Fine Dining on a Budget in Los Angeles

Dining on a Budget

Nobody sympathizes more with the plight of a gourmand on a budget than those who are behind the line cooking that expensive food. As a cook, I have often found myself in the unfortunate position of cooking and serving food that I could never afford to order myself.  However, all that hard work has paid off—I’ve figured out a few tricks that are helpful to know when looking for fine dining with a thin wallet.

Rule number one for diners on a budget: eat at the bar. The bar serves much of the same product as the dining room and is often cheaper. Often, bar food is also less pretentious and less fussy, just like the surroundings in which you eat it. I’ll give you an example. On an off day, I came into my own restaurant and sat at the bar, craving our soft shell crab entrée. When I saw that it cost forty dollars, my heart sank—all those times I’d prepared it for someone else, I never knew how much it cost. I turned my attention to the new bar menu and noticed that our soft shell crab sandwich only cost thirteen dollars. Same crabs. Same dressing. Same chef and cooks preparing it. Sure it came with fries and not the half-ounce of lobster and two miniature fried crab ravioli of its expensive counterpart, but I was craving soft shell crabs and there they were, for less than half the price.

An even better rule: eat late at the bar. Some places have more or better deals if you’re flexible on time.  Lucques, one of West Hollywood’s best known restaurants, is an excellent example of this phenomenon. If you want the typical Lucques fine dining experience, go on a Sunday evening, sit in a nice leather booth and enjoy one of Chef Suzanne Goin’s famous Sunday suppers. It’s just forty-five dollars for three delicious courses, although be advised: when you factor in the tip and drinks, the bill can add up. If you’re willing to stroll in a little later on another evening, you can choose from several menu options that are only available in the bar after 9:30 pm Monday through Thursday and after 10:00 pm on Fridays and Saturdays. Options include a crispy, gooey grilled cheese sandwich with roasted shallots, and creamy spaghetti carbonara, both under fifteen dollars, and outstanding steak frites béarnaise for just nineteen dollars. This is still Suzanne Goin’s food, but cheaper. In fact, the small space and the relaxed array of classic comfort foods create an amenable atmosphere that I prefer to the dining room or even the outdoor patio.

Another method for finding a great deal is to look into the smaller ventures of your favorite chefs. Just like in the bar of a great restaurant, the food at these places can often be closer to the chef’s heart: more comfort food than fancy food, and a great deal of fun. Lucky for us in Los Angeles, Mario Batali finally opened a version of a less formal, utterly delicious restaurant. Pizzeria Mozza resides right next to its sister restaurant Osteria Mozza, where sometimes you can spot co-owner Nancy Silverton making cheese at the mozzarella bar, While the Osteria provides a more formal dining experience, it can be a bit pricey for the budget conscious. Walk right over to its somewhat more chaotic neighbor, however, and you’re in for really fantastic food for a fraction of the price. Sound carries at Pizzeria Mozza; the ceilings are high and the tables are so close together that you will certainly hear what your neighbors are talking about, so until your food comes, watch the cooks shuffle pizzas in and out of the wood burning oven and enjoy loud conversation in good Italian style. While everything on Batali’s menu sounds enticing, the best deals are in the Piatti del Giorno- plates of the day- such as chicken alla cacciatore for seventeen dollars or lasagna al forno for twenty-one dollars. Or, just go for the gold and order the pizzas for which the place is so famous. Ranging from ten to eighteen dollars, the pizzas include creative topping combinations such as fennel sausage with cream, red onions, and scallions or mushrooms with fontina, taleggio and thyme.

Should you be in the mood for something sweet, you can visit another celebrity chef with a less expensive, less formal bar menu. In the lounge at Tom Colicchio’s Craft restaurant, you can get a tender cinnamon roll dripping with cream cheese frosting for twelve dollars or a favorite childhood classic, the root beer float, for just eight dollars. Because the desserts are playful and fun, this spacious, modern venue is a good place to end an evening out with a group of friends.

Budget-conscious foodies, the great chefs have not forgotten us. These less-formal bars, lounges, and sister restaurants were created for us—not just for those who can’t always afford to order three or four full courses, but also for those who might prefer a more relaxed ambience. Sometimes it can get a little crowded, but you can order another glass of wine with all the money you saved and chat it up with your smart-minded neighbors. This is Los Angeles after all. You never know who you might meet.

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