We went looking for very good deals on meals. Now they're yours to enjoy.
It is one kind of pleasure to go out for a great meal and close your eyes to the cost, but another sensation entirely to find a place where the food is not only good, but inexpensive enough to raise an eyebrow or two. We were delighted to find that notable bargains on meals still abound, even in expensive Connecticut, and we present our findings on the pages that follow. If you have any suggestions, or finds of your own, don't hesitate to let us know. We'll add them to the list and pass them along. In the meantime, here are great new reasons to dine out!
Early Birds, Rejoice!
Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at Litchfield's Saltwater Grille are a boon to the early bird. Go between 4 and 7, and you'll get a four-course repast that includes housemade soup, endless salad bowl, fresh rolls and butter, a choice of three interesting entrées and one of two desserts-all for $18. Entrées the week of March 10, for example (Saltwater's closed for vacation Feb. 25 through March 9-the owners are getting married!), are filet mignon medallions with wasabi mashed potatoes, sesame ginger glaze and daikon tempura; shrimp casino with peppers, Spanish onion, sweet paprika, bourbon butter and crostini; and broiled lemon chicken breast with potatoes Bordelaise and buffalo mozzarella. In addition, there are $5 wine-by-the-glass specials from the restaurant's Wine Spectator Award-winning list. In April, they bring back their popular lobster dinners-chowder or salad, steamed lobster, corn on the cob, potato and coleslaw-for $25. What's not to like? 26 Commons Drive, Litchfield (Rte. 202), (860) 567-4900.
Bethlehem Residents Alert
If you're 60 or over and live in Bethlehem, it's unlikely that you haven't dined at The Painted Pony. Featuring a mix of American and Italian cuisines, it offers the Senior Dine Club, Monday through Friday from 11 to 4, in which those who meet the residency requirements can dine with just a donation (suggested $2, but give what you can). The meal typically includes 10 choices for the main course, plus soup or salad, fruit, dessert, milk and coffee. Even if you don't qualify for the club, the Pony is definitely worth a ride-almost everything on the menu is under $15, so you'll still be able to enjoy a full meal at a great price. 74 Main St. (Rte. 61), Bethlehem, (203) 266-5771 (paintedponyrestaurant.com).
Tucked away in a strip mall in Milford, Nello's is a family-run and family-friendly restaurant that offers great Italian food at reasonable prices every day, but then adds to that (or subtracts, actually) with a pasta special Sunday through Thursday (closed Monday): $7.99 for any pasta plate-everything from fettucine Alfredo and rigatoni alla vodka to spaghetti and mushrooms, tortellini, lasagna and ravioli-which also includes a salad. 248 New Haven Ave., Milford, (203) 877-1170.
Pizza places are almost by nature havens for cheap eats, but some, such as The Recovery Room in New London, really reward straying off into other parts of the menu. Not that the pies should be ignored here; they're among the best in the state. The shrimp and artichoke version, for example, is blissful and, at $13.95, the most expensive pizza on the list (they're all 12-inch pies and start at $7), but for around the same price, you can get into the entrées. Try the penne "Jack," consisting of pasta in marinara sauce with sausage, red and green peppers, broccoli rabe and shrimp ($14.95) or one of the nightly specials. 445 Ocean Ave., New London, (860) 443-2619.
As much as we adore sushi, it does add up! A few pieces of sashimi here, a rainbow roll there, and before you know it you're in triple digits. So when we have a yen for sushi we grab a couple of friends and head for the happy hour at South Norwalk's Ocean Drive Restaurant, still one of the coolest restaurants in SoNo in our opinion. From 5 to 7, sashimi is two-for-the-price-of-one (bring on the yellowtail!). You can also partake of the raw bar (clams and oysters) for the same deal. And of course, drinks are half price, too. 128 Washington St., South Norwalk, (203) 855-1665.
Red Letter Days
When you get a deal at a fine restaurant showcasing fresh local ingredients, that's a red-letter day-and River Tavern in Chester has at least four a week. Make that Monday and Tuesday, when all wines are half price, Wednesday, when all cocktails are half price (love those Dark & Stormys!), and Sunday, when all kids under 12 eat for free. We're not talking chicken nuggets here, but handmade pasta with beef Bolognese sauce, pan-roasted breast of chicken with Yukon gold potatoes and buttery carrots and other healthy eats, plus any dessert from the "grown-up" menu (chocolate crèpes with fresh whipped cream are a huge hit) and a beverage. And did we mention the $40 wine luncheons the third Wednesday of each month? 23 Main St., Chester, (860) 526-9417 (rivertavernchester.net).
