November 10, 2008 | Favorites

Cheap But Not Chintzy

Slurp happy hour dollar oysters at Lelabar to your heart's content - or until they run out. Photo: Itzik Serussi
Slurp happy hour dollar oysters at Lelabar to your heart's content - or until they run out. Photo: Itzik Serussi

By Talia Berman and India DeLashmutt

        Unlike some newly strapped Wall-Streeters, we have always been bargain hunters when it comes to drinking and dining out, if only because our wallets have never managed to keep up with our appetites. Be it a hellish midtown dive bar, a random and magical happy hour or a three-course prix fixe, if it is delicious and if it is a deal, we will be there. Lucky for you, we have decided to share what we do to keep ourselves in the good life after we’ve indulged in the truffles and the pearls are pawned. You can thank us later.

Breaking in the newbies

        New restaurants are always looking to build their clientele and reputations, so they want you to leave happy. At Desnuda (122 East 7th Street, 212 254 3515) one rainy night last week, the burly oyster shucker-in-training offered us a free round in exchange for moving down the bar to make room for a large party. New restaurants are usually still experimenting with their menus, and often looking for willing guinea pigs, so suit up and make nice with your new friends! 

Optimize your dining experience

        Instead of ordering by number (we have all done it: you look first down the right side of the menu and pick the cheapest wine, the cheapest appetizer and the cheapest entrée), pick one thing you really want and then omit or trim down around the rest. For example, get the $14 signature bone marrow and oxtail marmalade appetizer at Blue Ribbon Brasserie (97 Sullivan Street. 212 274 0404), and then for dinner, go with the delicious burger ($14.50) or better yet, a couple of half-portions of salads, for which they halve the prices too ($5 to $9).

Eat at the bar

        Unlike servers, bartenders have complimentary or “comp” checks, which are authorized giveaways, meant to build regular bar clientele (buy-backs are another version of this). Eat at the bar. Chat up the bartender. Hope for free stuff.
        Also, in some great restaurants with steep prices, inexpensive bar snacks can make a meal. One of my favorite recurring dinners in this city involves a bowl of spiced almonds, some olives, an order of rich and filling chicken liver toast and a creamy deviled egg at The Spotted Pig (314 West 11th Street. 212 620 0393). Trust me, you won’t need anything else after these “snacks,” whose prices range from $3 to $7.50.

Just $1 for an elegant egg by Alain Ducasse at Benoit. Photo: Martin Burgess

        Ducasse for a dollar? Eat at the handsome and sexy bar at Benoit (60 West 55th St. 646 943 7373) for the bistro classic oeuf dur mayonnaise, a hard-boiled egg with hand-whipped mayo and a lonely furl of lettuce for just $1. Add a dozen garlicky escargots ($11) or a juicy burger ($14.50) and you will have had enough Ducasse until you can lure a well-heeled date to Adour.

Become a Regular

        Have you found a place you like? Go there. A lot. You may be surprised by what can appear at your table (or disappear from your check) when the wait staff recognizes your friendly face.

Conning the connoisseur  

        Unwilling to cut alcohol out of my dining experience to save money, I was surprised and delighted to learn that some of my favorite restaurants have a corkage fee that is less than their cheapest bottle of wine. So, go to your local wine store (Trader Joe’s for me) and pick up a reasonably priced bottle of wine. Call the restaurant and ask – some might scare you away with exorbitant corkage fees, but more than a few will give you glasses and service for something in the range of $20.

        I’ve had great luck at Five Points with their reasonable $20 fee (31 Great Jones Street. 212 253 5700) and Back Forty at a measly $15 (190 Avenue B. 212 388 1990)! I was a bit disappointed to learn that Barbuto (775 Washington Street. 212 924 9700) and August (359 Bleecker Street. 212 929 4774) both have a $25 corkage. But Diner (85 Broadway. 718 486 3077) and Franny’s (295 Flatbush Avenue. 718 230 0221), my Brooklyn standbys, both have a palatable $20 fee as well.

Enjoy your own wine at Hundred Acres with their juicy bluefish.      

        Don’t be afraid of looking like a cheapskate. I’ve had waiters “ooo” and “ahhh” over my $4.99 bottle, thinking it was something special and expensive that just had to be opened on that day. You may be surprised at what you can save by paying someone to pop your cork. When dining at Hundred Acres (38 Macdougal Street. 212 475 7500) where we paid a $20 corkage, the waitress gave my two dining companions and me a free glass of the restaurant’s wine for no apparent reason other than her good grace. Or it could have been the Lehman Brothers gym bag I was carrying.

Monday is the new Friday

        To boost alcohol sales early in the week, many restaurants offer half-off deals on wine. Our Sunday night players are Jarnac - get the knockout cassoulet (328 West 12th Street. 212 924 3413) - and Pamplona (37 East 28th Street. 212 213 2328), from the nothing-if-not-authentic kitchen of Alex Ureña (of the defunct Ureña, of course).

