It might sound counterintuitive, and it flies in the face of advice tossed out by penny-pinching "experts" -- but they don't know what we know: where to find the best dining deals in town.
Who says it's cheaper to eat in? We dare you to try to put together a perfect taco of long-cooked carnitas on a fresh, warm, homemade corn tortilla for $1.25 (oh, and have it ready five or 10 minutes after you decide you want one). Or make a fresh loaf of yeasty sweet honey bread for $1.75 (assuming you're an enthusiastic baker).
Feeding a crowd? Take the whole family out to celebrate a birthday with dinner and live entertainment for $15 per person (if you opted for a movie at that budget, no one would even get popcorn). Looking for a little luxury? Zero in on a French chef's $20 menuspontanée.
Restaurateurs are doing everything they can to keep us eating out -- why fight it? Once again, here's our annual guide to loving your meals and paying the piper with good cheer. Our Food section writers found dozens of delicious deals: terrific lunch specials, hidden wine-list treasures, remarkable prix fixe menus, let's-come-back happy hour offerings, off-night discounts -- and just plain value.
Burgers, tacos and dogs
1. Bowery Burger at the Bowery, $9. Looking for a burger for less than $10 but also want to enjoy it in a sit-down situation with some stylish Hollywood atmosphere? The Bowery on Sunset Boulevard has a juicy, meaty sirloin burger served on a toasted English muffin (which makes for a nice, not-too-bready bun). You can sidle up to the bar or take a seat at the long banquette. Plus they're open for lunch on weekdays as well as late into the night. For $1 more, you can get it with Gruyère, cheddar or blue cheese. The Bowery, 6268 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 465-3400; www.theboweryhollywood.com.
2. Trio of beef sliders at Brix@1601, $12. In the South Bay, chef Michael McDonald turns out a trio of perfect beef sliders. Made with a loosely formed patty, these baby burgers are embellished with caramelized onions and nutty molten Gruyère. Three of them lined up in a row, their buns glazed a deep gold, are adorable. And all they need is a glass or two of rouge from sommelier Caitlin Stansbury's intelligent wine list. Brix@1601, 1601 Pacific Coast Highway, Suite 175, Hermosa Beach, (310) 698-0740; www.brix1601.com.
3. Taco Adobe's blackened mahi taco, $3. Stop in the middle of a hot afternoon and relax for a moment in this amusingly converted former IHOP, resplendent in pumpkin-orange paint with lavish curbside landscaping and inside, homey oilcloth-covered tables. The cooking is restrained, discreet even. Treat yourself to a mahi taco -- lovely spiced fish, diced tomatoes and shredded cabbage drizzled with a touch of crema and a few crumbles of cojito and offered on two fragrant corn tortillas with a wedge of lime. Fresh, simple and sustaining. Taco Adobe Southwestern Grill, 1319 N. Main St., Santa Ana,(714) 543-2411.
4. Taco Loco #3's taco de tripas, $1.25. How much happiness can you buy for $1.25? A whole lot, it turns out. At El Taco Loco #3, it'll get you a handmade tortilla taco. There are all of the usual flavors: chewy carne asada and cabeza, crumbly chorizo, crusty carnitas, melting lengua . . . . But the star of the lineup is the tripas. Beef tripe is stewed until it is tender and richly flavored, then just before serving, it's crisped on the griddle for a little crunch. Wrap it in a warm, puffy, freshly made corn tortilla and spoon on a bit of spiky fresh red chile salsa. Honestly, it's better than half the foie gras dishes ever created. And you get to eat it in a veritable Sistine Chapel of taco-shop art. El Taco Loco #3, 1465 Magnolia Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-6228.
5. Dollar Mondays at the Stand, $1. And then, how much can you buy for $1? On Monday nights, a buck buys you the Stand Dog -- a beef hot dog served steamed or grilled -- normally $3.50, with condiments such as mustard (yellow, deli or hot), ketchup, diced onions or tomatoes. Chips are 50 cents. If you want the Loaded Dog, that's $2.50 (regularly $4.25 ) with toppings such as chili, grilled onions, sauerkraut, or cheddar, Swiss or blue cheese. 17000 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 788-2700; 2000 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles ( Century City), (310) 785-0400; 1116 Westwood Blvd., Los Angeles (Westwood Village), (310) 443-0400; 5780 Canoga Ave., Woodland Hills, (818) 710-0400; www.thestandlink.com.