Good Time Grill
With live entertainment, Thursday night karaoke with a $100 prize for best singer and great drink specials, you're in for a good time when you visit Tolland's Tavern House Grill. But what makes this spot even better is the $5.95 lunch special, available Monday through Thursday from 11 to 2 and including a drink and your choice of a sandwich and fries, buffalo wings (with 11 different sauces from Mild to Suicidal) or a chef salad. Of course, it doesn't really matter what time of day you visit, because they always offer an under-$15 menu featuring steak, seafood, burgers and lots more. 200 Merrow Rd., Tolland, (860) 872-0332 (tavernhousegrill.com).
Old School at Its Best
In the Cartas family since 1936, Cypress Restaurant in Middletown has become a local icon with its plain good food, low prices and friendly service. Here, you can find veal Marsala for $14.99, bay scallops for $11.99 and meatloaf for $8.99. One of the most popular items on the dinner menu is the roast turkey dinner for $9.99 (Toto, I don't think we're in Connecticut any more). And if you visit Cypress' Web site, you can find weekly specials (corned beef dinner only $9.99 on Thursdays) and even dollar-off coupons. 1265 South Main St., Middletown, (860) 346-3367 (ntplx.net/~cypress/index.htm).
Hartford Happy Hours
In college, when it came to dining, we used to live by a simple creed: "If it's free, it's for me!" And the best time to get great free food (and reduced-price drinks) is Happy Hour. Hartford is home to many good Happy Hours, among them:
- Pig's Eye Pub. The free buffet on Friday (4 to 8) includes pizza, hot wings, jalapeño poppers, potato skins and meatball grinders, plus live acoustic music and $2 drafts, featuring 18 different beers. 356 Asylum St., Hartford, (860) 278-4747 (pigseyepub.com).
- McKinnon's Irish Pub. Happy hour drink specials happen here every weekday (4 to 7) but the free buffet is on Wednesday and Friday; items change weekly but usually feature something hot from the menu, cold sandwiches and more. The peanuts are free, too. 114 Asylum St., Hartford, (860) 524-8174 (mckinnonsirishpub.com).
- Arch Street Tavern. Arch Street also celebrates Happy Hour every weekday (3:30 to 7) but both the beer specials (domestic and imports) and buffet change every day. The fare varies from a 4-foot grinder to a carved turkey or ham to hot wings. 85 Arch St., Hartford, (860) 246-7610 (archstreettavern.com).
On the outside, Pagoda in Norwich resembles its namesake, the tiered, multi-eaved towers that are prominent throughout Asia. The inside features walls lined with traditional decor, a full bar in the front and a sushi bar tucked away in the back. The food is delicious and affordable, of course-all the classics are on the menu, including orange chicken, pork lo mein and wonton soup-but it's the drinks that can't be beat. You can have your favorite domestic beer for just $2.25 (add 25 cents for imported brews), a glass of wine, a martini and just about any other cocktail for $2.95, and for $3.95 you can pair your meal with sake or perhaps a Scorpion Bowl. 47 Town St., Norwich, (860) 887-7500 (pagodarest1.com).
Two-in-One with Extras
A New Haven stalwart for more than 20 years, State Street's Christopher Martins is two restaurants in one: a cozy white-linen nook serving inventive modern interpretations of Italian/Mediterranean cuisine (try the Chilean sea bass, scallops and shrimp baked "en papillote") paired with an all-American pub (serving, arguably, the city's best half-pound burger-topped to the skies with bacon, cheese, mushrooms and what-have-you-for $8). Lunch entrées, including the popular macadamia-crusted swordfish, top out at $12, and if you sign up for Martins' "frequent flyer" card, you earn 10 percent off every dollar you spend. Communitywide flyers offer "buy one, get one free" deals (the restaurant is also known for its annual Thanksgiving dinner, which offers 500 homeless and working poor a free meal with personalized table service). Best of all, if you overstay the meter they'll pay your ticket (and we all know about New Haven's notorious parking shortage). 860 State St., New Haven, (203) 776-8835 (christophermartins.com).
At the Hyatt Regency in Old Greenwich, a lunch buffet, a modified version of the over-the-top $48 Sunday brunch, is offered Monday through Saturday at a mouthwatering $22 per person. The groaning board here includes shrimp cocktail, six salads, soup of the day, two hot entrées (perhaps tilapia with beurre blanc and beef medallions or grilled chicken), mixed steamed vegetables and a starch (perhaps rice pilaf or pasta with vodka and shrimp), and a dessert buffet with petits fours, chocolate mousse and bread pudding-all so satisfying you won't have to eat for the rest of the day (okay, maybe just a nibble for supper). 1800 East Putnam Ave., Old Greenwich, (203) 637-1234 (hyatt.com).
Where Everybody Knows Your Name. . .
