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Cheap Eats

By Lavender June 4, 2010

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Watch the Calendar and the Clock

Hey, who doesn’t smack his or her lips over a bargain—especially when it involves something lip-smacking-good to eat? If, as I strongly hope, pigging out on macaroni salad at an all-you-can-consume buffet doesn’t do it for you, not to worry. Many a local restaurant of higher culinary stature is eager to fill its tables at other-than-prime-time hours, and stands ready to oblige. The secret for those of us with caviar tastes but a tuna-fish budget is to watch the calendar and the clock.

It 7:30 PM, and the queue’s already out the door. That’s because it’s almost time for After Eight at Broder’s Pasta Bar, which draws devotees Sundays through Thursdays with its own sweet deal. Here, $28 buys dinner for two, plus a half-carafe of vino. First, a bowl of elite olives comes your way, followed by the kitchen’s dangerously addictive focaccia. Next, your amiable server sets down two salads, decorated with tasty baubles such as walnuts and blue cheese. Then, choose two pastas from a list that careens from nice (a polite Margherita) to naughty (as in the pepper-fired Puttanesca). Belly up to the counter for the Minneapolis version of Mario in action, or choose a two-top if privacy’s the aim.

Why settle for the sleaze of Block E when you can rise—literally—above it to dine at Cosmos, the culinary diva of the Graves Hotel? The catch is, you have to arrive weekdays before 7 PM, when $35 snags you a three-course feast for the cost of a single entrée as the clock ticks on. First comes a starter, such as tuna tartare or diver scallops, followed by choice of entrée that may include halibut with cauliflower risotto; New York strip and blue-cheese potato gratin; or stuffed chicken breast in pear-ginger sauce. Desserts include chocolate gateau and crème brûlée. Trade up from the Levi’s to blend into this quietly classy room.

Well, you already know that Nick and Eddie’s is the place to see and be seen, but recently, it has amended that unspoken “and to spend” part, at least in the bar. Choose a table that nails a view of Loring Park to savor the nightly special: roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, lamb stew atop polenta, or whatever the toques have cooked up. The price? A mere—gasp!—$8. Note to big spenders: $10 will get you the smorgasbord plate (think Swedish meatballs, pirogi, salmon-topped blini, latkes loaded with whitefish salad), generous enough to share over a martini.

Flush foodies head to Café Levain for that special birthday dinner. But their thriftier neighbors pop in on a Sunday night, when a three-course menu sells for $20 for the vegetarian version, and $25 for carnivores. That buys you, say, the parsnip-pear potage, a Bibb lettuce salad, and entrée du jour (um, nuit)—recently, braised beef short ribs with caramelized Brussels sprouts and butternut squash in apple gastrique, while across the table, the devout vegetarian dug into a pearl barley risotto attended by the same robust veggies.

Same deal at Café Maude, but here, the price break extends to Mondays, too. Choose an app, entrée, and dessert from an abbreviated menu; add a glass of beer or vino; and blush at the paltry tariff—$25—which gives a grand new meaning to the anthem “Yes we can.”

Lots of happy hours offer half-price apps, but who needs yet-another greasy heap of hot wings? Head, instead, to Saffron, where whiz-chef (James Beard Award nominee and Iron Chef contender) Sameh Wadi does it up proud with tasty samplers from his homeland, Palestine, including a delectable lamb BLT; a pair of samosas plump with well-seasoned potatoes; and a side of tart homemade yogurt, or a baby-size helping of tagine, AKA stew—in this case, housemade lamb sausage, tomatoes, chickpeas, and more, topped with a baked egg. Bonus: Come back for a postshow snack, and reap the same deal after 11 PM.

Can’t afford the good life at La Belle Vie? Think again. Simply opt for the clubby lounge instead of the dining room—same talent behind every plate.

Or, visit any fine-dining restaurant of your choice, and make a dinner of a couple of apps sans entrée, as I do when I travel solo, and want to see what’s on a chef’s mind. Well-known secret: Chefs offer their most forward and playful fare on the starter list, saving the staid, safe stuff for the mains. Plus, you often get a clever little sweet sent out from the kitchen with the bill, so dessert’s on the house.

Another option: Find a kitchen specializing in small plates, such as The Sample Room, to mix and match a dinner of your choosing from a laundry list that ranges from meat options to fish, cheese, veggies, and more.

The fare at the Downtown Radisson’s FireLake is both interesting and affordable to begin with, but, further easing the purse strings, every Sunday is BYOB night—meaning no corkage fee for your bottle from the wine shop.

Any night you’re a theater patron, peruse your program for discounts offered with a ticket stub. Park Square, Brave New Workshop, Jungle, Guthrie, and others help out their neighboring businesses this way.

Twice a year, it’s restaurant week, which means that dozens of participating business offer loss-leader menus of three courses for under $30 (even cheaper at lunch). Here’s your chance to find out what all the buzz is about at some of the hottest venues.

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