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Actors on a Budget: Tempting Tastes - A Stomach-Stuffing Survey of Manhattan's Most Affordable Eateries

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Through the windows of some Manhattan restaurants, you'll see lobster dripping with butter, scallops ceremoniously presented to patrons, and bottle after bottle of cabernet uncorked and poured into waiting glasses. But for the many starving artists that walk this city's streets, life in the Big Apple is more often soup from a can than caviar from a jar.

You can't walk two blocks in Manhattan without tripping over a restaurant, yet for the citizens of the city who depend on the performing arts for income, the likelihood of being able to afford those fine foods is as small as the odds of getting 15 minutes of uninterrupted face time with your agent. Instead, you must rely on more-creative ways to get fed.

Freeloading from Mom's fridge when you visit is a great way to stock up cheaply. But how many times in a row can you eat lasagna? Sitting through yet another cousin's bar mitzvah just to get a hot meal isn't terrible, but it takes up your whole Saturday. And chowing down the lone piece of sushi left on the plate at your restaurant job isn't gross because you know the customer didn't touch it. But there is a chance the dishwasher will tell on you and then it's back to temping—and the tips aren't half as good.

Some folks say making meals at home is the way to go. Sure, it's cheaper than eating out, and relatively easy, but obviously those people aren't pulling off the schedule you are. In between running to auditions, rehearsals, night jobs, classes, and shows, there's no time even to make a PB&J to go, let alone whip up a nice steak and a vegetable medley.

So what's a starving artist to do?

Fortunately for the underpaid performer, there is stellar grub up for grabs at affordable prices in Manhattan. You can have the fine foods you thought were reserved for the rich. There are ways to have a fancy meal with friends and not regret it come rent time. And there are even excellent places to woo a date without having to sell your organs to cover the bill.

You just need to know where to find them.

So below is a roundup of 19 of those places. Included are some diamond-in-the-rough restaurants that make it their business to be a bargain, as well as a number of the city's best happy-hour steals, early-bird specials, and free giveaways.

So go out and eat well. It's time to take the starving out of the artist.

East Village

Mama's

200 East Third St. (at Avenue B)

(212) 777-4425

Moving to the city to follow your passion is something to be proud of. But admit it: You miss Mom sometimes. So when you can't see your mom, take a trip to Mama's on the Lower East Side, where the walls are covered in portraits of other mothers, and a huge plate of food is less than $12.

Choose from proteins like salmon, meatloaf, and fried chicken, served with classic comfort-food sides like macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes. The portions are so big that the dinner will most likely spill over into lunch for the next day.

Croxley Ales

28 Ave. B (at Third Street)

(212) 253-6140

So you didn't book that commercial you had four callbacks for? Well, the 10¢ wings (offered Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday) and $4 Beer of the Week at Croxley Ales might be the ideal thing to cheer you up. So gather up some dimes from the couch cushions and make your way to Croxley. The outdoor garden is gorgeous and the chicken is cheap.

Bonus incentive: If you make Croxley a regular hangout and manage to drink all 30 types of beer they offer, you'll score a free Croxley T-shirt.

Crif Dogs

113 St. Mark's Pl. (at First Avenue)

(212) 614-2728

If the three-foot-long, hanging, hot-dog-shaped sign with "Eat Me" written on it isn't enough of a draw to check out Crif Dogs, perhaps the 13 different kinds of hot dogs for less than $3.75 is. These heaping hot dog creations sometimes manage to fit all four food groups on one bun and will definitely fill you up enough to get you through your day.

Try the Spicy Redneck, a bacon-wrapped dog with chili coleslaw and jalapeños, or the Good Morning Dog, a bacon-wrapped dog smothered with melted cheese and a fried egg for breakfast. Veggie dogs are also available.

Heartburn warning: Wait 30 minutes after eating before dancing, acting, or singing.

Bonus cheapy: The sauerkraut is free!

Dumpling Man

100 St. Mark's Pl. (at First Avenue)

(212) 505-2121

The dumpling deal at this East Village spot rivals even some of Chinatown's famous cheap chow. The new Dumpling Man offers six steamed or seared dumplings for less than $4. Choose from pork, chicken, veggie, or shrimp varieties (shrimp costs a bit more), or the Marco Polo dumplings that are drowned in tomato sauce.

Ten-piece orders are also an option for a few dollars more if you want to share with friends or bring some to rehearsal to butter up your director.

Added entertainment factor: Forget the Food Network. The cooking demos are live at Dumpling Man, where the cooks roll the dumplings before your very eyes.

