30 Great Meals Under $30
When a recent survey purported that the average meal in Boston costs $27.50, including drink and tip, we nearly choked on our foie gras. These days, it seems impossible to walk away from the table without plunking down a Franklin for dinner for two. Where were those pollsters getting their grub? After months of dining out, we know. Here are 30 Boston-area restaurants that offer the best value for your dollar. Turns out, they have something else in common: amazing food and friendly service.
$10 OR LESS
Spike's Junkyard Dogs
When we get a hankerin' for a hot dog, there's only one place to satisfy that urge. Located in the heart of Studentville (and let's face it, students know better than anybody where the best values are), this beachhead of the Providence-based chain serves up the best dogs in town: 100 percent beef, resting on a freshly baked bun. Add toppings like sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese (the “Reuben Dog”) or blue cheese, wing sauce, and scallions (the “Buffalo Dog”), and you, too, will be in canine heaven. (Price includes fries and a soda.) 108 Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-254-7700.
Campo de Fiori
One bite of this Italian flatbread, called pane romano, and you'll bellow, “Domi-NO!” The oblong pies are sliced into generous squares and warmed to a golden brown in an Italian oven while you wait. The crust—a perfect balance of crunchy and chewy—plays host to exotic toppings like Gorgonzola, portobello mushrooms, and prosciutto. It's Roman street fare cooked to perfection. 1350 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-3805; 580 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-236-2066; 37 Center St., Weston Center, 781-893-6135.
We'd normally be suspicious about a place where rations are ladled onto plates from steel warming trays, or two of whose three locations are in shopping malls, but Gourmet India's creamy chicken vindaloo, freshly baked naan, flavorful lentils, and soothing mango lassis elevate it from food-court fare to regal cuisine. 1335 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-734-3971; Prudential Center, 800 Boylston St., Boston, 617-247-9500; Burlington Mall, 75 Middlesex Tpke., 781-270-0200.
In a neighborhood where every other storefront is a Jewish deli, butcher, or bagelry, Rami reigns. This tiny kosher eatery serves up delectable falafel—crispy on the outside, soft and spicy on the inside—in pitas bursting with chunky tomatoes, cucumbers, tangy tahini sauce, and creamy, homemade hummus. Add a dollop of hot sauce or baba ghanouj (puréed eggplant, tahini, garlic, and lemon) for a little zing. 324 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-738-3577.
Porter Exchange Common Market
The quick pace of these Japanese-food stalls can be confusing. But the signage is in English, and while not all the servers are bilingual, there's a keen understanding of the international language of pantomime. Standout dishes to choose from among the six restaurants here include the spicy tuna roll from Kotobukiya Sushi and any of the steaming bowls of soup from Tampopo. Porter Exchange, 1815 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge: Tampopo, 617-868-5457; Kotobukiya, 617-492-4655.
We're still dreaming about the mouth-watering cod sandwich we had at this Portuguese café, which shares owners with the popular (and more upscale) Atasca restaurants. The savory pancake of bacalao, or salt cod, is smothered in piri-piri mayonnaise, tucked between two halves of a chewy Portuguese roll, and served with a black-eyed pea salad. It's amazing, as are the rest of the Portuguese specialties, from the linguica to the sharp-Sao-Jorge-cheese-and-cured-ham sandwich. 1128 Cambridge St., Cambridge, 617-354-3443.
El Oriental de Cuba
Grilled Cuban sandwiches loaded with roasted pork, Swiss cheese, ham, pickles, mustard, and marinade are the specialty of the house at this Latin eatery. But so are the stewed beans, tropical shakes, shrimp-and-fish stew, and fried yucca. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find a dish that's not tasty here—and judging by the crowds, we're not the only ones who know it. 416 Centre St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-6464.
It was the sign in the window boasting “all sushi half-price” that first drew us in, but the impressive quality of the Japanese and Korean cuisine—from the shrimp shumai (dumplings) to the shrimp tempura to the shrimp nigiri sushi—keeps us coming back. The standout is the Tokyo bento box, which comes with seven slices of buttery salmon sashimi, three pieces of a California roll, two pieces of tuna nigiri sushi, a tempura combo, steamed shumai, salad, and miso soup for only $9.95. It's truly one of the best bargains in town. 320 Washington St., Brookline, 617-566-7800.
