Features: 50 Meals Under $50
When Stephen Starr opened Buddakan in New York, Philadelphians were in for sticker shock: Dinner at the version in the Meatpacking District is cheaper than at the original Chestnut Street location. Likewise, pizzas at Otto, Mario Batali’s Osteria-like West Village spot, are less expensive than Marc Vetri’s North Broad Street pies. And gelato at Philly darling Capogiro is a couple bucks pricier than a similar scoop at Manhattan’s celebrated Il Laboratorio del Gelato.
When it comes to food, no city wants to be the orange compared to the Big Apple, but subtract the $350-plus Per Se outings that drive up New York’s average meal cost, and you’ll find that the check in Philly can rival one in infamously high-priced NY. Why? Maybe it’s because there’s not as much competition in Philadelphia. Maybe it’s because Philly restaurants can’t earn as much on alcohol. Or maybe it’s because Philly diners eat out less often than their New York counterparts.
We only see one solution to this: Eat out more often! And we found you don’t have to fork over a fortune to eat well in this town. Fifty bucks — okay, plus tax and tip, and we are the nation’s most generous tippers —
will get your table of two a great meal. Even at Osteria.
We spent: $6
South Philly’s El Jarocho stuffs guests with fresh-fried chips and a creamy/hot concoction of chipotle queso and salsa fresca before the meal even begins. Order the three-taco option (mix it up with pork and chicken) topped with chopped onion and cilantro — just begging for a spoonful of that queso — and served with griddled scallions, for a flavor-packed meal large enough to share. 1138 South 13th Street, 215-463-2020.
Basic Burgers and Dogs
We Spent: $12.65
This In-N-Out for the East Coast sells only a few things: burgers, dogs and fries, plus chicken and veggie burgers for the healthy-eating set. But with the menu’s lengthy list of free toppings, it takes longer for you to make up your mind than it does for the kitchen to grill up that cheeseburger — well-done, but done well — to cook the foot-long dog “Jersey style,” to double-fry a large order of the Idahos, and to pour the fountain sodas. While you wait, there’s help-yourself carnival-style popcorn. 354 Second Street Pike, Southampton, 215-322-1400, greatburger.net.
We Spent: $13.98
This no-frills pizza shop is reminiscent of everyone’s old high-school hangout, but with 60-plus years of experience, Rizzo’s has perfected pies like the Big Red, a round Sicilian anchored by melted mozz under sauce and spices, and the Rizzo’s Deluxe, a thin crust heavied with toppings. We found the biggest bang for your buck is the weekly special: all-you-can-eat pizza Tuesdays. 21 East Glenside Avenue, Glenside, 215-887-2909.
Classy Morning favorites
We Spent: $14.90
Nudy’s has all the gritty-charm character of your favorite luncheonette, but fare that’s got more ambition. The after-church crowd lines up for the crab Benedict and to polish off stacks of specialty pancakes, like the pumpkin spice version, which sandwiches melting pumpkin-pie filling between two rounds just before the ’cakes come off the griddle. 292 East Conestoga Road, Wayne, 610-687-1345; additional locations in Frazer, Phoenixville and Exton.
The Station House
We Spent: $14.98
Gravy and biscuits is the first thing on the menu here, and the tangy sausage gravy spilling over warm buttermilk biscuits with house-made, hand-cut home fries is the regulars-gotta-have-it fave. Share it, then add two cups of piping-hot joe and the Station House’s dessert-worthy number two most-requested: French toast stuffed with “the works” — cream cheese, bananas, blueberries and strawberries. (Bonus: The homey service and museum-worthy collection of railroad kitsch are free.) 600 Station Avenue, Haddon Heights, 856-547-5517, thestationhouserestaurant.com.
Honey’s Sit ’n’ Eat
We Spent: $15
It may seem like an unlikely pairing, but the crew at this Northern Liberties spot has managed to bring Jewish-deli finest to life with Southern treatments, in a super-casual, funky vibe. The griddled turkey Reuben is so pudgy that a half-order will do, and the Cobb salad goes beyond the norm with turkey, black olives and hearts of palm. 800 North 4th Street, 215-925-1150.
We Spent: $17.67
Set aside foodie pretense and indie movies to channel your inner Sandy and Danny at this mid-Atlantic chain. The location near the Loews theater makes for a perfect dinner-and-a-blockbuster date. Cranberry-orange-ginger sauce adds a gourmet touch to the grilled cheese deluxe, which comes with shoestring fries and slaw. And the hand-dipped chocolate malt pairs well with the jumbo deluxe burger. 2131 Route 38, Cherry Hill, 856-910-1240, silverdiner.com.