        On Mondays, wines are half-off at ‘Cesca (164 West 75th Street. 212 787 6300), where the food is fine but the prices are unavoidably high. If you want dinner too, employ the timeless trick of skinny girls and the broke and order two appetizers for your meal.
        If Tuesday is your night out, there are half-off bottles at Nolita House (47 East Houston Street. 212 625 1712) and Petite Abeille (all four locations), which, by the way, has a different deal every night of the week (half-off beer Monday, $19.95 all-you-can-eat mussels Wednesday and lobster dinners Thursday, also $19.95). Also on Tuesdays, Clinton Street Baking Company (4 Clinton Street. 646 602 6263) will let them eat cake: enjoy not only half-off bottles of wine but also a $12 burger and beer every night of the week from 6-8 p.m. Have the best of both worlds: get the burger and beer special and the wine special on a Tuesday and be collapsed in bed, pleasantly full and forgetful, by 9 p.m.

        At the trendy Bourgeois Pig (111 East 7th Street. 212 475 2246) and Mediterranean restaurant Miriam (79 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn. 718 622 2250), you have two days to economize. On Monday and Tuesday both places offer half-off wine deals. 

Well, shucks…

        I always feel glamorous when I eat oysters. It's probably because they exist only for their slippery briny deliciousness – no one ever got full on oysters. Unfortunately, most restaurants won’t let you have that thrill for less than $3 a pop, but we’ve found some exceptions. Here they are.

        At the bars at Blue Water Grill (31 Union Square West. 212-675-9500), Blue Fin (1567 Broadway. 212 918 1400), Ocean Grill (384 Columbus Avenue. 212 579 2300) and Atlantic Grill (1341 Third Avenue. 212 988 9200), oysters, clams and jumbo shrimp go for just $1.25 after 10 p.m.

        Happy Hour at Lure Fish Bar (142 Mercer Street. 212 431 7676) in Soho offers dollar oysters and clams as well as a discounted bar menu and happy hour cocktails Monday through Friday, 5 to 7 p.m. However, beware the feeding frenzy of the highfalutin'. I almost couldn’t eat my oysters last time for the overwhelming smell of Burberry London and apple martini emanating from a drunken power-suited woman next to me.

        Fish (280 Bleecker Street. 212 727 2879) in the village offers a simple yet perfect oyster deal: ½ dozen oysters and a red, white or blue (red wine, white wine or Pabst Blue Ribbon) every day until 7 p.m.

        At Sidecar (560 5th Avenue. 718 369 0077) in Brooklyn, 12 bivalves of your daily selection and a bottle of Txacolina ($38 becomes $19) – the slightly effervescent Basque varietal that is perfect with oysters – is half-off, all day, all night, all week, all of the time (their kitchen closes at 4 a.m. every night).

        In the modern and intimate yet uncramped space of LelaBar (422 Hudson Avenue. 212 206 0594), you can eat all the $1 oysters you want (until they run out) on Wednesday and Saturday. There are also glasses of wine on the Happy Hour menu for around $7, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. every day except Sunday.

        I love the oyster happy hour at Five Points (1 Great Jones Street. 212 253 5700) with friendly service and a relaxed atmosphere. My regret is it only lasts one hour, from 5 to 6 p.m. everyday. Beat the clock by making it a competition with your friends to see who can slurp the most $2 oysters and $5 martinis in 59 minutes! It may not save you any money, but you’ll feel great after.
Free Just Tastes Better

        Apart from the famous free pizza at the Alligator and Crocodile Lounges (600 Metropolitan Avenue. 718 599 4440; 325 East 14th Street. 212 477 7747), which is only worth it if you have the talent to balance your slice amid drunken student revelers with jutting elbows, there are plenty of free food joints around the city. Happily some of these involve ingredients that don’t taste of freezer burn and require more than a microwave to prepare.

        Bemelman’s Bar
(The Carlyle Hotel, 35 East 76th Street. 212 744 1600) – Who knew anything came free on the Upper East Side? As long as you are willing to shell out $20 for a cocktail (admittedly a great one) in this legendary New York bar you can have all the free cheese crackers, nuts and potato chips you can lay your white gloved fingers on.

        Spain Restaurant (113 West 13th Street. 212 929 9580) – At this restaurant, everyone gets free tapas with drinks. If you are still hungry for dinner, you might as well stay – the entrees are so big two can easily share.
        Jakewalk (282 Smith Street. 347 599 0294) – This Brooklyn wine bar offers free cheese plates with cocktails on Sundays from 3 to 4 p.m. Stay up until 5 a.m. on Saturday night and make it your breakfast.
(38 Eighth Avenue. 212 366 6633) – Make like the Italians, and enjoy the complimentary salumi and olives at  “Aperitivo” hour (the Boot’s version of happy hour) on Friday, Saturday and Sunday 4 to 6 p.m.

        Aurora Soho (510 Broome Street. 212 334 9020) – From 5 to 7 p.m. everyday, mangia flat breads, dips, and crostini at the bar with your glass of wine or whatever you feel like drinking.

        Vero Panini & Wine Bar (1004 First Avenue. 212 935 3530) – After chowing down all weekend, have a light dinner here on Monday where you can get a free panino with your drink.

And if you’re less worried about quality or ambience, and just get off on a deal, here are a couple for you:

        Thirsty Scholar (155 Second Avenue. 212 777 6514) – This East Village bar has a free buffet from 5 to 8 p.m. daily, with simple fare like chili and rice.

        T.G. Whitney’s (244 E 53rd Street. 212 888 5772) –Fill up on free wings, chicken tenders and potato skins during the happy hour from 4 to 8 p.m.