$15 OR LESS
Behind this discreet, dark-windowed South End storefront is one of the city's last true neighborhood gems, low on pretense and high on friendliness, value, and just plain good food. In addition to sandwiches and pizzas, there's a newly revamped mix-and-match pasta menu that lets diners choose from more than a dozen sauces. With nothing on the menu priced higher than $15, Anchovies has a down-to-earth appeal that sets it far apart from the neighborhood's pricier contenders. 433 Columbus Ave., Boston, 617-266-5088.
The dining room, with splashes of red and yellow, hums with Latin music and Spanish chatter at this Colombian restaurant in Allston. For less than $10, you can fill up on bisteck a la criolla (top round steak in a special regional sauce), rice, brown beans, salad, andarepas (corn-flour patties), and still walk away with a doggie bag. 48 Harvard Ave., Allston, 617-254-5088.
Flour Bakery + Café
The same kind of wholesome ingredients that make Flour's baked goods so popular go into the daily dinner specials, served Wednesday through Friday nights until 9. Entrées include anything from a recent special of grilled salmon with Israeli couscous to a roasted chicken breast with spaghetti, lemon, capers, and Parmesan. Dessert specials such as crÃªpes with homemade apple butter and cinnamon whipped cream sweeten the experience, but the low, low prices are the most memorable. 1595 Washington St., Boston, 617-267-4300.
Last year, we were pleasantly surprised to find that our favorite Thai grocery store near Coolidge Corner had morphed into a restaurant. Now it's one of our favorite places to go for delicious Thai food that's surprisingly affordable. For $8.95, you get a choice of an entrée plus jasmine rice, tom-yum soup, two egg rolls, and two steamed dumplings. Or if you're in the mood to experiment—but not quite sure what kai-jeaw-koong-sub (Thai omelet with ground shrimp) is—page through the restaurant's photo album, thick with images of every dish. 411 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-232-2955.
Seven courses of beef for two for just $29.95. What's better than that? The fact that each course—from the bo nhung dam (thinly sliced beef cooked at the table in a hot pot) to the bo lui (beef skewers marinated in garlic, pepper, lemongrass, sesame, and soy sauce) to the cha dum (steamed ground beef with salt and pepper, peanuts, lemongrass, and onions)—is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. And almost everything else on the menu is even cheaper than that. 198 Adams St., Dorchester, 617-436-1908.
Meat lovers take note. The possibilities are endless at this welcoming Brazilian restaurant in Allston, with its entrée menu of linguica, sirloin steak, chicken, pork knuckles, ribs, or oxtail. Your best bet is to skip the appetizers (they're not included in this price anyway) and sample the generously portioned mixed platter garnished with fried bananas and feijao tropeiro (beans mixed with yucca flour, bacon, eggs, and onion), or chicken with stewed okra and polenta. 421 Cambridge St., Allston, 617-789-5980.
Audubon Circle Restaurant Bar
It's not a sticky-floored, pre-Sox revelry kind of place, nor is it a Boston University bar, although it's steps from both Fenway and BU. Instead, Audubon has declared itself a lounge for grownups with its sleek décor, sophisticated drink menu, and upscale cuisine. You can't go wrong with any of the apps or entrées, but we favor the white bean dip, pressed green-apple-and-Brie sandwiches, Chinese pot stickers, and the burgers—beef and veggie (a spicy mix of beans, nachos, and cilantro topped with pico de gallo and chili mayo) alike. 838 Beacon St., Boston, 617-421-1910.
Silvertone Bar & Grill
This cozy, subterranean dining room near Downtown Crossing is packed with diners nibbling on American staples like meatloaf with mashed potatoes, steak tips, and mac 'n' cheese. The huge portions are a steal, considering that nothing on the menu costs more than $19. Tables, on the other hand, can be tough to get—and they're only given when the whole party arrives—so come willing to wait. You'll be glad you did. 69 Bromfield St., Boston, 617-338-7887.