We Spent: $18.34
Bright fluorescents, stainless steel and vinyl booths proclaim the authenticity of this family-friendly diner. After combing through the dozens of choices available from the “world’s largest soda fountain,” we settled on tasty root beers. And while we expected the single bacon- cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato and the fries to be good (they were), we were pleasantly surprised by a very respectable fried Maryland crabcake. Diners were made for dessert lovers, and we didn’t find the exception here. Split a coffee-cup sundae overflowing with warm chocolate syrup and whipped cream. 2491 Grant Avenue, 215-676-1950, niftyfiftys.com; additional locations in Ridley Township, Bensalem, Clementon and Turnersville.
Ants Pants Caf
Breakfast All Day
We Spent: $19.75
Okay, there’s a lunch menu, too, but why stray from the simple, delicious breakfast options cooked up in the coffee shop’s toaster-oven-tiny kitchen? From the street, Ants Pants looks like a popular to-go spot, but the pillow-strewn back room is a comfortable niche for the newspaper, a towering bacon stack (a gussied-up BLT with a sunny-side-up egg), and the dill-and-feta scrambled eggs. Coffee is a must for some, but here, it’s the so-freshly-juiced-it’s-green apple juice. 2212 South Street, 215-875-8002, antspantscafe.com.
Hershel’s East Side Deli
We Spent: $19.90
The show — a long line of people clogging the aisles of Reading Terminal Market, to watch as meaty brisket is carefully sliced on the bias — is free, and the ample sandwiches — the basic hearty pastrami and the necessarily messy Reuben piled with corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing and Swiss cheese — are almost two lunches’ worth of food. Pass on the sides, but not on the Dr. Brown’s sodas in celery and black cherry. Reading Terminal Market, 12th and Arch streets, 215-922-6220.
We Spent: $22
It’s almost like being at home at this longtime Fairmount spot with craft-project découpage on the tables and a globe-trotting beer list. The eat-here-every-day chalkboard menu of basic American dishes is arranged by price, with most options around $14, and almost all the entrées come with an eat-your-veggies side salad. You can’t go wrong with honeyed fried chicken and filling meatloaf. 726 North 24th Street, 215-232-3232, bridgids.com.
Classic BBQ (BYOB)
We Spent: $23.35
Technically, this restaurant is a deli, but it would be a shame to pass up the stellar, nation-spanning ’cue for a sammy. Platters come with subtly smoky meats like pulled pork (Carolina-style), addictive hush puppies, and two sides (try the sweet potato fries and baked beans). Kansas City-style brisket on a roll, topped with slaw, and two (free refill) sweet teas are a must. 524 East Butler Avenue, New Britain, 267-880-1190, duckdeli.com.
Indian Vegetarian (BYOB)
We Spent: $23.80
Rajbhog is an Indian chain with 10 locations in the States. The local outpost, a brightly lit strip-mall spot connected to an Indian grocery store, also features a full menu. Try two of the many different kinds of crispy dosas, a vegetable dish like the bindi (okra) masala, a refreshing homemade salt lassi, and a lemony bottled Limca, imported from India. Top it all off with some kulfi, addictive Indian ice cream. 1900 Green-tree Road, Cherry Hill, 856-751-0257, rajbhog.com.
Alfred’s Tomato Pie
Thin-crust Pizza (BYOB)
We Spent: $25
A friend had been telling us about Alfred’s for years. Shame on us for taking so long to pay this mom-and-pop pizza shop a visit. It’s South Jersey’s answer to Port Richmond’s Tacconelli’s: Alfred serves up perfect thin-crusted pizza (try the margherita-style or the sausage/pepperoni/onion) while crooning Louis Prima for his diners. A fun date with a bottle of BYO chianti. 9 South Black Horse Pike, Blackwood, 856-228-1234.
We Spent: $26.85
It gets us every time. We never quite believe that a meal filled with such first-rate quality and refined favors, in so relaxing an atmosphere, can be this cheap. But it’s true: The infamous pork spring rolls, fragrant, char-grilled basil chicken on a bed of bok choy, and deluxe rice fried with egg, pork, shrimp and Chinese sausage is under $30 at this Chinatown spot. Seriously. And you’ll have leftovers. 221 North 11th Street, 215-592-1163, eatatvietnam.com.
Northern Indian (BYOB)
We Spent: $28.35
Our favorite Indian spot offers sizable portions, bargain prices and a charming atmosphere, with a new, larger dining room scheduled to open this fall. (Never mind the lackluster Girard locale.) Share the fried tilapia appetizer, the heavily spiced lamb vindaloo, and malai kofta (vegetable dumplings in a creamy sauce), plus a couple of pieces of naan to sop up all those delicious juices. Bring your own Kingfisher beer from India to cool the burn. 710 West Girard Avenue, 215-922-1297, tiffinstore.com.
