Friday's doesn't limit its best deal to lunchtime. The casual-dining chain is offering a 474 menu all day with smaller, cheaper portions: six $4 appetizers, 15 $7 entrees, and two $4 desserts. Choices include green bean fries, wings, bruschetta chicken pasta, barbecue ribs, shrimp, and Tennessee whiskey cake. A limited-time promotion also offers two meat entrees and two sides for $14.99.
At Perkins, hungry diners can get a sit-down meal for less with the Great Plates $4-$8 menu with a dozen choices in that price range. Just $4 will get you loaded hash browns, a sausage biscuit breakfast or a cheesy egg melt breakfast. A couple bucks more buys grilled cheese and tomato soup, while $8 gets you meatloaf, mashed potatoes and corn or fish with fried shrimp and fries.
Customers can grab a meal for less at Romano's Macaroni Grill if they opt for lunch instead of dinner. A mix-and-match lunch special offers a choice of any two of the following: soup, half salad, half sandwich, half calzonetto, and half portion pasta, all for about $11. Diners can also choose unlimited soup and salad.
Got kids? Purchasing an adult entree at O'Charley's earns a free kid's meal every day. Other values include the $9.99er menu, which offers seven favorites including shrimp and rice pilaf, a homestyle pot pie, or fish and chips. For $3.99 more, add soup or salad and a slice of pie. Any entrée purchase will also earn you a free slice of pie on Wednesdays. And remember, many other restaurants also offer special kids-eat-free deals.
Head to Logan's Roadhouse early for the best dinner deals. Every day from 3 to 6 p.m., just $8.99 buys one of eight entrees and two side dishes. Your choices include a 6-ounce sirloin, smothered roast beef, fried fish, and a pork chop, while sides include cinnamon apples, potatoes, and house-made chips or fries. On Thursdays, you can get any burger, fries, and a beer for $10.
If you love Italian food, head to Carrabba's at the beginning of the week to save a little dough. The three-course Amore Mondays meal is $12.99 and includes favorites such as calamari, lasagna and linguine, and tiramisu. On Pizza & Wine Wednesday, all wood-fired pizzas are $10, and bottles of wine are $10 off.
The best values at gourmet burger joint Red Robin are available all day. It offers five burgers, including a new Taco Tavern Double Burger, for $6.99, served with all-you-can-eat steak fries (one of the chain's many "bottomless" sides). Appetizers such as fried pickles and pretzel bites are as cheap as $5.
Like most steakhouses, Outback serves up its best deals at lunchtime. The restaurant offers lunch combos starting at $7.99 for endless soup and salad. Spending $1 more allows a choice of four entrees including a chicken quesadilla or fish tacos, as well as soup or salad and one side. Spending $2 more buys choices like steak tacos or a burger.
If you're on an interstate, chances are there's going to be a Cracker Barrel sooner or later. Weekday lunch specials start at $5.99 and include baked chicken and stuffing on Mondays, chicken pot pie on Wednesdays, and turkey and stuffing on Thursdays. A country house salad with grilled chicken is available every day.
Casual-dining favorite Beef 'O' Brady's offers a different value option every weekday. Enjoy a burger and fries for $5.99 on Mondays; two tacos, chips and salsa for $5.99 on Tuesdays; cheap wings on Wednesdays; $9.99 fajitas on Thursdays; and $9.99 for fish, shrimp, and fries on Fridays.
BJ's has unveiled a slate of "daily brewhouse specials" to bring in more value-conscious guests. The most compelling deals include half off pizzas on Mondays and $10 loaded burgers with unlimited fries on Wednesdays. Rib lovers can also look forward to Thursdays, when $18.95 will buy a full rack of baby-back pork ribs, a house salad, two sides, and a dessert.
If it's Hump Day, taco lovers should head to Smokey Bones for a great deal: $11.99 gets them unlimited BBQ Street Tacos and chips after 9 p.m. every Wednesday. If you're more of a rib lover, go on Mondays, when you'll get unlimited giant Smoked Wings and fries during the same timeframe for $12.99.
White Castle, an early innovator in hamburger business, is offering several limited-time-only specials involving smoothies and their original chicken rings. For just $2.99, diners can enjoy 12 chicken rings, or they can get 20 chicken rings for $4.99. Also for a limited time, White Castle fans who order online or in the mobile app can get 10 original sliders, 20 chicken rings, and a sack of fries for the special price of $12.99. To wash it all down, peach, strawberry-lemonade, and strawberry-banana smoothies are $2.99.