Let’s face it, dining out in Connecticut, like lots of things in this great but costly-to-live-in state, can be pretty expensive. And while we love a fancy restaurant as much, if not a little bit more, than the next person, we also enjoy eating at places where you don’t feel as though your server should offer a payment plan with the bill.
Here we take a break from $7 beers and individual-sized specialty pizzas with prices soaring over $20, from wine lists with 200-percent markups over retail, and from establishments where complimentary bread at the start of the meal is a relic of the past. Instead we focus on grab-and-go takeout spots and sit-down eateries, where high-quality food is available for less than $10, and, in some cases, much less. We’d gladly pay more for the meals offered at the following destinations, but we’re happy we don’t have to.
Ferris Acres Creamery
Ferris Acres Creamery has long been celebrated as one of Connecticut’s best ice cream shops — it was named one of our state’s top spots in last year’s Best of Connecticut issue — and one of its most scenic. Located on a pastoral paradise of a farm where guests can watch black-and-white cows grazing in the field, Ferris Acres also offers lots of ice cream bang for your buck. During a recent visit, a group of four adults and two toddlers enjoyed more ice cream than they could consume for just $15. A banana split big enough for two is $6.45, a brownie sundae is $5.35, one scoop is $2.28, two scoops is $3.50, and three scoops is $4.73. Dozens of flavors include Route 302 Chocolate Moo (chocolate ice cream with fudge swirls and dark chocolate chunks) and Paradise Found (coconut ice cream, mixed with fudge swirls and almonds).
Started as a hot dog stand under the Niantic River Bridge in 2003, Kamp Dog opened a brick-and-mortar location in 2008 on Broad Street across from the Garde Theater. Ever since, the takeout joint with a striking, red-and-white-striped exterior has offered a menu that ranges beyond just the hot dogs implied by its name. Lunch includes single, double and triple burgers ($3, $4.50 and $6), the popular Reuben sandwich ($8), and, of course, hot dogs ($2.75) including the signature Kamp Dog, topped with house speciality Dynamite sauce, cheese and onions, and nestled in a butter-grilled New England-style roll ($4.25). Breakfast options include egg sandwiches (starting at $3), pancakes ($5), omelettes (starting at $6) and creative specials with great value such as half a breakfast burrito with three eggs for $5.
There are two dining areas to choose from at this powerhouse of traditional German cuisine: the fancy restaurant upstairs with Alps-themed decorations — think cuckoo clocks and wooden skies — or the Steinbeck Tavern downstairs, a relaxed, German-style beer hall with long wooden tables. The cuisine is high-quality German comfort food made with skill and attention to detail. Portions are generous and prices are great. You don’t have to know how to yodel, or own a pair of lederhosen to enjoy appetizers such as potato pancakes with applesauce ($7) and the soft Bavarian pretzel ($3.50), or main courses such as chicken schnitzel ($18), veal schnitzel ($19), Hungarian goulash ($19) or Bavarian sauerbraten ($20).
It’s hard to find a better, or less expensive, example, of pho, the traditional Vietnamese rice noodle soup pronounced “fuh,” than at Pho 501. Dan Nguyen, 27, whose parents Toan and Lien Nguyen have run the restaurant since the early 1990s, says the place is successful because they keep it “simple and authentic” with a limited menu that allows them to focus on quality. Tuesday through Sunday the options are beef or shrimp pho, or a combination of beef and shrimp, with fresh spring rolls available as an appetizer. On the weekends, bun bo hue, a spicy beef soup, is also offered, and on Sunday, chicken pho is available. The soups are $8, $9 or $10 depending on whether you order a small, medium or large. The spring rolls are $2, and ordering a combo shrimp and beef pho costs an additional $3.
One of the most important components of any good cheap eat is that it must be reliable: good-quality, inexpensive food, there when you need it. The sign hanging on the front door of Mamoun’s on Howe Street certainly checks the reliability box. “Open 365 days a year. 11 AM to 3 AM” it reads in block capitals. Inside, you’ll find wonderfully fresh Middle Eastern cuisine: creamy tahini, chopped tomatoes, freshly grilled lamb and chicken, and warm pitas. The falafel sandwich ($3.85) is a classic, while the moujedrha, a plate of lentils, onions and cracked wheat ($6.25) will leave you full. Add a rich and indulgent baklava for dessert ($2.50), and you’re all set. Mamoun’s is BYOB, so for the complete cheap eat, bring a six-pack of your favorite domestic, and you’re living in the height of luxury.