Devi Ample South Indian
Vegetarian Buffet (BYOB)
We Spent: $28.90
If you order off the lengthy à la carte menu, you’ll only be able to try a couple of the more unusual South Indian specialties, like tamarind curry and gunpowder idli, that Devi offers. Better is the $11.95 weekend dinner buffet, featuring more than 30 items, including channa masala, okra curry and vegetable biryani. Try a pair of Nimbu sodas — lime-flavored, with a hint of garam masala. 151 West Lincoln Highway, Exton, 610-594-9250, devi-veg.com.
Mama Palma’s Gourmet Pizza
Gourmet Pizza (BYOB)
We Spent: $29
While Italian versions of old romantic classics spin an intimate atmosphere, uncork your home-brought bottle of wine. (If you don’t BYO wine, some draft and bottled beer — including Peroni — is on the menu.) You must start with the warm polenta bread plate, topped with roasted corn and sweet peppers. Order it even before choosing a pizza. Mama Palma’s understands that gourmet pizza deserves gourmet toppings. (Think veal sausage, soy cheese, Maryland crab, baby clams and asparagus tips.) Our favorite: the deliciously unusual Santa Fe, which brings Mexican flavor — grilled chicken, chunky tomato sauce, and drizzles of guacamole and sour cream — to the table. 2229 Spruce Street, 215-735-7357.
Grey Lodge Pub
We Spent: $29.25
Duck spring rolls, plump mussels, perfectly crisped fries and gooey chicken cheesesteak, executed with style, are a few of the surprisingly delicious items on this Northeast bar’s menu. The excellent food makes more sense when you realize the thought and care put into the stellar beer list. Expect to find treasures like Holyoke, Massachusetts’s citrus-y Paper City Blonde Hop Monster, and Lancaster Amish’s Four Grain Ale. 6235 Frankford Avenue, 215-825-5357, greylodge.com.
Su Xing House
Chinese Vegetarian (BYOB)
We Spent: $29.80
The fare is much better than it sounds at this tofu-laden spot, significantly renovated after previous tenant China Pagoda moved out. Even though we’re quite carnivorous, we loved the earthy black moss fungus soup, fried seaweed roll appetizer, braised gluten with zucchini, and soybean nuggets Szechuan style. 1508 Sansom Street, 215-564-1419, suxinghouse.com.
Pounds-of-pasta Italian (BYOB)
We Spent: $29.90
The waitress, Italian of course, asks, over the clamor of the grapevine-strewn dining room: “Have you ever been here?” No? She explains: “Order by number.” There are 113 options on the nothing-over-$16.95 menu. After the gratis bruschetta, we’ll take a number 8 (a plate of meaty portabellas and salty mozz), a number 46 (linguine in a garlic marinara with shellfish) to share, and two cannoli. 31 East Lancaster Avenue, Ardmore, 610-642-9009.
Sweet Lucy’s Smokehouse
Wood-burning BBQ pit (BYOB)
We Spent: $29.95
Sure, a couple can easily get their fill for around 15 bucks at this kitschy Northeast spot, but it’s too hard to resist the urge to bring two more friends and dive into a “Pig Out” — for under $30. This dinner for four comes with one pound of meat (the pulled pork is juicy and not overly smoky), a rotisserie chicken smothered in sauce, four sides (the mac-’n’-cheese is a must) and cornbread. 7500 State Road, 215-333-9663, sweetlucys.com.
La Esperanza Restaurante Mexicano & Bar
We Spent: $32.49
Despite its familiar decor — a blend of colorful blankets, clay pots, red ceramics and sombreros — this joint doesn’t serve typical chain fare. The guacamole appetizer arrived, super-fresh, in a hefty molcajete. The enchiladas de mole poblano (corn tortillas filled with cheese) were sweetly rich, and the small mountain that is the burrito de camarones (shrimp) more than satisfied. Plus, both entrées were served with sides of black beans that tasted like they’d been lovingly cooked by our favorite abuela. 40 East Gibbsboro Road, Lindenwold, 856-782-7114, mexicanhope.com.
Boathouse Row Bar
Fancy Pub Fare
We Spent: $33
Boathouse’s food is cooked in the same kitchen that turns out fancy concoctions for Lacroix restaurant, so while it may be pricey for bar food, it’s so well executed that it’s a steal. And it’s plentiful: The turkey club has mile-high layers of house-roasted meat and applewood smoked bacon, and the mac-’n’-cheese is a luxe dish that’s delicate enough for the savor of the jumbo lump crabmeat that’s mixed in to come through. 210 West Rittenhouse Square, 215-546-9000, rittenhousehotel.com.
