That's starting to change, as Congress considers two bills that would require chain restaurants to provide information similar to that on a nutrition facts label on packaged foods in supermarkets.
Beyond restaurant nutrition, there are other tips and tricks of the trade that many diners don't know. Want to find out more restaurant secrets about food safety, portion sizes, and which foods offer the most nutrition -- and value -- for the buck? Keep reading.
One of the biggest restaurant secrets is nutritional information. Think about it: How many diners would chow down on one of Outback Steakhouse's Bloomin' Onions if they knew it contained an estimated 2,130 calories?
But that may be changing. Of the two bills going through Congress, one would require restaurants with 20 or more outlets to provide nutrition information however they choose, such as on brochures or web sites; another would require restaurant nutrition information on menus or menu boards.
"If it isn't on the menu then it isn't worth doing, because nobody sees it," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In New York City, where restaurants with at least 15 outlets were recently required to begin displaying calories on menus or menu boards, diners have taken notice. Some 90% of restaurant patrons said calorie counts were higher than expected, according to a survey by Technomic, a Chicago-based market research firm.
That information is changing what 82% of diners order, according to the Technomic study. Sixty percent of those surveyed said it also affects what restaurants they visit.
Want more restaurant nutrition information now on what you're eating? Check web sites. Most fast-food chains already provide this information online, as do a handful of dinner-house chains. Yum Brands, which owns Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and other brands, is starting to place calorie counts on menu boards at all company-owned restaurants nationwide and will finish the work by 2011.
Off-Site Food Preparation
To cut down on labor costs, speed up service, and reduce the risk of food-borne illness, many chain restaurants and some independent restaurants serve food that is partially or fully cooked elsewhere, often in a central kitchen or food-processing facility. The practice helps restaurants solve training issues caused by the industry's high employee turnover rate.
"There are big labor savings," says Barbara Fields Brown, director of operations for Global Concessions, which owns 12 restaurants at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. "And we do not have to be worried about a lot of cross-contamination, because the food has already been cooked."
For diners, the benefits are less clear. They'll find consistently prepared food at chain outlets across the country. But if they'd like their steak prepared without seasoning or less salt in the chicken fajitas, they're out of luck.
How Clean Is the Restaurant?
Restaurants accounted for 41% of food-borne disease outbreaks between 1990 and 2006, according to a report compiled by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Private homes accounted for 22%.
Checking out a restaurant's health inspection report offers just a snapshot of its cleanliness on one day. If you live in a state or region where inspection reports must be posted in a restaurant or grades placed on entry doors, take the time to check out the information. Some inspection forms show previous grades, giving a more complete picture of a restaurant's attention to sanitation.
Many states and regions are moving to put restaurant health scores online, too. Find out who inspects restaurants in your area, then go online and look for scores. Hint: Many are listed under the "environmental health" section of local health department web sites.
Many restaurants have stringent food safety policies and training programs. Check out their web sites or ask a manager for information. Find out if the restaurant offers sick leave to employees. Many don't, which means sick employees are likely to show up for work and potentially spread illness.
Economy's Impact on Restaurant Food
As restaurants adjust to having fewer patrons, they may be adjusting what's on the plate to keep prices low. That can mean reducing the portion size of more expensive foods, or substituting less costly items, all of which can affect restaurant nutrition.
Some restaurants are shrinking portions of meat and adding more vegetables and starches. More steamed broccoli is a good thing, but watch out for plates heaped with starches heavy in calories and saturated fat, such as buttery mashed potatoes and noodles in a cream sauce.
Other restaurants are leaving portion sizes alone but switching from more expensive, leaner cuts of meat, like tenderloin and pork chops, to fattier meats such as pork shoulder (Boston butt), spare ribs, beef short ribs, and chuck roast.
Here's another restaurant secret: For the best bargains and the most nutrients, stick to the center of the menu. Entrees usually have lower markups and more nutritional balance than other parts of a menu, like desserts, beverages and appetizers. A non-chocolate dessert may cost more than four times as much as the ingredients it contains. Lobster, on the other hand, is priced much closer to what it actually costs the restaurant, says Kevin Gillespie, executive chef at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta.
Small plates that are scaled-down versions of entrees can be a good deal. But watch how many you order, to keep calories and costs under control. Restaurants that have switched to small plates report higher check averages, because customers typically order more food.
On a special diet? Check a restaurant's web site before you go. Many restaurants, especially chain restaurants, include restaurant nutrition information about allergens, gluten-free foods, and diabetic exchanges online even if they don't disclose calories and other nutritional data.
Ask for a customized plate if you're on a restricted diet, but understand that not all restaurants can fulfill your request. While some chefs enjoy the creative challenge of preparing a low-sodium or low-fat meal, a special meal may be tougher at high-volume restaurants that may rely on meats or entrees prepared off-site.
Watch the Seafood
Be picky about seafood. Chef and author Anthony Bourdain clued foodies in to an unwritten restaurant secret -- never eat seafood on Mondays -- in Kitchen Confidential. That's because many restaurants, except a select group that specialize in fresh seafood, don't get deliveries over the weekend. And seafood deteriorates much more rapidly than meat and poultry.
Carvel Grant Gould, executive chef at Atlanta's Canoe, adds another warning. "I reject stuff all day long, and then they sell it to somebody else," she says. "You ought to eat your seafood in a place that's very reputable."
You can't check out a cooked piece of fish as you would a raw filet in the supermarket, but you can still evaluate it for freshness. When the plate comes to your table, smell the seafood. If it smells fishy, or of ammonia, it's not fresh.
Foods High in Sodium
Foods prepared in restaurants as well as packaged foods are often high in sodium, even those that seem healthier. A McDonald's Premium Southwest Salad With Grilled Chicken and Newman's Own Creamy Southwest Dressing has more sodium (1,300 milligrams) than a Big Mac (1,040 milligrams).
Sodium counts can be higher at dinner-house chains, where the portions are often large. An order of grilled pork chops at Romano's Macaroni Grill contains 3,540 milligrams of sodium, more than double the amount most adults should eat in a day. A child's portion of macaroni and cheese comes in at 1,980, according to the restaurant's web site.
Check nutrition information if it's available. Some restaurants provide sodium information or suggest lower-sodium options, even if they don't disclose complete nutritional data. Outback Steakhouse suggests that guests who want to cut sodium order salads without croutons or dressings, and get burgers and sandwiches without cheese, sauces, bacon, and dressings.
If you are trying to control how much sodium you consume while dining out, the American Heart Association recommends asking that your food be prepared without salt. It also advises using pepper or fresh lemon juice instead of salt to season your food. But if the food is prepared in a central facility rather than in the restaurant's kitchen, you may not be able to get a meal prepared without added sodium.