Mario's Place in Westport is the real deal, an unpretentious spot serving generous portions of hearty American and Italian fare in a primo location by the train station for the past 40 years. It's the perennial statewide winner in our Readers' Choice Restaurant Survey for value and we can see why, with dinners from spaghetti & meatballs ($9) to the veal cutlet dinner ($16.95) and the pork chop dinner ($17.50), the latter two served with a salad and potato, french fries, spaghetti or vegetable, and crowd-pleasing lunch choices like the jumbo burger ($5.95) and chicken-parm grinder ($7.50). As for the atmosphere, if it weren't called Mario's Place, Cheers II-"where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came"-would fit perfectly. 36 Railroad Place, Westport, (203) 226-0308.
Are you nostalgic for the knotty-pine roadside restaurants of yore, complete with wagon-wheel interior motif and paper placemats crammed with ads from local businesses? The Charcoal Chef in Woodbury, in many ways unchanged since it opened in 1956, will fill your need. Here you'll find quick, friendly service, powerful cocktails and a dinner menu with nothing north of $20. If you're in the mood for something more like $10 (including salad and potato), there's chopped steak and cube steak-dishes you don't often see on menus these days. The many kinds of pie fit in with the retro feel as well-and they're delicious. By the way, no credit cards are accepted. 670 Main St. N., Woodbury, (203) 263-2583.
A Slice of Portugal
Opt for the European Plan and experience a slice of Portugal right in Bridgeport, at Omanel Restaurant, where diners enjoy delicious authentic fare at budget prices every day. Linen-covered tables and fado music set the scene and an extensive menu offers specialties like soupa alentejana (garlic and egg), fried quail, paella and pork medallions algarvia. Soups are $3 a bowl, appetizers $5.95 to $6.95, and most entrées of beef, pork and all kinds of seafood run from $12.95 to $15.95 (with a few exceptions-paella that serves two runs $19.95, whole lobsters are market price) and desserts are $3.50. Savor your meal with a bottle of Portuguese wine for under $10 and you'll think your light head has gotten the best of you when the bill arrives at around $20 per person. Bring a hearty appetite as portions are generous; smaller plates are available for children. 1909 Main St., Bridgeport, (203) 335-1676.
Sushi with Passion
If there's a more inventive (or passionate) restaurateur than Bun Lai of Miya's Sushi in New Haven, we haven't met him. Indulge in a few rounds of his home brews (our favorites include the wild green pinecone-infused Emerald Witches' Lips sakes), as well as several of his eco-friendly designer rolls (like the Oaxacan Dragon Charmer-kind of a Mexican take on unagi-the unbelievable Kanibaba and the dessert roll Seven Deadly Sushi), and you and your dinner guests could easily rack up a $700 bill. But we've got a secret to share: Make a Wednesday reservation and tell Bun & Co. you're coming for the "weekly dinner special," and they'll design a personalized "all you can eat" sushipalooza for $28.75 per person. The sake will still cost extra, but trust us, this is a deal-and an experience-you'd be crazy to miss. 68 Howe St., New Haven, (203) 777-9760.
Hong Kong Café, a hidden gem in Stratford's Paradise Green, serves up some of the finest Chinese food in the state, and at very reasonable prices. Not your average greasy take-out, this small, unassuming sit-down café prepares high-quality Szechuan cuisine, with nightly specials featuring premium dishes like honey-walnut shrimp and chicken and house special duck for $11.95. Soups beyond the usual include creamed corn at $2.95 per bowl and house special seafood for two at $6.95. Dumplings and a variety of exceptional noodle dishes and vegetarian selections start at $4.35, with the seafood delight (scallops, shrimp, lobster and veggies) topping out at $14.95. Add a Chinese beer at $3.50, and it's still a bargain. 3580 Main St., Stratford, (203) 380-2438.
Middle Eastern Round the Clock
Lovers of Middle Eastern fare have been dropping by Mamoun's Falafel Restaurant in New Haven, virtually anytime they feel peckish, since 1977 (it's open daily 11 a.m. to 3 a.m.). Just think: You can gorge on a starter of stuffed grape leaves, an order of baba ghannouj and a lamb steak sandwich, all for under $13-or tuck into a hefty combination platter of kefta, chicken and shish kebobs (with Syrian rice and salad) for $14.25. Wash it all down with a large Mamoun's special iced tea for $1. 85 Howe St., New Haven, (203) 562-8444 (mamounsfalafel.com).
One Goose Worth Flocking To
The regulars flock to Augustyn's Blue Goose, a Stratford icon for more than 30 years, for "The Complete Dinner," one of the best deals around. The prix-fixe meal includes soup, salad, entrée (choose from seven dishes including crab cakes with lobster sauce, broiled Atlantic salmon and roast leg of lamb) served with potato and vegetable, dessert and coffee, all for $13.95 (yes, really), available Tuesday through Friday, and Sunday. On Saturday, the special features a choice of prime rib, stuffed shrimp and a selection that changes each week for $17.95 (dessert is extra). 326 Ferry Blvd., Stratford, (203) 375-9130 (augustynsbluegoose.com).Cheap Eats