Eat Out for Free (ish)

I recently caught up with a friend who invited me out for dinner as her treat. Being my frugal self, I agreed. We chatted on the phone beforehand and she mentioned that she was a mystery diner. From my days in retail, I knew what a mystery shopper was but I had never met a mystery diner. I was intrigued. “We have to order a drink and main course as a minimum. We’re not allowed to order the same thing and you can have up to two alcoholic drinks. I’ll need to ask the waiter a question about the menu too, but don’t worry about it. I’ll do most of the talking. The maximum amount we can spend including tip is £120.” £120? I heard correctly. My friend was taking me out for a £120 dinner and not a penny was leaving her pocket or mines.

My friend has been doing mystery dining for just a few months and in that time has been out on numerous assignments totalling almost £1000 worth of dinners.

How mystery dining works

Each mystery dining (MD) company has a database of clients (restaurants, cinemas, hotels) who require feedback on customer service. Each ‘assignment’ is advertised on a database accessible by all of its mystery diners who can then filter on location to see what’s available near them and whether they are eligible. There are specific requirements for each assignment including dining during certains hours on a specific date, ordering different menu items, being a party of two or four and asking specific questions to the restaurant on the phone ahead of the dinner.

Most often, you’ll be required to only take one person with you (breaking the rules will be obvious if your menu shows three drinks and three meals) and if you do not fulfil the other specific requirements in the assignment, you will not be reimbursed. You report also needs to be submitted in full by midday on the next working day or on Sunday if you dine on a Friday.


Mystery diners must pay for their meal as if they weren’t on an assignment. They must then scan or take a photo of their receipt and send it along with their report by the specified time. Reimbursement can take 6 – 8 weeks, so make sure you have enough money in your account to cover the cost for that time. Reimbursement is also subject to you completing the assignment correctly and your report being accepted.

Completing the report

The company requesting the mystery dining assignment will want to read a report with a high level of detail and clear prose. Your report will always be checked by someone at the mystery dining company before being passed on to the client. You will be told fairly quickly after submission whether or not your report has been accepted and what you can do to improve in future. The report length varies in length depending on the assignment but can take between 1hr – 1.5hrs to complete. Some reports may take longer depending on how quickly you can write.

Write well

In the short space of time that my friend has completed assignments, she has gone from Bronze to Platinum status (You’re either Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum). She’s progressed quickly because she always submits her report on time, answers every question in detail and sticks to the rules.

How to become a mystery diner

It’s free to sign up as a mystery diner, but whether you sign up depends on whether they need any more mystery diners in your location. My friend originally signed up as a member years ago in the South West, but since moving to London she has updated her details and is now eligible to dine out across London. If there isn’t demand in your area, be sure to check back regularly. You never know when they might need a new mystery diner. It can quickly become a cheap/free option for those who like to eat out. Search ‘mystery dining’ in Google.