Scott’s Jamaican Bakery
The North End of Hartford has for decades been inflected with a certain Caribbean character, the legacy of generations of immigration from the islands to the section of Hartford north of Albany Avenue. One of the most famous iterations of this proud heritage is Scott’s Jamaican Bakery. Island favorites such as the standout beef and chicken patties ($2.45) and coco bread ($1.20), slightly sweetened with coconut milk, are not to be missed, while the curried chicken ($5.71) and the fried fish ($6.70) will satisfy larger appetites. There are three Scott’s locations in Hartford: Albany Avenue only has bakery items, while Blue Hills Avenue has the full kitchen. The Windsor Street location is only for wholesale and distribution. Scott’s also carries a full line of Jamaican import sodas.
First, the bad news: this venerable hot dog destination is not open on Fridays (a throwback to the Catholicism of the owners that prohibited meat consumption on that day) and it doesn’t serve french fries. It’s been that way since Blackie’s opened in 1928, and they’re not about to change anytime soon. As for the good news, the simple menu of hot dogs, hamburgers and the famous spicy and peppery relish hasn’t changed much, either. Same goes, seemingly, for the prices, with $2 dogs — made specially for Blackie’s by Martin Rosol’s of New Britain — that you get to dress yourself, a quarter-pound Black Angus hamburger ($2.75) and a cheeseburger for only a quarter more. The priciest items on the menu are the ice cream soda ($4) and the large ice cream cups and cones ($4). Inside the iconic, red-and-white, octagonal building, the wood-paneled walls are lined with photos of former Blackie’s competitive-eating champions, as well as the infamous “No Dancing” proclamation, put up many years ago to avoid a cabaret tax.
Bobby B’s Roti Shop
Step up to the counter at Bobby B’s for some of the best-tasting Caribbean food in the state. Opened in 2015, Bobby B’s offers traditional Trinidadian cuisine in large portions and bargain-basement prices. With appetizers ranging from $1-$4, entrées from $3-$15 and sweet treats from 50 cents to $4, you can sample a wide array of menu items without breaking the bank. Two-dollar apps include the doubles, a sandwich made with two baras (light and thin fried bread) filled with savory curried chickpeas and a choice of sauce, and pulhori, mildly seasoned fried dumplings served with a tangy, mildly spiced tamarind sauce. Ranging in portions from mini to jumbo, entrées include jerk chicken ($6.50-$12.50) with rice, plantains, cabbage medley and choice of stewed red beans or yellow split pea dahl. Perhaps Bobby B’s biggest sellers are the roti wraps ($3-$12, mini-regular), or simply roti, consisting of curry stew with potatoes, chickpeas, veggies and various meats in a roti (a round piece of unleavened flatbread). For something sweet, try the pineapple delight cake ($2.50) with buttercream frosting.
This Bridgeport institution has been around since the 1940s, almost as long as the parkway from which it takes its name. Originally envisioned as a place to stop off during drives on the Merritt Parkway, the Merritt Canteen has evolved into a legend of its own, serving up classic American road food at very reasonable prices. The extremely spicy chili is a favorite, and you can get it on a hot dog ($3, $3.25 with cheese), on a burger ($3), or pretty much anything for a quarter more than the original price. The seafood, too, is well worth the visit. Clam strips ($4.50 side, $7 platter), or a piece of fish ($4.50) and the seasonally available clam chowder are standouts. The Canteen is also open late, till 1 a.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, 2 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, and 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Long Wharf taco trucks
New Haven (Exit 46 off I-95)
To be completely accurate, this is not just one spot for cheap eats, but many. This collection of food trucks offers hearty, inexpensive servings of some of the best Mexican food in the state. There are usually between seven and 10 different food trucks to choose from, most serving Mexican food, but with Puerto Rican and Cuban trucks as well. Our personal favorite is La Patrona, a yellow truck with an image of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe. The sprawling menu includes tacos ($1.50), sincronizadas (a soft corn tortilla with chicken and melted cheese, $2), burritos ($7), tortas ($8), quesadillas ($7), and many more. Any of these dishes can be done with a selection of meats, from chicken to beef to salted pork to tongue to stomach. While La Patrona is our go-to, you can’t really go wrong among these spots. The food is fresh, delicious, cheap and served up quick. In the warmer months, there is often a churro cart, serving up warm pastries for dessert.
