Apps Only

Seeking out the best bites for under $15 a head.

Apps Only: The Cheapskate's Guide to Eating Well

Editor's note: In "Apps Only," Ben Fishner ate his way through New York's appetizer, bar, and lounge menus as your guide to fine dining on a budget. He blogs at Ben Cooks Everything.

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Diner's swiss chard fettucine with with spinach and ricotta. [Photos: Ben Fishner]

"I can't afford a whole meal there, but I could go for a drink and a snack at the bar." This was the line of thinking that reached its logical conclusion with Apps Only, the column I've written for Serious Eats: New York since the beginning of 2010. What I learned was that not only could I have a snack, but for about $15/person—sometimes more, sometimes less—I could get a filling meal at a place that I otherwise just couldn't afford. Sharing that with the readers of Serious Eats has been a huge pleasure. Now that I've wrapped up my last review, I'd like to share a few lessons I've learned while writing Apps Only.

1. Sit at the bar.

First of all, you can chat with the bartender and with other patrons. But most importantly, no one's going to scoff at you for ordering a few small plates instead of a "full dinner." Of course, a full dinner's exactly what you'll have, and letting scoffing waiters bother you is a waste of your time, but still.

My favorite places to sit at the bar included Five Points, Back Forty, the dearly departed Tabla, and Cookshop.

2. Look for a snacks menu.

Spicy Fried Chickpeas, Al Di La ($4)

Al Di La's spicy fried chickpeas.

These were my holy grail while eating around town for Apps Only. I suppose they're there to entice people to come in and buy drinks, but what you'll usually find are stellar values. Sometimes you have to sit at the bar to order off of the snacks menu (see previous item), but not always. James, Prune, Blue Ribbon Bar, Hundred Acres, and The Redhead all are great examples of this. Kyoto style Japanese restaurant Hibino in Cobble Hill has a snack menu in its rotating obanzai menu, insanely delicious little $4 plates of veggies, tofu, broths, and whatever else the kitchen is turning out that night.

3. Brooklyn.

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Sisig, a dish of crispy pig's cheek, ear and snout with lime and chilies, at Purple Yam in Ditmas Park.

I know, that's not a lesson, or even a complete sentence, but Brooklyn's restaurant scene is a good bit cheaper than Manhattan's. From staples like Al Di La (get the spicy fried chickpeas) and Williamsburg's Diner to up and comers like Kaz an Nou, River Deli, Lot 2, and Filipino fusion joint Purple Yam, there's really good eats all over the borough. Sometimes you might even be able to afford an entree, if you're into that sort of thing.

4. Sometimes you have to splurge.

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Berkshire pork lasagna at Union Square Cafe.

I don't see myself being able to afford dinner out at Union Square Cafe anytime soon, and even just a couple of small plates at the bar there were over my intended budget, but the quality of the food and the stellar service made it worth it. Other worthwhile splurges included The Red Cat in Chelsea, where I ate a zucchini dish better than zucchini ever has the right to be, and DBGB, which may be Daniel Boulud's least expensive restaurant but is still out of my price range. Still, their library of house made sausages was too much to resist, and I was glad I didn't.

5. Small plates don't always make for a bargain.

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The Red Cat's quick sautee of zucchini with toasted almonds and pecorino.

The Fish Shack at BLT Fish was the height of mediocrity, but it still cost almost twice as much as dinner at Williamsburg's Sel de Mer, where the fish is fresh and it doesn't cost an arm and a leg. And you can't ever do better than Pearl Oyster Bar for seafood anywhere in the five boroughs. Mercat is a tapas bar, but their small plates cost a relatively large amount of money, and it's not easy to put together a filling meal there.

6. Just go for it.

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Steamers at Pearl Oyster Bar.

It can be pretty hard to tell ahead of time whether a restaurant's going to be Apps Only friendly or if it's going to be a bust. Blue Ribbon Bar looked too schmancy for me, but their menu turned out to be pretty reasonable. Little Giant looks like a casual, low key place, but it's way pricier than I expected (though the food is excellent). Craftbar wasn't a bargain, but it was cheaper than I thought it would be. You get the idea--go sit at the bar, feel out the menu, and if it's too expensive, split an appetizer with a friend and grab a slice of pizza on your way home.

So, those are the tenets of eating the Apps Only way. They work pretty damn well in New York, but as far as I can tell they work anywhere there's a restaurant that you can't quite afford to eat dinner in. Now go grab a seat at the bar; you know what to do.

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