$20 OR LESS
Peel open the lightly charred banana leaf to reveal a fish cake spiced with curry, coconut milk, blue ginger, and bay leaf, or dip a skewer of marinated grilled beef into a savory peanut sauce, and you will see firsthand the complexity of Malaysian cuisine: a fusion of Thai, Chinese, and Indian flavors, with tropical fruits thrown in for good measure. Those with more delicate palates beware—Malaysians can be heavy-handed with the red chili sauce. Luckily, the waitstaff is ready with pitchers of ice water to help put out the fire. 122 Harvard Ave., Allston, 617-562-8989.
A tiny shrimp swimming in a giant fish tank watched with interest as we munched on one of his cousins (delicately battered with a crispy salt-and-pepper coating) on a visit to this popular Chinatown restaurant. He and his tankmates—among them eel, lobster, crabs, and striped bass—are a testament to the freshness of every dish, from the steamed shrimp dumplings to the sautéd scallops with hot garlic sauce to the sliced abalone with vegetables in oyster sauce. 5-7-9 Hudson St., Boston, 617-542-2823; 10 Langley Rd., Newton Centre, 617-332-3600.
Addis Red Sea
This Ethiopian restaurant in the South End is truly a hands-on place. Park yourself at a low table with a couple of friends, order up some honey wine, and prepare to be transported. Spicy, slow-cooked meat, fish, and vegetable dishes are ladled onto large rounds of thin, spongy bread, called injera, which serves as both a plate and a utensil. Tear off a hunk and dip into the yesmir wot, lentils simmered in a hot sauce. You'll be amazed at how much fun it is to eat with your fingers. 544 Tremont St., Boston, 617-426-8727.
Brookline Family Restaurant
What was a Greek-owned diner in Brookline Village is now a Turkish restaurant with a misleading name. After all, it's a rare tot who appreciates a silken smoked eggplant puré, okra in garlic tomato sauce, or tender, juicy cubes of grilled lamb. But grownups sure do, and the huge servings and succulent meats make this the kind of place you'll return to as often as you can. 305 Washington St., Brookline, 617-277-4466.
Don't dismiss ZuZu as a place to grab some grub before or after a concert at the Middle East nightclub. The menu of surprisingly gourmet offerings including salmon layered in phyllo with tabbouleh and spicy yogurt sauce, or tequila lime shrimp with crispy fried plantains, is one to linger over. Or simply order the ZuZu PuPu Platter for a mix of Middle Eastern small bites, then listen to live music afterward. 474 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-864-3278, x237.
If the words ” momo” and ” tingmo” aren't as familiar as, say, mu shu or kung pao, just wait. Once Bostonians catch on to the pleasures of Tibetan cuisine, everyone will be feasting on vegetable momos, or dumplings, dipped in a hot jalapeÃ±o and cilantro sauce and tingmo, or steamed bread, with phingsha, sliced beef flavored with ginger and peppercorn, as well as a host of other traditional dishes offered at Rangzen in Central Square. Think Chinese with Indian influences . . . or vice versa. Better yet, just think good. And cheap. 24 Pearl St., Cambridge, 617-354-8881.
For a restaurant that's been around long enough to qualify for social security, the Paramount in Beacon Hill sure doesn't show her age. The room is simple and stylish, decorated with snappy paint and black and white photography, and the menu is a very current collection of American favorites. Where else could you find something as classic as sirloin tips with caramelized onions and red Bliss mashed potatoes that tastes this good—for $13.95? Not to mention an honestly priced wine list and tempting, freshly made dessert specials. 44 Charles St., Boston, 617-720-1152.
Tu y Yo Mexican Fonda
Anyone expecting tacos, burritos, or gorditas at this Mexican restaurant should think outside the bun (or the Bell). Some of Tu y Yo's family recipes date back to the early 1900s, like the puerco en mole verde (pork in a sauce of herbs, lettuce, tomatillo, and pumpkin seeds) or pollo Chiapas (chicken breast marinated in orange and annatto sauce). Wash it down with some sangria and you, too, will be saying, “Yo quiero Tu y Yo.” 858 Broadway, Somerville, 617-623-5411.