Esashi

32 Ave. A (at Third Street)

(212) 505-8726

Esashi's early-bird special is one of the best ways to live large and not break the bank. To catch the deal any night of the week, get to the restaurant before 7 pm. Just $10.95 will get you a three-course feast of traditional Japanese salad, miso soup, and a hearty entree—either a sushi or sashimi combo, or various cooked dishes like miso cod with broccoli.

Practice punctuality: The same meal costs you at least $15 later on in the night, so be on time!

Pommes Frites

123 Second Ave. (at Seventh Street)

(212) 674-1234

True, it's not the healthiest of meals, but a cone of fries from Pommes Frites is one of the tastiest fill-up-quick foods for folks on a budget. Each order of the hand-cut Belgian-style fries is freshly made and comes with one complimentary sauce, like sun-dried tomato mayonnaise or peanut satay sauce. The place itself is tiny, seating only about 10 on pub-style benches. Good thing the frites are perfectly portable.

Sea Thai Bistro

75 Second Ave. (at Fourth Street)

(212) 228-5505

Sea Thai Bistro is a top choice for a cheap but charming date spot. Not only is the intimate restaurant candlelit and swank, its authentic Thai food is delicious—and affordable.

Menu items like Drunk Man Noodles and Spicy Dark Ocean seafood stew run under $10, and the daily specials are often impressive fish dishes.

Worth the trip: Sea's second location in Williamsburg features an indoor reflection pool guarded by a golden Buddha.

Tabtos

543 Fifth St. (at Avenue A)

(212) 529-2156

Oftentimes when dining out, it's the drinks that jack up the bill. But it's a shame to go without—beverages really add to the dining experience. That's why BYO places—restaurants that allow you to bring in your own wine or beer—are such great finds.

At Tabtos, a tiny Japanese joint with a full selection of sushi, you can enjoy beer, wine, or sake from home, free of charge. It helps that the food is cheap as well. A dinner of soup, salad, and a couple of rolls rings in at under $10.

Of note: Some BYO restaurants have a corkage fee. This is a small charge, usually between $5 and $25, that covers the cost of service and glassware. Also, be polite: Call a restaurant ahead of time and ask if BYO is permitted there.

Chelsea

Energy Kitchen

307 West 17th St. (at Eighth Avenue)

(212) 645-5200

Also in Midtown at

1089 Second Ave. (at East 58th Street)

(212) 888-9300

The winter is fast approaching and the last thing you need at an audition is a red, chapped, runny nose (unless it's for an allergy commercial). So when a cold comes knocking, head over to the Energy Kitchen for its immune-building shakes and smoothies.

The medicinal menu includes the Flu Shot Shake (cranberry juice, strawberries, mango, and herbal immune complex) and the Vaccinator (OJ, bananas, strawberries, vitamin C megadose, and antioxidants). They pack the same punch as a multivitamin but have some flavor.

And at $4.95, they cost about as much as a frappuccino at you-know-where.

Dinner is also a deal here, with comfort-style entrees and two sides for under $10.

Burritoville

264 West 23rd St. (at Eighth Avenue)

(212) 367-9844

Paying $7 for a burrito at Burritoville is a lot, even considering their large size. But when you factor in the all-you-can-eat free chips and salsa at the chain, the deal is definitely sweetened. And with 12 locations strategically placed around Manhattan, you're never more than a neighborhood away from a quick, free snack.

F&B

269 West 23rd St. (at Eighth Avenue)

(646) 486-4441

Street-vendor dogs certainly do the trick in a bind, but for just an extra buck or so, you can upgrade to F&B. This sleek, shiny-walled, counter-lined joint sells Belgian street-food-inspired fare at reasonable prices. Hot dogs never felt so fancy.

As well as the traditional all-beef dogs, F&B also has franks made from stuff like salmon, smoked chicken, and tofu. Try items like the Prairie Dog, a beef frank topped with tomato corn salsa, guacamole, and grated cheddar, and Healthy Dog, which is a veggie dog piled up with hummus, grated carrot, and black olives. Most dogs are $3.50.

Finish up with Danish Rice Pudding—only $2.50.

Greenwich Village

Mamoun's Falafel

119 Macdougal St. (at Minetta Lane)

(212) 674-8685

Mamoun's Falafel has been serving cheap lunch to the economically challenged since 1971. Who knows, maybe even Jamie Farr (who's of Middle Eastern descent, born Jameel Farah) frequented Mamoun's before he hit it big with "M*A*S*H."

The food here is so cheap that $5 will get you a falafel sandwich, a glass of freshly squeezed mango juice, and some baklava for dessert.