Ambrosia Mediterranean Cuisine
In Greek mythology, ambrosia is the food of the gods. After sampling this Main Street eatery in Cromwell, we can assure you the gods ate well. While many Greek restaurants use pre-cooked meat for their gyros, the fresh pork and tasty french fries crammed into Ambrosia’s version ($7.50) make it a standout. On the sweeter side, ripe banana slices and big, juicy strawberries pair beautifully with Nutella and chocolate drizzle in the classic crepe ($7.50) — another item unique to most Greek establishments. Owner Ben Cela stressed the importance of freshness to his operation, which will celebrate two years this month. And while Ambrosia boasts a menu full of delectable delights at reasonable prices, the Greek frappé may be the sweetest treat of all. This must-order beverage ($2.95 for a medium, $3.15 for a large) tastes like melted coffee ice cream in the best way imaginable.
The Farmer’s Cow Calfé & Creamery
From the group of six Connecticut family dairy farms working together to produce dairy and non-dairy products found on grocery shelves across the state, this unique spot is part eatery with a locally sourced-ingredients philosophy, part ice cream parlor and part refrigerated grocery store. For breakfast, try the generously portioned Egg-cellent vegetable panini ($4.95) with fluffy Farmer’s Cow eggs mixed with veggies on buttery flatbread, or the Farmhand breakfast sandwich ($4.50) with eggs, cheddar and bacon or ham on a bagel, English muffin or toast, served until 11 a.m. daily. For lunch or dinner, indulge in the Moo-zzarella panini ($8.95, half-size $4.95) with fresh mozzarella, pesto, sun-dried tomatoes and spinach on ciabatta, or the BLT sandwich ($6.95, half-size $3.95). The kid-friendly joint also offers more than 20 flavors of ice cream (95 cents-$5.75), including signature flavors Cottage Garden Raspberry Jasmine and Muddy Boots Knee Deep in Chocolate, and an ever-changing milk bar ($1.50) with more than 30 flavors, such as raspberry white chocolate, toasted marshmallow and red velvet.
Yardbird & Co. food truck
Longtime Connecticut chef Eric Stagl offers a small, chicken-focused menu with creative sandwiches and sides that change based on available local ingredients. The signature chicken sandwich ($8) features a hefty piece of fried thigh meat that’s been marinated in white miso paste, buttermilk and rosemary for two days. For toppings, choose pickled cabbage, spicy kimchi, or pickles and sriracha honey, as well as an egg from Farmington’s Sub Edge Farm. A gluten-free version of the sandwich is also available. Other items served year-round are the chicken or pork belly steamed buns (two for $7) with black garlic hoisin and pickled carrots, smoked chicken deviled eggs ($1), and hand-cut, fried potato wedges ($3) with a choice of aiolis. In-season items include the rotisserie chicken sandwich ($9) with aged provolone, garlic aioli and chimichurri, croquettes ($5) with chicken and corn for the summer, and quinoa salad ($5) with radish, asparagus, dried cranberries and ramp vinaigrette. You’ll find the black-and-yellow truck at Hartford locations such as Bushnell Park, State House Square near the Old State House and Hog River Brewing Co., as well as locations outside the capital city. Check Yardbird’s social media for the latest updates.
yardbirdandco.com Instagram & Twitter: @yardbirdandco
Deary Bros. Mike’s Stand
Now that we’ve entered the summer heat, the lines are sure to be long at this beloved seasonal spot for burgers, hot dogs, seafood, chicken, ice cream and more. A true gem in the Quiet Corner that’s been around since 1937, Deary Bros. serves up genuine burger-stand burgers, seared on a flat-top grill. For the calorie-conscious, the hamburger is $2.89 and the cheeseburger $3.39, while the big burger is $3.59 and the big cheeseburger is $3.99. The regular hot dog is $2.19 and King Dog is $2.89. For sides, the regular-size fries are $2.59 (family size $5.99) and onion rings $2.99 (family size $6.79). A visit would not be complete without some ice cream (one-scoop cone $2.68, two scoops $3.29, three scoops $3.89). Dozens of ice cream flavors include orange pineapple, cherry vanilla and peanut butter cup. And there’s frozen yogurt. After picking up your order at the window, take it to one of the picnic tables and enjoy the beautiful New England summer.