$30 OR LESS
The Franklin is famous for its perfectly mixed cocktails, but with fewer than a dozen tables, it's equally well known for its long, long waits. Once you're seated, however, prepare to be doted on with classic, hearty favorites including smoked pork chops, split-pea soup, and turkey meatloaf. The ever-changing seasonal menu makes this café a regular stop for South End neighbors who know they can find a sophisticated, filling, and well-priced meal right down the block. 278 Shawmut Ave., Boston, 617-350-0010.
The Publick House
When is a beer bar not just a beer bar? When it offers 150 different types of artisanal beer, 27 of them on tap—served at the perfect temperature in the appropriate glassware—plus extraordinarily good cuisine Ã la bière (food cooked, and made to be eaten, with beer). Then it's called the Publick House (formerly Anam Cara), and on weekends it draws just about everyone we know to its cozy Washington Square locale, complete with fireplaces and wooden church pew seats. Try the seared monk's pork loin with roasted red Bliss potatoes, and wash it down with a bottle of the Westmalle Dubbel. 1648 Beacon St., Brookline, 617-277-2880.
Although you might be tempted to skip the entrées and tuck right into a plate piled high with homemade ice cream sandwiches, resist. Instead, hope that this much-coveted dessert is still available (since the kitchen has frequently sold out of it), then sit back to feast on faves like creamy mac 'n' cheese, gently roasted chicken, and juicy burgers. 2 Perkins St., Jamaica Plain, 617-524-9667.
West Side Lounge
This understated (and underrated) bistro feels like a South End transplant in the heart of Cambridge. Chef Alex Jenkins uses gourmet ingredients and spices to create unexpectedly delicious dishes, from French fries served with an indulgent curry mayonnaise dip to a plate of savory sea scallops over fregola (toasted grain-sized pasta). Don't miss the lounge's luscious homemade ice cream. 1680 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-441-5566.
The Enoteca at Via Matta
Like the ultracool wine bars in Rome and Florence, the Enoteca at Via Matta is the place where fashion-conscious, socially astute locals go for a relaxed bite and a glass or two of vino. The menu is of the same pedigree: beautifully presented, regional cuisine with surprisingly reasonable prices. Among the many choices of freddi (cold) and caldi (hot) dishes, the Gulf shrimp with white beans and grape tomatoes, followed by lasagna Bolognese, are both entirely filling and perfectly prepared. 79 Park Plaza, Boston, 617-422-0008.
Les Zygomates Wine Bar & Bistro (prix fixe)
Les Zyg's tightly packed dining room purrs with live jazz and diners relishing chef Ian Just's simple French bistro dishes. The $29 three-course prix-fixe menu changes weekly, offering hearty dishes not found on the regular menu, like pan-roasted haddock drizzled with mussel cream sauce and a golden-brown chicken breast paired with prosciutto and melted mozzarella. 129 South St., Boston, 617-542-5108.
Craigie Street Bistrot (prix fixe)
French restaurants are notoriously overpriced—whether they're on the left bank of the Seine or the north bank of the Charles—so it's refreshing to find one that serves up alluring, classic Gallic recipes at very American, value-conscious prices. The three-course prix-fixe menu at Craigie Street changes nightly, but might get you a market-fresh green salad, perfect roasted chicken, and a simple, seasonal fruit tart. A small carafe of a house red is another $9, but dinner in a place that feels like an evening in Paris is something money can't buy. 5 Craigie Circle, Cambridge, 617-497-5511.
UpStairs on the Square (prix fixe)
Turns out downstairs is the place to be at UpStairs on the Square, where, despite the name, the Monday Club Bar serves a $30 prix-fixe menu Monday through Thursday. Happily ensconced beside a gas fireplace, we indulged in chef Susan Regis's tasty creations, which change nightly: oysters fried two ways (one with a bracing wasabi dipping sauce), followed by quail with pasta and a dessert of coffee-cardamom pot de crème. 91 Winthrop St., Cambridge, 617-864-1933.