Five Points

31 Great Jones St. (at Lafayette Street)

(212) 253-5700

Looking for a fancy spot to take a date without having to take out another loan? While the main menu may be a tad too rich for your blood at this swanky hot spot, Five Points offers a killer happy-hour special on weeknights. Until 7 pm, feel free to order like an Oscar winner, as oysters are only $1 apiece and the $5 martinis are big and cold.

Fun fact: Blue Point oysters are from Long Island. Billy Joel is from Oyster Bay, Long Island.

Eva's

11 West Eighth St. (at Fifth Avenue)

(212) 982-2500

Eva's motto should be "It's fun to eat in a store." This half nutrition shop/half restaurant has been servicing health-conscious wallet watchers since 1978. So now you can get a hearty lunch while picking up your vitamins.

Great deals include the falafel special, which is a sandwich, fresh-cut french fries or small soup or brown rice, and a 16-ounce drink—all for $5. They also have fresh-squeezed juices like orange, apple, and carrot for as little as $2.10. The pizzas—which are made from low-sodium tomato sauce—are also very cheap. An 8-inch traditional-style pie is $2.85, and a Meat Lover's (topped with a choice of grilled chicken, lean steak burger, or turkey burger) of the same size is $6.15.

Added bonus: They accept NYU Campus Cash and have free delivery.

Clinton

Rudy's Bar & Grill

627 Ninth Ave. (at West 44th Street)

(212) 974-9169

Whoever said there's no such thing as a free lunch should report to Rudy's at once. As if the dirt-cheap beer ($3 pints) isn't enough to make Rudy's a prized find, they also have all-you-can-eat full-sized hot dogs—at no charge! It's the perfect place to hit up when you're really scraping the barrel for funds. And it's easy to get to from your Midtown temp job.

Uncle Nick's Ouzaria

749 Ninth Ave. (at West 50th Street)

(212) 397-2892

Uncle Nick's Ouzaria is another place that's close to temp town. This Greek tapas place is casual and fun, making it a perfect place to bring groups after work. The food is authentic and there's a lot to choose from. For a cheap night out, order a bunch of small plates, rounded out with a giant Greek salad.

Entertainment factor: The very popular flaming cheese appetizer provides a dramatic start to the evening.

Upper East Side

Hi-Life

1340 First Ave. (at East 72nd Street)

(212) 249-3600

Also on the Upper West Side at

477 Amsterdam Ave. (at West 83rd Street)

(212) 787-7199

From steak and salads to sushi and cod, there's something for everyone at this gastronomic gem, making Hi-Life one of the best after-show hangouts in the city.

But perhaps the greatest part of this restaurant-dive bar is the wallet-saving specials that run every night of the week. Each Monday and Tuesday, the sushi is half price and domestic pitchers are only $9. Rolls end up costing $2.50 and sushi à la carte is $1.50. On Friday and Saturday, buy two appetizers and get the third one free. And Thursday is $5 cosmo night.

With Hi-Life's two locations, you can get a deal no matter which side of town you end up on.

Upper West Side

Big Nick's Burger and Pizza Joint

2175 Broadway (at West 76th Street)

(212) 362-9238

Don't let the name fool you. Burgers and pizzas are just a small percentage of the offerings at this iconic 42-year-old diner where you'll work up an appetite just flipping through the voluminous menu.

The best part about Big Nick's—other than the great prices (veal cutlet parmigiana for $6.75, half-pound burgers for under $5, and moussaka for $6.60)—is the hours. They're open 24 hours a day, so no matter what job you're doing this week, Big Nick's doors are always open.

New to the menu is the Diet Watcher section. Veggie and lean-meat burgers, low-cholesterol cheese, and a slew of salads have been added.

Dallas BBQ

27 West 72nd St. (at Central Park West)

(212) 873-2004

(And four additional locations)

Dinner and a show can be done on a budget. How's this for a cultural evening? A night of opera at Lincoln Center in the $26 cheap seats, followed by a gut-busting plate of barbecue roast beef and fries for $8.95.

Sure, it's not champagne and caviar, but it's just as satisfying and about an eighth of the price. Other items of note at Dallas BBQ are the half-pound burgers for $5.95, a half chicken for $4.95, and a full rack of smoked ribs for $9.95. Many items can be ordered as lunch-sized portions until 3 pm and are $2 less than dinner plates.

Cheap date alert: The early-bird special (Monday-Thursday, 11:30 am-6:30 pm; Friday-Sunday, 11:30 am-5 pm) is two soups, two rotisseried half chickens, cornbread, and a choice of baked potato or fries for $7.95.

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