Where Have All the Early Birds Gone?


Coupons for two-for-one dinners, discount drinks and similar food deals proliferate. But it appears that the once-popular early-bird dinner is either an endangered species or&emdash;puzzlingly&emdash;something restaurateurs would rather keep on the down low.

For three weeks, I searched local papers for early-bird advertisements, finding only one: Eastern Empire (460 Howe Ave.), which offers a $12.94 all-you-can-eat dinner on Thursdays from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. So off to the Empire I went, with boyfriend in tow. While we were pleasantly surprised to walk into a quasi-elegant restaurant featuring subdued lighting and fresh food cooked to order, we were not prepared for our waiter’s response to our query about the early-bird special. You need to bring in the coupon for that, he said, mumbling something about our walking next door to Safeway and buying a paper.

But the ad I’d seen in The Sacramento Bee was simply that&emdash;an ad&emdash;and there was nothing to indicate that we needed to bring it to the restaurant to qualify for the special, which would have saved us only $2 off each dinner, anyway.

Equally odd was the response from our server at Zinfandel Grille (2384 Fair Oaks Blvd.). Though Zinfandel promotes its early-bird deal&emdash;20 percent off food ordered between 4:30 and 6 p.m. on weekdays&emdash;on its website, our otherwise affable waiter shifted uncomfortably when we asked about it. Um, I don’t really know too much about the early-bird special, he began, rambling on with a complaint about customers who don’t tip appropriately. Waiters don’t do too well when people order off the early-bird menu, he finished.
But he recovered nicely and so did we, enjoying a lovely meal and saving nearly $8 in the process.

Without any other options in sight, I called Buggy Whip Restaurant (2737 Fulton Ave.), reasoning that any restaurant that’s been around since the Eisenhower administration (and caters largely to an older clientele) might offer an early special. Bingo: It does, every night from 5 to 6 p.m., when you can get one of five entres (teriyaki chicken, salmon, sirloin steak, ground sirloin and veal cutlet) for $13.99.

It’s a good deal, considering these items normally run $3 or $4 more apiece, and you still get the whole spread, which includes soup, salad and rolls, plus potatoes (baked or mashed) or rice. And because our waitress was abundantly cheerful when we inquired about the specials, it was the only restaurant where we didn’t feel vaguely sheepish when we let it be known we were there for a bargain. (Total savings: $11 on dinner for three.)

The early-bird world is a mixed bag. You have to eat early, and you may encounter some oddball behavior from the restaurant staff. You also may feel awkward about putting your cost-cutting cards on the table.
But if you don’t mind the emotional expense of it all, the early-bird special may be a bargain worth seeking.