Inflation and eating out on the cheap

Remember the budget dining articles from last year and in the spring?

Sorry, folks…but price increases have hit.  Things have changed a bit too.  So…where to eat and what will it cost these days?

Remember when Waffle House was cheap?  Not quite so cheap anymore, although it is cheap for several cups of coffee on a break.  A meal for 2 even at Waffle House typically comes in at about $12-18, plus tip.  The service isn’t the same at all of them either–it’s usually fair to good, and the one that scored the worst is on Highway 90 in Pascagoula towards the east edge of town (near the Walmart.)  Food has arrived at the table refrigerator cold and had to be sent back, waitresses are often less-than-efficient, gossiping with each other, etc.  There is never an adequate excuse for serving food at refrigerator temperatures when it’s supposed to be served hot.  Seriously, have you ever heard a waitress say “I was too stupid to realize that it needed heated before I served it out of the refrigerator.”?  All of the other locations we’ve tried, including the other one on Highway 90 in Pascagoula and the one on Highway 63 south of I-10 in Moss Point have been as good as we expect from Waffle House, with the down home diner kind of ambiance, and friendly staff.

Golden Corral in Gulfport is on Highway 49 north of I-10 a ways, is a great deal, even if it’s on the high end of “budget” dining.  It also delivers steak, seafood, fantastic salads, great food, a clean restaurant, and courteous staff.  It’s about $12 for dinner per person, offering discounts for seniors and reduced fees for children.  They also have high chairs.  I love their chocolate dipped strawberries for dessert and their steak is very good, served to order.  Want to save a buck? Drink water with dinner–it takes off as much as 10-20% of your meal price and is good for you too!

A great local restaurant for lunch or an earlier dinner is of course the Annex.  Reasonable prices, non-chain, local owners & staff, what more could we want to go with the decent food?  Find it on the south side of Highway 90 in Pascagoula, just east of the bridge to Gautier.

Chinese buffets seem to be a Gulf Coast standard.  We have LY Buffet and the China Garden on Highway 90 in Pascagoula, both on the north side of Highway 90 east of the hospital.  They are pretty similar, and preferences can be pretty individual.  My daughter prefers China Garden, I prefer LY Buffet…just don’t ask us to say why!  Both restaurants are clean, the food is good, and it’s going to run you about $12 per person for dinner.

Fast food used to be cheap food, and the buffet at KFC used to be a $5 buffet.  Now, it’s a $6 buffet and that doesn’t include your drink.  Last year, I preferred the location on Highway 63 in Moss Point to the one on Highway 90 in Pascagoula because of fresher food kept in reasonable quantities in the buffet and friendlier staff, but that’s no longer the case.  This year, I prefer the Highway 90 location for those features.  Also, unless you are a big eater…you will probably save money by purchasing one of their smaller meals rather than the buffet.  Always look to make sure it’s stocked, fresh, and has the things you want (crispy versus roasted versus original chicken, etc.)  The Highway 90 has gotten a new facade, and slightly more friendly staff, whereas the Highway 63 location has apparently lost someone who made their team happy!

Our ultimate bargain burger?  Definitely a Checker special.  Checkers consistently delivers fresher tasting food than any of the other fast food locations.  They usually have something appealing on special as well.  My favorite guilty pleasure is also their cheesecake sundae–it’s to die for!

Fast, cheap pizza?  Our favorite is Papa John’s on Highway 90 in Pascagoula.  Cheap, ready made pizzas of consistent quality.  For just over $5 each, they are among the cheapest “fast foods” to serve a group too, with 6-8 slices per pie.  Another choice is the luncheon pizza buffet at Pizza Hut but their individual pizzas score too high on the dollar to qualify as truly “budget” after the buffet ends.  Domino’s Pizza on Highway 90 in Pascagoula is slow–the staff didn’t even know what their specials advertised in the windows were, and the “team leaders” who had to correct the order were hard to get to the front.  In addition, on our last experience, every time the phone rang, our order went on hold to accommodate the phone in order, making the process of placing the order take over 15 minutes before the pizza even went to the oven.  An hour after we arrived, we had a pizza of no better quality than Papa Johns (just a block away) and it cost three times as much after an incredible arduous ordering process.  Obviously, the ready made pizzas were far more appealing at Papa Johns after that!

Second favorite budget treat is a McDonald’s Hot Fudge Sundae for a dollar, but due to the nonchalant attitudes of the workers at McDonalds (not only in Pascagoula and Moss Point–it seems to be a common problem) it is inconsistent in how much “fudge” is added.  Sometimes it’s barely a drizzle, sometimes its on the bottom and on the top.  It’s a chocolaholic’s form of Russian Roulette, I suppose!

The new kid on the block in Pascagoula is Cane’s Chicken Fingers.  I’ll confess, I’ve never bothered stopping.  I have tried them before, both in Metairie and Gulfport.  The chicken fingers are good, and the rest is “okay.”  I’m definitely NOT impressed with their dipping sauce either, and I don’t drink sweet tea–I’m one of those rare birds that likes my tea without sugar when it’s on ice.  I’m not a lemonade fan either, so they don’t have a lot of appeal to me.  Before, I found them somewhat high priced and uninspiring.  Still, it’s a new restaurant, with a steady stream of customers, so they seem to be doing SOMETHING right.

