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Ask the Critic: Hot Restaurants on a Low Budget

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[Illustration: Robyn Lee]

Editor's note: Here to answer your questions is senior managing editor, former SENY editor, and frequent author of our NYC restaurant reviews Carey Jones. We'll take a few of your questions each week and give you the New York restaurant advice you're looking for. Email carey@seriouseats.com with the subject line Ask the Critic to submit your question!

This week on Ask the Critic: The best bars for a group when you can't leave Midtown.

Dining Out On a Teacher's Budget

Hi Carey, I can't help but envy my friends who get to experience Jean-Georges restaurants, check out the swankiest new celebrity chef joints, and are constantly talking about the latest Momofuku adventure they went on—all expensed by their companies! As a public school teacher (who adores her job, by the way), I try to keep my dinners out at restaurants in a more moderate range: $25 and under entrees, $12ish appetizers and drinks. I still love to be up on the dining-out scene, though, and have a hard time finding an "it spot" that is within my budget. Do all trendy (and delicious) restaurants need to be for special occasions, or are there places I am overlooking? Thank you!

Cauliflower at Alder

Cauliflower at Alder. [Photograph: Max Falkowitz]

Many of today's dining trends don't bode well for a diner on a budget. Exorbitantly priced plates "for two," $16 cocktails and $25 burgers—it can seem like prices in Manhattan only go up. But one trend does work in our favor. Higher-end chefs have, increasingly, showed interest in much more casual venues. For the Eleven Madison Park team, "casual" means NoMad; sure, more affordable than their four-star flagship, but hardly an everyday restaurant. But for Wylie Dufresne of wd~50, casual means Alder, a terrifically fun East Village restaurant where pub cheese is purple, clam chowder's oyster crackers are made from oysters, and many cocktails are available by the half-pour. (That can, paradoxically, have you drinking even more. Unless you are more disciplined than I.)

Steamed dumplings at RedFarm. [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Or stop by RedFarm's new location uptown for a whimsical but skilled take on Chinese-American fare. While it's worth exploring the full menu, do start off with dumplings; RedFarm's rank among the best in the city. If you get into lobster and steak territory, you can head north of $25, but virtually all of the noodles, pork chops, chicken, what have you fall into your budget. (And cocktails are $12, with lots of beer options.) Uncle Boons is a great bet, too, an energetic Nolita restaurant that showcases Thai flavors but doesn't hew to orthodoxy (think mee krob with sweetbreads, or boneless beef ribs in the Massaman curry.) To drink, $12 cocktails or a $7 beer slushie—take your pick.

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Raspberry drinking vinegar at Whiskey Soda Lounge. [Photograph: Maryse Chevriere]

Then, of course, there's Brooklyn. Recently, we've loved classy modern Middle Eastern Glasserie, up in the northern reaches of Greenpoint. Atrium Dumbo falls in that price range, too—all the appetizers under $12, nearly all the mains under $25, and that in plum Dumbo digs. Whiskey Soda Lounge, from Andy Ricker of Pok Pok, certainly qualifies as one of this year's "it spots," and if you don't mind the trek to far-west Brooklyn, you can eat exceedingly well for the price of an entree elsewhere: five-spice pork ear strips, fresh squid salad, fish sauce wings, along with Thai beers and inventive cocktails echoing flavors from across Asia.

And at the risk of sounding silly (or sounding like this article): With a little thought, slightly pricier restaurants can become more accessible than you might think. Hit a happy hour before dinner, and just order one cocktail or glass of wine (or share a bottle if there are more than two of you); look for values on the menu (think pasta or the increasingly inventive veg entrees you'll find these days); round out a shared entree or a few shared apps with generally less expensive sides; eat at the bar if you'd rather not feel pressured into ordering more courses than you need. Plenty of my personal favorites—let's take Fedora, or the Dutch—can get to $100/head if you go the wine-flowing three-course route. But the egg in a hole with tripe ragout, which is more than hearty enough for a meal, plus a cocktail at a bar: that's a much more affordable indulgence.

Ask Us!

Email carey@seriouseats.com with the subject line Ask the Critic to submit your question. All questions will be read, though unfortunately not all can be answered.

About the author: Carey Jones is the former managing editor of Serious Eats. Follow her on Twitter (@careyjones).

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