6. Organic veggie burger at Bouchees Bistro, $6. Bouchees Bistro does it all: customizable burgers, Sunday brunch, even local delivery. And while there's no lack of choices of proteins from which to build a burger here (Angus sirloin, turkey tenderloin and ahi tuna are all excellent options), the restaurant's organic veggie burger is the smart choice. The fresh-ground patty is a tasty mix of garbanzo beans, roasted red peppers and seasonal vegetables. Add your choice of toppings such as shiitake mushrooms and green peppercorn "dijonnaise." Strapped for cash? Get it slider-size, a little $2.50 burger that's gone in no more than a few bites. But even the full-size veggie burger doesn't last much longer -- it's just that good. Bouchees Bistro, 515 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 951-8222; bouchees.com.
Entrees at appetizer prices
7. Updated Italian comfort food entrees at Murano Restaurant, Bar & Lounge, $12. Every Tuesday, Murano's new chef, Joe Anguiano, formerly of Providence and New York's Montrachet, fashions a changing nostalgic menu of entrees at appetizer prices. Examples: house-made linguine and Kobe beef meatballs in a melted cherry tomato sauce; house-made penne with spicy Italian sausage, onions and peppers; balsamic marinated portobello and eggplant panini with Laura Chenel goat cheese, roasted peppers and grilled onions (and more). Murano Restaurant, Bar and Lounge, 9010 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood; (310) 246-9118; www.murano9010.com.
8. Homey European dinners at Sabina's, $5.75. Nourishment-per-nickel, this is one of the best deals in town, though it is quirky in a very un-Californian way. Which is to say a generous plate of tiny, crisp cornichons is the vegetable portion of your meal. It's a Romanian thing. As are the terrific chicken schnitzel and an incredible meatball soup that will convert lovers of albondigas to less-familiar Eastern European flavors such as paprika. Pick from beef or chicken stew with mushrooms, paprika chicken or beef with dumplings, stuffed cabbage or bell pepper and a few schnitzels. Your $5.75 buys the named dish, maybe a side of potatoes, salad, a basket of bread and that plate of pickles. Bring your own wine and this no-frills cafe will pour it into plastic tumblers. And expect to take home half your meal, because you may want to save room for crepes ($1.75). But arrive before 7 p.m; shortly thereafter, the couple who serve and cook are busy doing the dishes. Sabina's European Restaurant, 1253 Vine St., Los Angeles, (323) 469-9522.
Treats for two
9. Tower of hors d'oeuvres (for two) at Anisette, $30. Maybe the soaring tower of hors d'oeuvres is trying to reach the high ceiling at chef-partner Alain Giraud's Santa Monica brasserie. It's three levels of sliced breads, charcuterie (dried sausages and house-made terrine accompanied by olives, cornichons and a pot of mustard), nicely ripe cheeses, and a plate of exquisite vegetables fresh from the farmers market (peas, baby carrots, pearl onions), dressed á la grecque. At $15 per person, it makes a grand goûter (afternoon snack). Anisette, 225 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 395-3200; www.anisettebrasserie.com.
10. Afghan dumpling dinner for two at Chopan Kebab House, about $20. We'd drive across town for the impossibly seductive flavors of this budget feast that includes an order of ashak (leek dumplings) or their meat-filled cousins, manti. Both platters of dumplings come topped with a rich yogurt sauce swirled with saffron-infused oil and sprinkled with dried mint. Pair either generous $11.95 plate with a $6.95 order of bulani, a thin crusted, spice-infused potato-leek turnover that's a big as the tabletop, with cilantro chutney for dipping. Chopan Kebab House, 8910 Reseda Blvd., Northridge, (818) 885-1616.