About those coupon books . . .

"VALUE" MAY BE a relative term, but it's what customers expect when they take advantage of coupon books, discount cards and other enticements that restaurants use to get us in the door.

And while almost nobody doubts you can really save money with these things, the trick is in the fine print - making sure you know what, besides the door, you're getting into.

By far the most ubiquitous form of discount offer is the coupon book, generally a compilation of tickets offering a variety of deals from free drinks at coffee stands to two-for-ones and half-offs at some pretty tony restaurants.

It's in that fine print where you'll get an idea of just how good the deals are.

The books put out by Entertainment Publications Inc. are the largest in the coupon category, and offer the most consistency for consumers. Three versions of the book target broad areas (North Sound, South Sound, Seattle/Eastside) in Western Washington. A fourth "Gold C" book cuts a swath across all three, offering bargains at less expensive chain eateries and fast-food places.

The books - sold mostly by local groups such as PTAs as fund-raisers - offer deals not only on restaurants but also on travel, lodging, retail outlets and attractions such as the Puyallup Fair. The Seattle/Eastside edition is the most expensive at $40; South Sound is $35; North Sound, $30; Gold C, $10.

Not only do the Entertainment books offer the most coupons (nearly 600 restaurants are in the three main editions for 2001), they're also easier to follow than most of the promotional packets distributed by mail. Most direct-mailers are a mish-mash of free this-or-thats, you-name-it-percent-offs and two-for-one offers on a variety of products and businesses, some local, some not. The Entertainment book is arranged by category; restaurant deals must be two-fers or 50 percent off. And virtually all the coupons are good any day except holidays. Coupons in other packages often include restrictions - eliminating weekend nights, for instance.

Entertainment books can offer consistency because "we make the rules," says Steve Burman of the company's regional office. Since restaurants pay a fee to be in most other coupon packages, they buy some right to limit their offers, he says. In Entertainment's case, the businesses are not charged a fee, but must accept certain conditions. All coupons must follow the same format, for instance, so it's easy to check for details such as whether the offer is for lunch or dinner, what the maximum dollar value is and so forth. In the direct-mail packages, each coupon has its own look and its own offer.

The Best Of Publications Inc., Seattle, puts out free direct-mail coupon books that try to avoid some of those irritations. The good-looking coupons are aimed at the person who usually throws away "junk mail," says owner Michael Cairns. Books target specific neighborhoods, covering a variety of businesses, about a third of them eateries. But the deals vary wildly. One restaurant promises 15 percent off your breakfast, lunch or dinner bill (before tax and tip); the next, just complimentary soup and rolls with lunch, Monday through Friday only. That same coupon has a blurb on "Dinner," printed in the identical type size and style, which might lead the casual observer to conclude there's a deal to be had at that meal, too. A closer read shows there is no such offer. Other coupons tout "50 percent off," though it's only half off a second entree when the first is purchased, along with two beverages, at full price.

But since these things arrive at your doorstep free, the inconsistency is hardly something to get overexercised about. After all, you will save something, whether it's 3 or 4 bucks off a large pizza or a free appetizer with dinner. Many of the eateries are family-oriented and ethnic, catering to customers who want moderately priced meals in a casual setting.

The Entertainment coupon books trade heavily in the same kind of fare, featuring such standards as Azteca and Zoopa. But the books stretch into the next level of dining, too, offering coupons for such places as F.X. McRory's, Al Boccalino and even the lovely Salish Lodge at Snoqualmie Falls.

So, with all the options, do people actually take advantage of them?

Entertainment's Burman says research shows that in Seattle, for instance, people who own an Entertainment book typically use it twice a month, most of the time for dining, as opposed to the other activities promoted. If they patronize the less expensive places, it may take a few meals to recoup the cost of their books. If they dine at the Georgian Room in the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel, where they can save up to $36 on a meal, they've practically paid for the book in one sitting.

Burman says 80 percent of the customers with a coupon are using it to try a restaurant for the first time. Once the customer is in the house, it's up to the restaurant to win him over, which brings up the question:

Will you be treated just as well if you come in with a coupon looking to save a few bucks?

That depends on the restaurant. Many chains are quite used to dealing with coupons, so there's little problem. And in general, the better the establishment, the more likely the wait staff has been trained to make all patrons happy. That doesn't mean you won't ever run into a stinker. But there's little indication your chances of that happening are greater with a coupon. Again, the presumption is that the restaurant has put out the coupons with the express purpose of winning fans.

What's more likely is that a server or cashier won't know about the coupons or will have trouble deciphering them. We've found some minor glitches on that front, but nothing to come unglued over.

Newer discount programs may present similar problems until they become as familiar as the coupons. Some businesses, for instance, are signing up with programs that replace the coupons with a single card that looks like a credit card. Customers present the cards when making their purchases and receive whatever discount is offered. The advantage of these cards is that the discount can be gotten over and over again for the life of the card.

Newest of all in the discount market are offers over the Internet. The field is "too new to rate," in most cases, but both Entertainment and The Best Of publications are venturing in, using Web sites to post free print-and-clip coupons that can be used the same way as those offered in the books. (See www.entertainment.com and www.thebestofpublications.com.) The Best Of site is faster and generally easier to use, though some of the electronic coupons show expiration dates that came and went weeks ago. Cairns says that's because they've got so many coupons to post. He says most merchants have agreed to give people a grace period until the site gets caught up.

In the meantime, the advice for using these newer-fangled coupons is the same as it is for the more old-fashioned kind: Show your discount coupon/card up front, and remember to tip on what would have been the full price of your meals. Presumably, you didn't get half-off on the table or the service.

Kathleen Triesch Saul is a Seattle Times food writer. Paul Schmid is a Times staff news artist.