A full meal for $30: at your typical pub, that's doable. But at a truly exceptional restaurant, it seems much more unlikely. Still, we figured out a few ways to enjoy more elevated meals at a bargain price. Through a combination of nightly specials and strategic ordering, it's possible to eat like a king on a beggar's budget.
This Fort Point French looks as expensive as it was to build. (It's the result of a $4 million effort.) And in the kitchen is 30 Under 30 honoree Adam Kube, formerly of the Ritz-Carlton. But you can still eat dinner affordably by selecting a high-low mix of cuisine. Just start with the gnocchi à la Parisienne ($12) served with a mushroom bisque, spinach, and Gruyère, then opt for the decadent Bastille Burger ($18), topped with Roquefort, onion strings and bacon jam on a buttery brioche.
An oft-overlooked Spanish spot away from the main drag of South End restaurants, Estragon is tapas-focused. But you can have the best of both (small and large) worlds from Mondays through Thursdays from 5-7 PM. There's a $1 "Tapas Blitz" menu, so share half-a-dozen delights ($6) like patatas bravas and crispy fried chickpeas; order your own Pechuga Villeroy, goat-cheese-stuffed chicken breast with chile-peach coulis ($14), and dig into a sweet third course or something from Estragon's selection of dessert-friendly sherries.
This relative newcomer serves a sophisticated spin on American cuisine, and its interior resembles the dining room of a Victorian mansion. (It's named for landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted's Brookline estate Fairsted.) By appearances, not a value-oriented spot. But order smart, and you'll find yourself surprised. One possibility: start with a pig-head lettuce wrap ($5) with daikon and chile, then snag the salmon ($24) with lobster mushrooms, barley, spinach and Brussels sprouts.
This pricey Back Bay restaurant has been a stalwart steakhouse for 30 years now. (And it remains one of the city's top-rated.) But this year the redesigned bar concept introduced a whole new array of plates that will sate those with big appetites but leaner budgets. Start with a "loaded" potato pierogi ($12) with mushroom and horseradish, move on to a calamari po' boy ($12) with pepperoncini crema, and finish with a snickerdoodle ice cream sundae ($6).
Chef Anthony Caturano's upscale Italian is one of the North End's sauce-splattered crown jewels. But yes, you can eat well without breaking the bank. Start with the Bibb lettuce salad ($14) topped with blue cheese, apples and a walnut vinaigrette, then move on to a half-portion of pear ravioli ($16) in a sauce of braised rabbit with mascarpone and pecorino cheese. Total: $30. (And here's something to look forward to during the doldrums of winter: the annual "Prezza Snow Day" promotions, when Caturano takes the bite out of cold-weather days by offering a free half-order of gnocchi Bolognese, pictured, when you warm up with a $15 glass of Chianti.)
Sometimes you just need to change your seat to score a cheap meal. This Harvard Square standby from chef Jody Adams has a bar menu that affords an inexpensive dinner. You could start with any two of the $7 small plates (like the pork and proscuitto meatballs in a pepper stew) and then move on to a big dish of rigatoni Bolognese, roasted duck sandwich with Gruyère, or a fig pizza topped with ricotta and sunchoke: all are $14.
James Beard Award-winning restaurateur Barbara Lynch is probably not the first person that comes to mind when seeking an inexpensive dinner. But a sub-$30 supper can be had at her Fort Point Italian Sportello. Exhibit A: a starter of spicy tomato soup ($8) with caraway crostini, followed by the roasted chicken ($21) served with pancetta, Brussels sprouts and a red wine vinaigrette.
Chef Evan Deluty's trendy South End Italian is a popular selection for the see-and-be-seen scene. So it may come as a surprise that it's an affordable dinner option if you veer toward the (generously portioned) pasta plates. For instance, start with spicy mussels ($12) in a saffron cream and white wine with roasted peppers, then dive into a bowel of linguine ($18) in an asparagus cream sauce with poached egg and truffle.
Every Wednesday, chef Nuno Alves hosts a three-course dinner at his Dorchester Italian that culls inspiration from one of the 20 regions of Italy. (And features his fabulous homemade pasta, like housemade beet ravioli seen here.) At $30 per dinner, you can visit the whole Boot for less than the price of one plane ticket.
Owner Krista Kranyak now has three locations of her farm-to-fork favorites: Jamaica Plain, Harvard Square and Provincetown. A meal at her intimate, classy little establishments could cost you a pretty penny — but each also offers nightly specials that will save you some. Over at the Jamaica Plan original, that includes a special Thursday night deal on the bar side: pasta of the day and a glass of house wine for $14. That means you can still add a few bar bites, like pickled veggies ($5) or duck terrine with turnip kraut ($8), and stay within budget.