A recent lunch at Commander's Palace (1403 Washington Ave., 899-8221; www.commanderspalace.com) delivered all the hallmarks of this famous Creole dining destination. The room was elegant, the service was polished and the food — a Creole tomato gazpacho followed by smoky pulled pork and spicy boudin in pastry — was original, precise and delicious. The martini, too, was mixed to spec.
In fact, the only part of the meal to veer from the high-aiming expectations of Commander's Palace was the bill. The entire repast was under $20. The two-course meal was $16, the martini just 25 cents. You can spend more for fried seafood and a couple of beers at some neighborhood joints, yet the bargain prix fixe lunch remains one of the lesser-known pleasures of Commander's Palace — and many other fine New Orleans restaurants.
The idea of a bargain meal is a relative one. After all, spending $20 on a multi-course lunch only seems like a bargain if you're accustomed to paying that much for a single dish. But finding such a meal at one of the city's most acclaimed restaurants illuminates the deals that are out there. With a sharp eye for specials, the flexibility to follow their particular rules, a little insider knowledge and maybe even some teamwork, you can find ways to eat out for less at establishments across the spectrum.
It could be a similarly inexpensive meal at Emeril's Restaurant (800 Tchoupitoulas St., 528-9393; www.emerils.com), the famous flagship for culinary superstar Emeril Lagasse, or at the inventive and always-impressive Iris (321 N. Peters St., 299-3944; www.irisneworleans.com), which both serve three-course lunches for $20. On the other hand, it could mean the longstanding "taco Tuesday" night at Pal's Lounge (949 N. Rendon St., 488-7257), where bar patrons can get a pair of chicken tacos off the grill for $2. Or it could be the completely free vegetarian buffet supplied each Sunday at 6:30 p.m. in the garden of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (2936 Esplanade Ave., 486-3583; www.iskconneworleans.org), which is the temple's traditional prasadam, or "love feast." Like the countless free red beans and rice pots laid out at bars across the city on Monday nights, a donation of any amount (or a tip at the bars) is the proper payback.
Getting a bargain meal sometimes means tapping into widely varying ideas of happy hour. There are half-price drinks and pizzas from the wood-burning oven at Domenica (123 Baronne St., 648-6020; www.domenicarestaurant.com) every day from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., while at Feast (200 Julia St., 304-6318; www.feastneworleans.com), happy hour means you can sip wines and eat appetizers from its rustic, European-themed menu for half price from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. It could be the quartet of mini filet mignon sandwiches for $6 served from the bar at the otherwise pricey Morton's the Steakhouse (365 Canal St., 566-0221; www.mortons.com) during its happy hour Sunday through Friday, or it could be the free antipasti table set up early Mondays through Thursdays at the upscale Italian eatery 1179 (1179 Annunciation St., 299-1179; www.eleven79.com).
Such fine-dining deals don't always have limited hours either. For instance, Mimi's Restaurant in River Ridge (10160 Jefferson Hwy., River Ridge, 737-6464; www.mimisriverridge.com), where chef Pete Vazquez recently transformed the menu with traditional, regional Italian cuisine, now has a midweek special, offering two courses for $20 Tuesday through Thursday, while on Wednesday bottles of wine are half price. Vega Tapas Cafe (2051 Metairie Road, Metairie, 836-2007; www.vegatapascafe.com) does a similar half-off wine deal on Monday nights. In Mid-City, Ralph's on the Park (900 City Park Ave., 488-1000; www.ralphsonthepark.com) has revived a popular summertime deal of three appetizers and one glass of wine for $28.
One of the great mysteries of Vietnamese eateries, at least to manyof us outside the culture looking hungrily in, is their ability to turn a profit selling entire sandwiches for less than a five spot. But this is the hallmark of a proper banh mi — aka the Vietnamese po-boy. Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery (14207 Chef Menteur Hwy., 254-0214; www.dpbanhmi.com) in the far eastern stretches of New Orleans is a prime source, and here most banh mi go for less than $3, some for less than $2. Hong Kong Market (925 Behrman Hwy., Gretna, 394-7075), a onetime Walmart converted to an Asian food superstore, serves its own banh mi just as cheaply and proves less of a haul from downtown, while Eat Well Food Store (2700 Canal St., 821-7730) might have the most centrally located banh mi around. These beauties do break the $5 mark (barely, they're $5.25 each), but you can get them where Broad and Canal streets meet.
When it comes to more traditional New Orleans sandwiches, the french fry po-boy is a reliable refuge for those scrounging a cheap meal. There's a representative version for less than $5 at Parkway Bakery & Tavern (538 Hagan Ave., 482-3047; www.parkwaybakeryandtavernnola.com), where it goes by the regal name of "golden potato po-boy." Parkway dives deeper still with a gravy po-boy (and that's the meaty, debris-strewn house gravy) for less than $4 and the truly bare-bones but somewhat pathetic lettuce and tomato po-boy for $2.15.
If you can find a few people to agree on how to dress their po-boy, the whole loaf option at a number of groceries and po-boy shops provides a bargain bonanza. Generally 33 to 36 inches long, these whales are easily subdivided to feed four, and the simple spectacle of hauling away such an enormous sandwich is satisfying in its own right. The whole loaf is a particular specialty at Koz's (515 Harrison Ave, 484-0841; 6215 Wilson Ave., Harahan, 737-3933), where you can get the kitchen's signature barbecue ham po-boy for $18. Whole loaves are right there on the menu at Mandina's Restaurant (3800 Canal St., 482-9179; www.mandinasrestaurant.com), where a four-top can split a "half-and-half" shrimp and oyster combo right there in the dining room for $24. Cross over to Chalmette and Tag's Meat Market & Deli (1207 E. Judge Perez Drive, Chalmette, 277-6594) will set you up with a 33-inch po-boy filled with innumerable links of its own excellent Italian sausage for about $17.
One of the city's great dining deals is seasonal, and it's coming around soon. For the month of August, dozens of local restaurants will participate in the city's COOLinary promotion, with two- or three-course lunches for $20 or less and three-course dinners for $35 or less. As the start date approaches, the list of participating restaurants will be updated at www.coolinaryneworleans.com. The idea is to help fill dining rooms during the typical summer lull in tourism and convention business. For locals who take up the offer, it can be a bargain tour of some of the city's best restaurants.