Side Dish

Restaurants may be supersizing their offerings, but chintzy patrons are trying to downsize their checks

Can you polish off a 1-pound steak in a single sitting? A new restaurant survey conducted by the American Institute of Cancer Research reports that 67 percent of Americans finish their entrées most of the time or always. The AICR tactfully calls such gluttons "passive eaters" because they mindlessly dispatch every last morsel that's put before them. In recent years, a wellness backlash and restaurant-industry "value marketing" strategies have dovetailed to produce portion sizes big enough to satisfy Linda Tripp and Webster Hubbell combined.

The AICR advises ordering an appetizer in place of an entrée or requesting a half-portion of food. But chefs, managers and waitstaff complain that it's cheapskates, not healthniks, who are using these gambits. "Large groups of middle-aged ladies with husbands who have good jobs will come in here for lunch. They'll order entrée salads and get louder and louder and louder until the food arrives. Then, after they eat, they'll get louder and louder again and then want to split the check," grouses chef Steven Juda of Neruda. Chef Brian Menzel, of B. Tomas, is weary of accommodating one chintzy patron: "A doctor comes in here regularly and orders an appetizer or orders a half-portion. I'm not particularly fond of it. But you get a feel for the people. It doesn't bother me when they just don't want to eat a lot, but when they're trying to put something over on me, it gets under my skin."

Most restaurants, though, aren't so obliging. "We'll split an entrée if two people want to share one, but we don't do half-portions," says Phil Reed, manager of Zöe Pan-Asia Café. Nevertheless, Reed and the chefs we spoke to cringe to see food go to waste. "Our noodle dishes are very filling. A lot of petite ladies just can't finish them," Reed observes. "I have a pretty good appetite, so I usually clean my plate, but I don't blame anybody for taking food home. In fact, I recommend it." But if a tightwad has played her cards right, she won't have any leftovers. "I remember two older women who ordered two glasses of water -- with plenty of lemon wedges -- and wanted a salad split and an entrée split. They're really creative," Menzel admits ruefully. "You've got to give them credit for that."

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