You can get a lot of bang for your buck in casual dining these days. I took the family out to our local On the Border -- Brinker International's (NYSE: EAT) Mexican concept -- on Sunday, just as it opened.

Going over the menu, an insert popped out at me. A bowl of chicken tortilla soup, an entree, and a brownie a la mode were bundled at $9.99. That's actually nearly as much as the soup and dessert cost on their own! The rest of my family wasn't sold, but I know a deal when I see one. I was told that I was the first customer to order the new trio at the Miami location, since the $9.99 trio promo went into effect that very day.

Yes, fast food and casual-dining chains are responding to the economic hardship by offering specials and combo deals they've never needed before to draw in crowds.

Don't believe me? Here are a few deals to be had out there.

  • Sonic (Nasdaq: SONC) is offering half-priced drinks during its Happy Hour from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
  • Yum! Brands' (Nasdaq: YUM) Pizza Hut is advertising its $5 one-topping hand-tossed medium pizzas, a deal other delivery chains have warmed to from time to time.
  • Casual dining websites rarely used to advertise prices, but a quick visit to Darden's (NYSE: DRI) OliveGarden.com pitches its new five-cheese stuffed rigatoni with sausage as "starting at $9.95."
  • The latest Ruby Tuesday (NYSE: RT) televised ads showcase its handcrafted burgers, "starting from $6.99."
  • Benihana (Nasdaq: BNHNA) rolled out an ambitious online ad campaign earlier this year, promoting its Lunch Boat special for less than $10.
  • Even pricey chophouse Morton's of Chicago (NYSE: MRT) is featuring its steak and seafood dinner for two at $99 on its website. OK, so $99 may not be cheap, but it's an upscale steakhouse bargain, and a "rare" sighting of a priced special on a chophouse website.

Add it all up, and it's clear that restaurateurs are stressing value -- and attractive price points -- to get hungry skeptics inside. This isn't an easy proposition for the operators, especially with food costs rising at their highest rate in 17 years.

Restaurants can work around that, emphasizing deals on food items that haven't been hit with cost hikes, but it's clearly not the ideal scenario. Higher costs and cheaper price points will crimp margins, but restaurants know that's a better option than watching over empty tables.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz wonders whether he can still consider himself a foodie if he keeps patronizing chain restaurants. He does not own shares in any companies in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.