Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eating Cheaply in Boston. Brace Yourselves.

The greatest preparation I had for living cheaply was working for a budget travel guidebook called Let’s Go. I zigzagged across the Southeastern States on a budget of $75 a day. I reviewed restaurants, entertainment hot spots, and hostels. This two-month whirlwind tour of the South was done alone and it was the most rock’n’roll lifestyle I ever led. I slept in my rental car. I took showers in campgrounds. I even learned how to sneak into hotels for their continental breakfasts. And while my trip through the quiet towns and burgeoning cities of the South had to eventually end, the skills I learned as a broke but inquisitive traveler has stayed with me. I learned that sometimes the best places to eat aren't the flashiest or most popular dining hotspots, but the ones that have been able to weather the ups and downs of time.

First rule of thumb: don’t judge a restaurant, diner, or bar by its appearance. But this is not to say that you should simply throw caution—and your personal well being to the wind. If that lonely diner looks unsanitary or smells like rotten sea urchin, then you should perhaps see what's at the next block. In other words, trust your gut when checking out these places. Remember: trips to the hospital are expensive!

In an old, historic city like Boston, there are restaurants that have been around for decades for a reason. Their prices are consistent. The meals are served fast. They're dependable like an old friend. These restaurants aren’t likely to make it on a “Best of Boston” list. They'll never be on anyone's list as one of the most desirable places to dine. But if we judged these places on food alone, they would be right up there with Beantown's trendiest eateries.

The best thing about Boston is brunch. From greasy spoon diners like the Breakfast Club in Allston that serve up homely and comforting breakfast to the refined flavors of Latin American foods at places like Tu y Yo in Somerville. The menu at Tu y Yo is bound with humble descriptions of fantastic dishes that come with Latin staples like plantains, huevos rancheros with black beans. Diners can expect a heaping plate, usually served with perfectly smooth dollops of guacamole. And the best part? All entrees are under eight dollars. These are the tucked-away places that are not found in hotel restaurants or anywhere near Newbury Street. You'll have to go to the outskirts of the city to venture to places like Dogwood Café in Jamaica Plain, Masa in the South End, Steve’s Kitchen in Allston, and Ball Square Café in Somerville where various waves of cultural flair can be found.

Final rule: Eat out for lunch instead of dinner. It's easy and far more affordable. When you eat out at night, you feel the heat of the crowd bearing upon your comfort zone. You feel the billions of hungry Bostonians waiting in line for the next expensive mound of food in fancy presentations. Why not skip all of that and enjoy the quiet zen-like atmosphere of a restaurant without the hustle of noisy, hungry professionals? You can. Next time you’re hankering to hit your favorite establishment, take my advice go for lunch and not dinner. You will be happily surprised.

You don’t have to travel to far-off countries to try new and delightful foods. Boston’s many inexpensive and multicultural establishments, like the row of Russian eats in Brookline or the many Brazilian restaurants on Cambridge Street, make ours a worldly city to eat in. Staying in your comfort zone while dining out can be expensive and dull. What's the fun of hoping that the same dish was made the exact same way as the last time you had it? You've already tasted that before. It’s time for something different that tantalizes your taste buds.

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