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Last week, as I jetted to Denver, I solicited my social media fam for recommendations for cheap eats.
Along with some genuinely solid ideas and many not-so-solid fast food solicitations, I heard one comment over and over.
“I don’t think anything is cheap here,” was a variation I heard from several people.
Though I’d never been to Denver, that assumption surprised me. In just about every U.S. city, particularly the big ones, there are top-notch budget eats and drinks to be found — if you only know where and how to look. The problem is, a lot of people seem to find the logistics of just that confusing, leading to limp wallets, defeated drive-through runs and sad, store-bought sandwiches.
So since I don’t want you to be that person, since my life mission is making sure everyone achieves culinary exhilaration without draining their savings account, I wrote this mini guide with tips to find super tasty deals for super tasty prices. (Don’t forget to look into public transportation so you don’t blow all your savings on Ubers):
Step away from all the white-owned restaurants. This is blunt, and clearly not universally true, but without a doubt a good starting point. I think we all know the difference between a white-owned place that makes fancy, interpretive tacos and a Mexican-owned place that makes …you know, like real Mexican tacos. While we’re on that note, remember this: there are some cuisines you can almost always count on to be budget eats — tacos, burritos, non-cheffy hamburgers and hot dogs, African, Middle Eastern, Greek, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian food (as long as they’re not considered “up scale,” which will be obvious, or owned by a white person who spent a few summers in those places and now is trying to recreate it at 500 percent cost). I mean basically stay away from “new American” and European cuisine and you’ve got a decent shot at some deals. If you do some asking around, you just might stumble into dream no-frills spots with some of the best grub in town, for under $10.
Get your happy hour on. If you’ve been pining over some of the hottest restaurants in town but they inevitably don’t fit your budget, hitting ‘em up for happy hour is a great option that will allow all your Instagram followers to believe you’re living the lux life without actually having to look up your credit card balance, hyperventilating, before paying the check. Depending on what city you’re in, check Thrillist, Eater or Timeout — those food pubs offer a lot of happy hour suggestions to get your search going.
Avoid trendy breakfast spots. Why is brunch so expensive? Honestly, it’s mostly eggs and carbs, which are some of the cheapest ingredients there are. I have indulged in some opulent brunches in my day — let’s not lie to ourselves, a perfect omelet with some oysters on the half shell and a glass of bubbly is DECADENT AND WONDERFUL — but those urges are mostly gone, if only because it’s easy to drop $50 at brunch without trying. Oh hey, that’s MORE THAN A FULL DAY’S FOOD BUDGET for me, now. These days, when breakfast is more than a couple steaming hot cups of coffee, it’s something simpler (read cheaper), like a donut or a bagel or an egg sandwich or a croissant. Usually get your fill of those items for under $4 and folks, I’ll take that over a $14 egg scramble any day.
New-school is hot, but old-school is cool. Honestly, truly. Aren’t you tired of Instagramming the same things as everyone else? Aren’t you annoyed at waiting 45 minutes to land a seat? Aren’t you sick of $16 burgers when, as it turns out, burgers don’t actually need that much assistance to taste good because ground beef and cheese and fat and a nice bun is just ….good? Well, lucky for you there’s an entire alternate food world. One in which less heralded pasta-and-red sauce spots, bare bones Asian eateries and grease-filmed diners are just waiting for you to step inside and see the reason they’ve stood the test of time (do you know how hard it is for ANY restaurant to survive more than 8 years these days??) Overly designed restaurants are not your friend. Part of the costs for that Instagram-y-ness is most likely being passed off onto your check. But thankfully for your tummy, the look of the place actually has nothing to do with what’s happening in the kitchen.
Scourge menus. Deals are hiding, sometimes where you least expect them. Yes, happy hours are a good start, but they’re not always even the best deal at a particular restaurant. Keep an eye out for options that are laid out in lil packages or combos — there can be value there. Or appetizers, one of the menu elements that varies wildly in pricing from place to place.
Hit up dive bars and breweries. Lesson No. 1: cheap beer does not mean bad beer. I’ve got no problems with PBR and High Life, especially when they’re not my first drink of the night, ya know? As an added bonus, those beers are almost hipster cool now??? Meanwhile, you can get some pretty stellar brews directly from the source for like $6. Go forth, drink beer, play some arcades, have some weird conversations, spill on the carpet (carpeted dive bars are the best) and have a lovely time.
Embrace 2 am dining. Maybe your dinner wasn’t quite enough for you. That’s fine! 2 a.m. dining is incredibly cheap and satisfying. There is not much in this world better than a street hot dog, slathered with mustard and sauerkraut or a slice of saucy, pepperoni-decked pie at that certain hour. You’ll feel like a queen, for no more than $3.