Maple Giant Grinder & Pizza
Hartford (Closed as of Sept. 30; future site to be determined)
Don’t be confused by the sandwich prices at this neighborhood Italian spot in the capital city. Just pretend a half ($7.25-$9.25) is a whole and a whole ($14.50-$18.50) is two, and you’ll be fine. If you and three friends meet for lunch and are all in the mood for the same grinder, one whole is enough for the group (and would be less than $5 a head). Maple Giant uses 16-inch rolls from Strano Bakery in Manchester and piles it high. More than just sandwiches, Maple Giant has an assortment of stuffed breads, lasagna, salads, stuffed peppers and pasta in addition to pizza ($6.50 for a small, $11 for a large) and traditional Italian deli items. We ordered a chicken cutlet grinder and found three layers of chicken before we even got to the toppings. The sausage (your choice of sweet or hot) grinder satisfied with big chunks of peppers and melty provolone, and nothing got lost in the sauce, which was quite tasty as well.
UPDATE: Maple Giant announced it would close on Sept. 30, with plans to re-open in the coming months in a suburban location, still in the Greater Hartford area.
A few miles from downtown Norwich, Joy’s is a somewhat out-of-the-way destination. Historical pictures decorate the walls and fresh carnations adorn the tables. But let’s be honest, we’re here for the grub. Joy’s serves breakfast all day (two eggs and toast is $3.95, add $1 for home fries and another $1 for bacon, ham or sausage) and has early-bird specials from 6-8 a.m. It’s a family place where the staff provides warm service and, surprisingly, some of the best Mexican food in eastern Connecticut. The enchiladas suizas (three for $10.95) are stuffed with your choice of hearty portions of chicken, sausage, steak, pork or ground beef and come with rice and beans — the type of meal where you get full but keep going till it’s gone. Another highlight is the roast beef panini — served with delicious, thick, seasoned french fries — which for $6.95 offers more meat than your average sandwich.
At this comfort-food oasis in the heart of New Britain’s Little Poland section, you’re likely to hear customers speaking Polish while you enjoy ethnic classics at reasonable prices. In an upscale setting, you can dig into bold and flavorful dishes such as potato pancakes with kielbasa ($7.75), Hunter’s Stew, made with sauerkraut, cabbage, meat and kielbasa ($11.95), stuffed cabbage ($12.95), fried or boiled kielbasa ($11.95 ), schnitzel with fried egg ($16.95) and the belly-busting Polish platter ($18.95), which comes with gołąbki (stuffed cabbage that is pronounced ga-WUMP-kee), kielbasa, bigos (a meat and cabbage stew), three pierogies and a potato pancake.
Nat King Cole and countless others have told you to get your kicks on Route 66. While we don’t necessarily condone that, we can advise you to get your hot dogs there. Guida’s Restaurant has been serving up its famous 10-inch hot dog on a toasted bun since 1946. On a recent lunchtime visit, a dog topped with house-made, all-meat chili and cheese with a side order of loaded fries, also smothered with chili and cheese, came out to under $10. (Dogs are $4.25 with non-condiment toppings 35 cents a pop.) It became even more of a bargain when dinner was unnecessary later that evening. While Guida’s claims “It’s all about the hot dogs!” it also offers breakfast until 11:30 and plenty of burger and sandwich options. The clam strip plate (a double order of clams with fries) is the only thing on the menu over $10. And if you’re more sweet tooth than empty belly, you don’t even need to go inside. Just walk up to the window and order three scoops of Gifford’s premium ice cream or create your own milkshake.
Top Dog Hot Dog
See what we mean about getting your hot dogs on Route 66? In an open lot just off Marlborough Street in Portland, you’ll find a yellow Checker Taxi (with a mannequin in the back seat) pulling a giant wiener trailer. Don’t worry if you still haven’t seen a human; she’s in the trailer waiting to take your order. Top Dog has been in business since 1980 and the menu is simple; other than chips and soda, it’s all hot dogs. In addition to the standard mustard, ketchup, relish and onion toppings ($2.70), other options include chili, sauerkraut, a New York dog (sautéed onions in spicy tomato sauce), a pepper dog (fried sweet peppers and onions), an Orleans dog (hot, sweet relish) — all $3.10 each — and the Cajun dog (Orleans relish, chili and pepper jack cheese), which at $3.90 is the big-ticket item. The Top Dog lot has an open grassy area equipped with chairs and umbrellas, so it’s a perfect lunch-hour spot on a nice day.