-- Cost-conscious travelers can enjoy bountiful pleasure at mealtime if they choose their itinerary carefully and order smartly. To help with the planning each month, USA TODAY's Jerry Shriver offers a menu of suggestions from a major destination.
Down-home dining: Profiles of cheap-eats classics
1. Shake Shack 366 Columbus Ave.; no telephone shakeshacknyc.com
This Upper West Side newcomer is the first branch of the popular outdoor burger-custard stand operated by celeb restaurateur Danny Meyer (Gramercy Tavern) in Madison Square Park. Here, the seating's enclosed and on two levels, but the menu and superior short-order cooking are nearly identical (as are the long lines). Though the concept is grounded in small-town nostalgia, Meyer elevates it with modern urban/adult touches: There's a well-chosen selection of wines and beers by the glass; everything is said to be made in-house; and no trans fats are used in the cooking. The signature ShackBurger ($4.75) comes on a soft, eggy bun and features a subtly flavored mayo-based sauce; the cheese-topped crinkly fries are properly cooked; the New York- and Chicago-style hot dogs are true to their regional identities; and the dense, thick, frozen-custard "concretes" are properly decadent and big enough to share (though you probably won't want to).
•Top treat:Shacky Road concrete (chocolate custard, Valrhona chocolate crunchies, marshmallow and almonds), $6.25.
2. Pio Pio 1746 First Ave. (and six other locations); 212-426-5800; piopionyc.com
Upscale Peruvian cuisine is just now entering the mainstream dining world, but for years this small local chain has wowed connoisseurs with low-cost rustic versions. Falling-off-the-bone rotisserie chicken topped with a spicy, green creamy sauce ($4-$9) is the superstar, followed closely by piquant ceviche ($10) accompanied by corn on the cob and sweet and white potatoes. The salchipapas appetizer ($4) — french fries topped with hot-dog slices — looks odd at first but makes supreme sense after the first bite.
•Top treat:Lunch special of a quarter chicken with avocado salad, side dish and soda, $9.50.
3. Corner Bistro 331 W. Fourth St.; 212-242-9502
"Bistro" is a generous description for this Greenwich Village institution — it's a lovably creaky two-room tavern with multiple TVs that serves its 10 menu items on paper plates and accepts only cash. But the centerpiece of that menu — the $6.75 Bistro Burger — more than makes up for the absence of niceties. The Bistro version (there are a few other burger options, as well as chili and chicken sandwiches) is a grilled 8-ounce patty on a toasted sesame bun topped with pickles, onion, lettuce, tomato, cheese and bacon. Though the city's culinary scene is enjoying an explosion of new gourmet burgers, this classic still holds its own and draws steady crowds. Pair it with one of the eight beers on tap (the McSorley's Dark is a perfect winter choice) and you'll forgive the rather mediocre fries.
•Top treat:Bistro Burger, $6.75.
Easy splurges: Low-cost dishes at the hot new places
4. Rouge Tomate 10 E. 60th St; 646-237-8977 rougetomatenyc.com
Elegant and nutritious vegetable-centric dishes are the main attraction at this just-opened branch of a popular Brussels restaurant. With its modern décor, the upstairs café probably will become a magnet for the ladies who lunch and chic shoppers taking a break from Barneys. At night in the downstairs 100-seat dining room, executive chef Jeremy Bearman showcases veggies alongside fish, grass-fed beef and farm-raised rabbit on a pricier, more elaborate menu. But the approach makes even more sense at midday, when tired bodies crave restorative selections from the juice bar.
Cheapest lunch appetizer:Chickpea hummus, $8. Others, $9-$17.
Cheapest lunch entrée:Market squash agnolotti pasta, $16. Others, $17-$24.
Worth trading down? Yes. The portions, presentation and flavors of these two dishes are on the mark.
5. Nougatine at Jean Georges 1 Central Park West; 212-299-3900 jean-georges.com
This stylish café adjoining the Michelin three-star restaurant isn't new, and neither is its $24.07 three-course lunch deal, but the offerings change weekly, and invariably they represent one of the best fine-dining bargains in the city. The six choices on that fixed-price menu come from the same open kitchen that serves the elite eatery behind the partition and reflect the same French-inflected fresh/seasonal approach.
Cheapest lunch appetizer:Cream of broccoli soup with sweet garlic dumpling, $11. Others, $12-$19
Cheapest lunch entrée:Steamed skate with roasted pumpkin seeds, spaghetti squash and soy-yuzu broth, $22. Others, $24-$65.
Worth trading down? Yes. Go with the $24.07 three-course deal, which offers two choices for each course.
TELL US: Do you have a favorite budget dining spot in New York City? Share your picks below.