Blogs focused on cheap eats serve an expanding niche

— -- Zach Brooks and Mike Prerau didn't plan for their cheap-eats foodie blogs to evolve the way they have, but nevertheless, they're feasting upon the troubled times in the dining industry.

They're among a small but growing number of bloggers in major markets who scout out dining deals in their area and alert their bargain-hungry audience. Lately they've been flush with material as chefs and food purveyors add lower-priced items to menus, beef up their bar snack offerings and concoct happy-hour and two-for-one specials.

Compiling lists and reviews of cheaper restaurants has long been a sideline of mainstream foodie blogs, but sites such as Brooks' New York-based and Prerau's Boston-based present a concentrated, up-to-the-minute approach, tracking such minutiae as a change in prices at a street-food cart or additions to cocktail-hour bar menus.

Brooks launched his site as a hobby in 2006, partly because he sensed that many of his fellow inhabitants of midtown Manhattan were reluctant to wander more than a block or two from the office at lunch. He sets a $10 ceiling for a meal and seeks "cheap, fast, interesting and good" food, be it from a street cart, an ethnic buffet, a free sample or listed on an upscale menu. Brooks posts up to four times a day, and the site, which draws about 120,000 visitors a month, has become his full-time job.

"There is a niche there," he says. "It took off immediately."

Prerau started in 2001, inspired not by the economy but by Boston's liquor laws. Dining establishments aren't allowed to lower prices on alcoholic beverages during happy hours, so instead they offer low-cost and creative bar food to lure customers during certain hours. Prerau started posting examples, and the site has built a strong following, particularly among Boston's college-age population.

"The economy isn't necessarily responsible for there being more of them," he says. "It's just that more people are discovering them, and the demand has increased."

Bryan Yoshida of the 4-year-old Southern California-based adds a dollop of "us against the system" attitude to his blog, which embraces both restaurants and tips for low-cost home cooking.

"Recently, I've seen readers make a greater shift toward seriously budgeting for food," says Yoshida. "It's made me plan to refocus the blog more on cooking."

Oakland-based Internet consultant LaShawn James launched this summer to compile a national directory of restaurants (excluding chains) "where at least 40% of the menu items costs $10 or less."

After starting with suggestions from friends, he now has 100 contributors who have made more than 5,000 recommendations from about 20 cities.

"These lists of places exist in everyone's head but not in a central location," he says. "Now we have one."