As one of the most populous and diverse areas in the United States and one of the first cities to popularize dining outside the home, Los Angeles contains some of the most eclectic gastronomy of North America, even ranking number 5 on Esquire’s 2010 list of best United States restaurant destinations. Known for its relaxed atmosphere, admiration of experimental cuisine, and willingness to indulge, LA continues to attract some of the world’s top chefs to open five star establishments. While there are plenty of opportunities for splurging on a meal, a culinary adventure doesn’t have to mean avoiding utility bills for the next month. The next time you feel like eating out, don’t settle for the frozen TV dinner—put the remote down and try one of these alternatives for an equally satisfying experience without the guilt and with the saved expense.
If you like Fogo de Chao, try Bossa Nova: With three locations across the LA area and a menu featuring over one hundred options for authentic Brazilian dining from $10-$15, Bossa Nova acts as an impressive counter to the infamous eat-meat-till-you-drop Argentinean restaurant. While not quite as beef-exclusive and under normal service (i.e. not unlimited amounts of said beef for a set fee), Bossa Nova portions can easily be called a mini feast, if not multiple meals in one—especially if you consider the fried plantains, black beans, rice, and yucca flour offered as sides, or one of the monstrous pieces of cake or flan. And yes, the meat is great, too.
If you like Bottega Louie, try C&O Trattoria: The next time you’re craving comforting and flavorful Italian food, skip the manicured restaurant of downtown and head to the pier of Marina del Rey to indulge in some of the best pasta found outside the little villages in Italy. From classic marinaras to dishes with mussels, roasted eggplant, and Chianti short ribs, the menu rivals the gourmet nature of Bottega Louie’s, without a hefty price tag—and trust me, the “individual” portions are at least two meals; “gargantuan” bowls are meant for the table. Did I mention wine priced on an honor system of counting glasses from a carafe and unlimited, free garlic knots throughout the meal?
If you like Rosa Mexicano, try El Cholo: Although the Mexican chain may boast a more elaborate menu, each of the five locations of the LA phenomenon, El Cholo, provides much more authentic Mexican fare—various styles of nachos, enchiladas smothered in sauce and cheese, and green corn tamales, among other delicacies—in a more vibrant, Spanish-influenced environment. Voted the best margarita in the area, the best taco on a 2010 Rachel Ray show, and endorsed by a writer from Gourmet Magazine (who claimed she couldn’t imagine Los Angeles without it), El Cholo can be the perfect spontaneous weeknight dinner away from the living room.
If you like Tinto Tapas Espana, try Bacaro LA: Just as sophisticated flavors and culinary techniques appear on the menu of young-adult-friendly Bacaro LA, as those showcased at the well known, classy Tinto Tapas Espana. Both restaurants offer great happy hour deals (plates at $5), but Bacaro also boasts half-off wine days, 3 plates for $21 at any time of day, and entrees disguised as tapas (like pizzas, burgers, paninis, and filets) under the same prices as normal tapas fare. Craving a more intense experience? Try “Beefsteak Sunday” as well—$30 per person for two hours of all you can eat grilled filets, bread, potatoes, and onion rings, with all you can drink wine.
If you like Little Door, try Little Next Door: Although the prices of Little Next Door aren’t exactly the best of steals ($10-$15 for sandwiches, omelets, and salads; $15-$20 for entrees) the cozy brasserie makes a nice compromise between the elegant French dishes of its parent restaurant or the romantic destination of Café Pinot downtown (both of which expect $20 and up for a single plate) and a more laid back environment, without losing the authenticity of Parisian fare. If your paychecks are still hesitant to bend, remember the true French style of having rich, substantive food in reasonable portions earlier in the day has the added benefit of a lighter, later dinner.
If you like The Farm or Alcove Café, try The Nickel Diner: While the kitsch settings of The Farm and Alcove Café provide temporary reprieves from urban, industrial life, neither restaurant seems to have an hour when it’s not bursting with socialites, business people, artists at work, and families on outings. Try heading downtown to the Nickel Diner where you can get the same filling sandwiches, salads, and desserts for a better deal and less crowds. Its weekend brunch even rivals that of The Farm—including not only healthy vegan options, but also homemade donuts (like the local favorite of the bacon variety). The diner serves a hearty breakfast guaranteed to please—especially since you can watch the Chefs at work in the partly exposed kitchen.
If you like Momed or The Panini Café, try Gaby’s: Possessing an even more extensive collection of Mediterranean food than either downtown’s Panini Café or Beverly Hills’ Momed, Gaby’s offers plenty of opportunities to satiate your cravings for hummus, olives, and flatbread pizzas. Gaby’s kitchen also plates a wider variety of Mediterranean styles (Greek, Turkish, and Lebanese, to name a few) than the other establishments, so no need to panic if you can’t quite decide what region will be your culinary escape. And, just as Momed garners fame through its homemade mint lemonade, Gaby’s also offers its own selection of homemade Mediterranean juices and beverages.
Lastly, if you don’t feel like you can manage a full meal from a restaurant, don’t be afraid to pop out for a bite of dessert to add some flavor to your weekly budget routine. Four Leaf Tea and Crepes in Little Tokyo specializes in herbal and floral teas and coffees, creative ice cream filled crepes, shaved ices, and decadent waffles for under $6. My personal favorite dessert spot exists in Milk, located near the Grove in Beverly Hills. Cappuccino topped with a scoop of ice cream, extra thick milkshakes, and sundaes constructed from homemade brownies and cookies, and ice cream all for under $5, provides an irresistible outing with friends or a take home treat to eat with that economical frozen dinner.