We Spent: $34
The old-school silver-diner-car exterior belies the hip atmosphere inside, where beers on tap stand in for a soda fountain, and you’re more likely to hear Timbaland than Frankie Valli. From the time we slid into our booth, the strategy was to have enough room for the divine brioche bread pudding (served warm with vanilla ice cream). But be warned: Even if you split the chopped salad with buttermilk-herb dressing before downing a classic burger with house-made relish, and meatloaf with mushroom gravy, you’ll still have to invoke willpower — and, yeah, gluttony — to order dessert. 435 Spring Garden Street, 215-592-8835, silkcitydiner.com.
Geechee Girl Rice Caf
Soul Food (BYOB)
We Spent: $36.25
The sun-hued walls and slow, casual pace are an apt vibe for a place turning out Southern-style food (and plenty of vegetarian options). Portions are large, so it’s easy to fill up on the mains, like pulled pork served with black-eyed peas, slaw and cornbread, or the juicy roast chicken, rubbed with fragrant cumin and served alongside collards. Most dishes come with rice, but you should shell out the extra 75 cents for the fluffy Carolina Gold. Wash it all down with the house-brewed mint sweet tea. 6825 Germantown Avenue, 215-843-8113, geecheegirl.com.
Sang Kee Asian Bistro
We Spent: $37
At the Main Line sister of Chinatown’s Sang Kee Peking Duck House, you just can’t go wrong with famous whole Peking duck — served in two courses — and the steamed watercress dumplings. But be forewarned: At busy times, parking is dicey, and the line can be exhausting. Everybody wants those dumplings. 339 East Lancaster Avenue, Wynnewood, 610-658-0618, sangkeeasianbistro.com.
We Spent: $37
Generally speaking, when we go out to eat, it’s because we like to have someone else do the cooking. But not at this 27-year-old Korean BBQ restaurant in, of all places, Olney. The building used to be a diner, but Kim’s added BBQ pits and ventilation shafts at each table so you can cook your own meat. Our favorite is the kalbi, marinated short-rib slices. A variety of pickled side items, called banchan, come with the meat, so there’s plenty for two. 5955 North 5th Street, 215-927-4550.
Teresa’s Next Door
Gastropub with a Belgian Bent
We Spent: $37
A Northern Liberties vibe converges with the Main Line at this newish spot next to popular Teresa’s Café in Wayne. Slide into a seat at the jam-packed bar, order two beers from the 26-tap haute list, and peruse the well-tended menu of flavor-packed pub food. Try the crisp white and green asparagus salad, the meaty, oven-roasted, hint-of-cinnamon-rubbed wings, and one of six mussels options — we like traditional marinara, the ideal sauce for dipping the addictive hand-cut fries that come with the order. 126 North Wayne Avenue, Wayne, 610-293-0119.
Beau Monde Creperie
Crepes, crepes, crepes
We Spent: $38
Think savory to make a meal at this pretty, welcoming creperie. The sheer number of possible ingredient combinations for building your own crepe can be overwhelming; we trust the kitchen’s recommendations, like a delicate house salad, a simple mushroom and Swiss cheese buckwheat crepe with the crunch of roasted almonds, and a more substantial chicken and goat cheese crepe vibrant with leeks, olives and lemon butter, please. If you can’t resist dessert: a warm Chantilly crepe folded with butter and sugar. 624 South 6th Street, 215-592-0656, creperie-beaumonde.com.
We Spent: $40
Chef Michael Raethong, veteran of many a Thai kitchen, offers a much-needed antidote to the region’s generally ho-hum Thai scene with L’Elephant. Two diners can feast lavishly amongst the Buddhist decor and traditionally dressed waitresses, on his whole Bangkok fish (striped bass or red snapper), chili-drenched green curry, and mango sticky rice for dessert. 277 Schuylkill Road, Phoenixville, 610-935-8613, thailelephant.com.
We Spent: $40
We can’t get past the pastas at this easygoing — the owner graciously trots takeout to a regular’s car — Italian BYOB. There are plenty of secondi options, but it’s the house-made gnocchi with a duck ragu, rich with red wine and mushrooms, and the over-stuffed cheese tortellini, dotted with prosciutto and green peas, that fill the dining room. A carefully composed salad like the fig-orange-gorgonzola combination and a complimentary limoncello round out the indulgently carb-filled meal. 601 Haddon Avenue, Collingswood, 856-858-2288, sapori.info.