There are also other fast food in Pascagoula–most have a “dollar menu.”  It’s usually their smaller sandwiches with fewer toppings and can save you a lot compared to spending $5 for a sandwich.  Do you really want 800 calories compared to the 400 of the smaller sandwich anyhow?  Other calorie hints–skip the mayo and “special sauces” and stick to mustard or plain, as well as avoiding the cheese and bacon.  Fries are also expensive in comparison to sandwiches, both in terms of fat as well as the dollar.  Really hungry? Try two smaller sandwiches instead of the sandwich & fries, or opt for the small salad offered on some budget menus.

Barnhills Buffet in Moss Point is on my “I will not risk my health there again” list.  I don’t know if its raised its prices again, or improved.  My last visit there found the restaurant filthy, the restrooms appalling (so bad that I took photographs and emailed them to the corporate office.)  I sent a complaint, never heard from anyone, and don’t intend to visit another.  Everyone razzes me and tries to get me to try the Gulfport location…but I’m just not that brave.  Food poisoning is NOT very pleasant, and I try very hard to avoid it.  I’d never recommend the restaurant to anyone.

**Hints for the savvy budget diner

  • Don’t forget to tip the waitress/waiter.  In sit down establishments, whether they are budget or fine dining, tips are a substantial portion of their wages.  These people  are working for a living too–and they are also dealing with inflation.  Reward mediocre to good service with appropriate tips.  I am a firm believer in 10% for mediocre, more for better.  If you have a messy child (or adult) along, then tip extra to compensate for the extra clean up time!  (I usually add at least $2 for even mediocre service if I have my granddaughter along, and I tell the waitress there is extra for the mess.  It’s only fair!
  • Don’t tip for bad service!  The industry standard may be 15-20% these days, but mediocre service is really only worth what you regard its value to be, and to me…mediocre is NEVER worth more than 10%, especially if it’s delivered without courtesy and a smile.  I may not be inspired to complain to the management about a bad waitress, but I am inspired to keep my money rather than pay her for it!  Of course, as an alternative, a “tip” can be a note that had she given better service, there would be cash on the table rather than this note.  (I’ve done it on occasion.)  Be reasonable though–service is slow when its busy or short staffed.  A new staff member will struggle and make errors.  Sometimes the kitchen screws up orders, it’s not the wait staff’s fault.
  • If you have a rude or abrasive member in your party…slipping the wait staff extra tip money to compensate for tolerance is also a good policy.  They should get an extra reward for putting forth extra effort to not react negatively even when provoked.
  • The whole point of a tip is to reward excellence, not pay for slovenly efforts.  Just remember, both the culture and the IRS assumes that a substantial portion of their wages comes from tips, and they depend on them to pay their bills too.  Don’t be excessively critical or a miser when it comes to tipping.
  • I advocate using cash for tips–then you know they are getting the money.  Some less-than-honest business owners have been known to cheat their wait staff out of credit card tips, delay paying it to staff, or to charge a “fee” for their transaction.
  • If you linger and drink coffee for two hours, and don’t buy a meal, don’t think that leaving a quarter is reasonable for a tip.  You occupied a substantial portion of the “territory” for making money, were served coffee, etc.–tip for the time as well as the cost of your coffee.  It should never be less than a dollar either unless you had to get your own coffee from the pot!
  • Treat wait staff with courtesy.  They deserve it until they are rude to you.
  • If the food and/or the service is totally unacceptable, ask for the manager.  Lodge a complaint immediately.  It’s the only way that some of them even NOTICE there is a problem!
  • Use review systems on websites, and whether it was good, bad or indifferent, take a few minutes each month and write up something to help other diners find out about the good, bad, and ugly.  Good restaurants should have more customers, and the bad…need fewer!
  • If you have an exceptional (good or bad) experience, whether its at a chain fast food restaurant or a sit down restaurant, take the time to write a letter and specifically name the staff member and give the day/time.  Mail it to the restaurant, email it to the corporate office–it could make a huge difference in someone’s life!  That stellar effort should be rewarded, and the rude/inept team member needs to find an alternative career path.  No one wants to be responsible for “getting someone fired” but at the same time, I’ve seen some appalling behavior (including walking in on an argument at a fast food restaurant where the staff were throwing food at each other and screaming obscenities) that did not come to the attention of managers/owners/corporate offices.

About giascott

Writer, blogger, cook, grandmother, mother, wife, radio personality, outdoor enthusiast, dog enthusiast, crafter, artist, and part-time nut~~I've earned a lot of t-shirts in my day! I'm one of those crazy independent women who can cut down a tree, build you a shed, sew you a dress, cook your dinner, make some soap, pitch a tent, build a fire, catch some fish, dig in the garden, chase a kid or two, write you a poem, paint you a picture, and a dozen other things...just don't ask me to sing! I'm also embarking on a relatively new portion of my life, one of being disabled. I'm learning some lessons along the way about a lot of things too.
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