The key to eating well, A. J. Liebling once wrote, is to have "just enough money." For a budding gourmet, wealth is as much a liability as poverty. If you can afford lobster every night, you might never discover steamed pork buns.
Seventy-five dollars a day is just enough money. It's a small enough sum to make you consider your options carefully, but generous enough to permit a couple of splurges, and even some real luxury. We asked writers in three centers of serious spending--Dallas, Palm Beach and Beverly Hills--to go out for breakfast, lunch and dinner without spending more than $75, including tax and tip. And no cheating: street-corner hot dog stands and taco trucks, no matter how extraordinary they might be, were out. We wanted three meals that seemed more expensive than they really were. Not one of the three writers complained about the modest expense account. Instead, they dug up amazing deals at some of the nicest restaurants in town. Our man in Texas even managed to treat himself to foie gras and Kobe beef without going over budget. Yes, you can easily get by on less, and it's certainly possible to spend more.But if it's top value you're after, $75 a day is perfect.
Ross Perot, a Dallas native, once barked that money is the most overrated thing in the world. Still, there's no getting around it: in this city, money talks--even in small amounts.
BREAKFAST Take Breadwinners, a café and bakery with a lush interior courtyard. Order coffee ($1.50) and you get a basket of fresh-baked breads on the house; it might hold sun-dried tomato bread and hearty spice cake. Leo's Favorite Scramble ($8) is a mix of eggs, grilled chicken, ham, onion, tomato and Jack cheese in a sheen of hollandaise.
LUNCH Another kind of sheen prevails at Star Canyon, founded by celebrity chef Stephan Pyles and favored by Mick Jagger and Cindy Crawford. Dinner is pricey, but lunch, recently reinstated after a two-year hiatus, is a steal. Chorizo pizza, a tortilla topped with black beans, chorizo and goat cheese, costs just $9. It's highbrow ranch grub.
DINNER Dallas also has its cosmopolitan side: witness Tei Tei Robata Bar, a sort of exotic Japanese tapas bar. Here you can get a $100 Kobe beefsteak, the perfect Dallas merger of cash and cattle. But the same meat can be had in more affordable form: a Kobe-beef-and-potato stew wrapped in a bale of phyllo strands ($9.50). Red miso soup ($6.50) is a light broth with scallops, shrimp and mussels; foie gras ($15) is pan-seared in sesame oil and soy. Finish with a scoop of ginjo sake ice cream ($6). Dallasites may be renowned for getting and spending, but they also know how to watch the bottom line. --Mark Stuertz
West Palm Beach
Palm Beach is the grande dame of glamour, with all the fabulous shops along Worth Avenue, not to mention the gorgeous seaside mansions. But there's no place to go for a great inexpensive meal. For that,you have to cross the bridge to West Palm. Ten years ago, my husband and I bought an apartment there--a highly speculative move, as that side of town was not yet the mini South Beach it is today. Now a well-heeled, terminally chic crowd has moved in, along with some wonderful restaurants, many of them offering the only ethnic food in the area.
BREAKFAST If I could order up the perfect day, I would start at Jacqueline's Place. Located on Clematis, the hippest street in town, this bakery is refreshingly old-fashioned. My favorite breakfast is several honey sticky buns ($2 each), packed with plump, juicy raisins. On Saturday mornings I'd cruise over to the Greenmarket, which sets up at the end of Clematis, to check out the spectacle and buy an omelet ($4) from one of the booths.
LUNCH A few miles down the South Dixie Highway is a nondescript strip mall that hides a treasure: Montezuma. It's easy to miss, if you blink. Montezuma is a homey, family-run operation that serves the best Mexican food around, especially the chiles rellenos ($9.50).
DINNER At Craig's An American Bistro, chefs Craig Miller and Gary Boileau serve globally-inspired dishes alongside classics like roast duck. If I was still in the mood for Mexican, I'd start with the crabmeat quesadillas ($9); otherwise, I'd get the crisp, tender shrimp wontons ($8). Then I'd order the Not Your Mother's Pot Roast ($16), which comes with a horseradish dipping sauce. Afterward, I'd head for Rhythm Café, a cool, diner-like setting with great desserts--and bowls of condoms outside the bathrooms. At $5 a slice, the coconut quiche is a bargain. And the condoms are free. --Nina Griscom
Zip code 90210 may be synonymous with extravagance, but for those with reality-based budgets it can also mean the chance to come across a drastically reduced pair of Manolo Blahniks--and an exceptional restaurant that leaves you with enough cash to pay for them.
BREAKFAST Café Mirabeau on Rodeo Drive, two floors above Armani, is one of those places only insiders know about. When the waiter brought just-squeezed citrus juice ($2.75), leek and prosciutto quiche ($7) and coffee ($2) to my umbrella-shaded table on a terrace circled by pomegranate trees, I fantasized I was at a small, exclusive European hotel.
LUNCH I spent the morning hunting for closeout sales, then stopped at Nouveau Café Blanc, a diminutive all-white space. Chef Tommy Harase's refined, Japanese-inflected French cooking is out of my price range at dinner, but not at lunch. A crisp, airy potato pancake topped with lobster chunks and a spicy tomato vinaigrette was only $10. A scandalously low $2 supplement purchased a stunning lobster bisque; mango tart ($4.50) and coffee ($2) completed the meal.
DINNER After a hard afternoon at the boutiques, dinner should be anything but modest. Aram is perfect. It soothes the homesickness of the city's expatriate Iranians with the lavish servings essential to Persian hospitality. An appetizer of Kashk o Bademjan ($5), a voluptuous mash of roasted eggplant, is more than enough for two. Grilled Cornish game hen ($10) and a kebab of juicy marinated lamb ($13) are presented on a faux silver platter grandly heaped with snowy basmati rice and grilled tomatoes. I declined the Persian desserts and headed instead to Caffe Roma. It draws the sockless Euro crowd on seemingly permanent visitors' visas who nibble the chocolate mousse cake and almond tart ($5.50 each). I always wonder when I see all the Gianfranco Ferre bags parked under the tables if I've missed a good sale. But then there's only so much one can cram into a Beverly Hills day. --Linda Burum