We Spent: $41
When faced with a menu of small plates, it’s all too easy to over-order. The temptation is even greater when one of those small plates is Shouk’s kubbeh. The lounge-y restaurant’s gently spiced ground-chicken dumplings are a must. Add the seared halloumi cheese salad, fragrant rosemary-beef skewer and roasted purple potatoes for a full meal that will convince you that you don’t really need another order of kubbeh. 622 South 6th Street, 215-627-3344, shouklounge.com.
Picanha Brazilian Grill
Brazilian Rodizo (BYOB)
We Spent: $43.98
At Picanha in Northeast Philly, you can linger for a long all-you-can-eat lunch or dinner (or stay all day for both!) for $17.99 ($19.99 on weekends) as the cook brings swordfuls of freshly grilled garlic-spiked meats to your table, slicing off as much sirloin, filet, sausage, charred chicken legs and scary organ meats as you can eat. And the $4 homemade fruit shakes are perfectly yummy. For the best service, avoid obviously busy times, when the meat delivery nearly screeches to a halt. 6501 Castor Avenue, 215-743-4647.
We Spent: $45.65
Here, the seats at the sushi bar are the best in the small dining room. The blackboard menu listing the evening’s fish is hard to read from these low seats, but you have the sushi chefs for consultation. After feasting on the sweet and spicy hamachi kama yaki (grilled yellowtail), ask the chefs to send out an assortment of sushi — 12 to 14 pieces of offerings like albacore and king crab will satisfy. BYO sake, which the restaurant will store labeled with your name — or hope for complimentary pours from the bottle labeled “No One.” 1017 Germantown Pike, Plymouth Meeting, 610-277-3917, sushibluefin.com.
We Spent: $46
There’s something we love about a vegetarian spot that offers no tofu, no seitan, no wheat gluten, just pristinely prepared fresh veggies. The white-tableclothed dining room here may be small, but the portions are humongous, so share an appetizer. Our choice: the adobo goat-cheese nachos. Follow with wild mushroom-gorgonzola risotto and the curried vegetable potpie. 772 Second Street Pike, Southampton, 215-942-8888, bluesagegrille.com.
We Spent: $46
A low-key neighborhood feel and an experienced chef (Raul Schmalzbach, late of Deux Cheminées and Striped Bass) make for a spot to indulge in elegant, carefully prepared dishes without fuss. We savored decadent baked brie with swirls of cranberry chutney and nuts, the whole enveloped in puff pastry. The pecan-crusted tilapia in spicy tomato-pear sauce was accompanied by a moment-of-silent-reverie risotto, and the stuffed bell pepper with soy sausage was a dish even carnivores can love. 7105 Emlen Street, Mount Airy, 215-247-5800, hamletbistro.com.
We Spent: $48.90
There are dozens of choices, many unfamiliar, on the menu in this welcoming dining room on the edges of the Graduate Hospital neighborhood. Start with the mixed appetizer plate, where it won’t matter if you know your acili ezme (minced tomatoes and peppers) from your patlican ezmesi (grilled eggplant dip), since everything is that good. For entrées: a grilled lamb kabob atop a tender Turkish pita, and the classic doner kabob with tomato sauce and yogurt. And bring your own bottle — no corkage fee on weekdays — instead of choosing from the wine list. 918 South 22nd Street, 215-545-5790, divanturkishkitchen.com.
Vegetarian-friendly American (BYOB)
We Spent: $49
Small-plate trend be damned! Citrus — though café-tiny — serves crazy-generous portions of vegetarian fare and seafood, along with a gentle dose of animal-friendly politics. The menu changes every few months at this BYOB (with a $2 corkage fee), but main-dish staples (tofu, crabcakes, pasta) and prices stay consistent. To start: the tomato salad and littleneck clams. Then: shrimp with pappardelle pasta and tomato and broccoli rabe aioli, and cannelloni filled with goat cheese and Swiss chard, with corn sauce. 8136 Germantown Avenue, Chestnut Hill, 215-247-8188, citrusbyob.com.
Northern Italian (BYOB)
We Spent: $50
The menu turista — four courses for $30 — is an impossibly good value, but two can eat well à la carte. The house-baked bread with ricotta and olive oil is a promising start to a meal in the minimal, lively dining room. First course: the ample bruschetta, and cotechino sausage with eggs and polenta. Second course: spicy bucatini alla amatrician and grilled rib eye. Third course: tiramisu and a simply sweet Nutella crepe. And to end: a complimentary sip of sambuca. Salut! 161 West Girard Avenue, 215-203-8707.