Here are a few cheap but good choices near home.
A huge bowl of hot home made potato chips with a creamy blue cheese dressing over them for $8, followed by an equally large portion of crispy fried calamari Brooklyn style with marinara sauce for $12–total cost for the meal–$20 and sharable. Plus—and this is really unique in my restaurant-going–unlimited still OR carbonated water! This is, I think, because The Smith on Broadway and 65th Street really caters to a younger drinking crowd, hence the mile-long zinc bar, and doesn’t mind keeping you hydrated in the meantime. But if you are a member of the more mature set, you can meander around a menu that contains a lot of pretty cheap bar food and enjoy free drink, all this in the notoriously overpriced Lincoln Center area.
NB Don’t even think about going to this place for brunch or pre-theater–that is, if you want to make your show. The crowds and the noise are horrendous. But try it for a weekday lunch; it’s a cute place and a lot of fun.
Moving right along to a very fine, very cheap, very authentic Chinese meal, try Grand Sichuan on Amsterdam and 74th Street. It doesn’t look like much
but those in the know go here and you should too. I managed to find something innocent like chicken with mixed vegetables. Of course, the more adventurous among us looked at Chong Qing Spicy Fish in Pickled Pepper,ox tongue and tripe, and beef tendon with hot sauce and had a good time with them. Be forewarned: many of the dishes have those little red stars signifying hot, hot, hot but if you are careful and let the server know your food, at least, should be bland, bland, bland, you will be OK. This chain has many sisters throughout the city and I can’t speak for them, but this one is good. The prices are ridiculously low, the portions immense and the quality high. Be not afraid; bring Tums.
Another reasonably priced favorite is Flor de Mayo on Amsterdam just above 83rd Street. This is kind of a charming local Spanish/Chinese place with one of those voluminous menus that seem to defy categorization.
But we come here for the Peruvian specialties that are really pretty good and amazingly cheap. You can get half a chicken, including rice or fried plantains (sweet or not sweet–both are delicious) for $9.50; the chicken is excellent and you can’t finish it. Top it off with an avocado salad or ceviche and you have a great, cheap meal.
Finally, here is a bargain where you certainly didn’t expect to find one–Bouchon Bakery in the AOL Time Warner Building. On the third floor sort of floating over the enormous atrium, you will see both the cafe (skip this) and the cafeteria bar
(Source: bouchonbakery.com)which provides the same food for the cafe but is not as crowded. You can get a ham and cheese baguette or cobb salad for $9 and the largest, richest chocolate macaron for $3.50. The hardest thing to snag is a stool at one of the tables
After all, anyone can find a great meal for a lot of money; but the search for great food at bargain prices is a sport that never palls.