Three hefty tacos at El Mariachi, one of our critic's favorite taquerias.

Cheap eats, good eats, why pay more?

By Robin Garr

A couple of weeks ago I devoted this space to a conversation about some of our town’s finest places to go for a special-occasion $200-plus blowout. I heard plenty of favorable comment from folks who filed the information for the next birthday or anniversary feast.

A few of you, though, appropriately cautioned me about this slide into territory usually occupied by oligarchs, day traders, and hedge-fund managers. 

“We have trouble enjoying a dinner tab (before tip) for the two of us when it tops $100ish,” said my friend Tom. “We prefer to dine a little more casually and with moderate bills.” Dining on a budget makes it possible to dine out more often, he said.

My friend Ed offered similar counsel. “I know I can throw money at things and get what I want,” he said. “But I find it way more interesting to get what I want with out throwing money at it. 

“It’s not that I can’t afford $200 for a dining experience in a renowned restaurant, it’s that I don’t want to throw $200 for it. It’s much more rewarding to find the same quality or better for much less. …  Dining is more about the people I’m with than the place. Give me an environment where I can have some great conversation, and I am happy.”

Me too, Ed and Tom. Me too. Last year I reviewed 26 local restaurants – one every other week – and, according to my tax records, spent about $1,600 for those culinary delights. That’s about a $60 average cost for a meal excluding tips, which would add another 20 to 25 percent.  Individual dinner prices for two ranged from $26.46 plus tip at El Mariachi Restaurante Mexicano (tacos featured at the top of the page) to $152.64 plus tip at Anoosh Bistro.

Whoa! That’s more than I expected, and it’s just about enough to have my expenses bumping up mighty close to my income. I had better start thinking more seriously about good cheap eats, too. 

But what constitutes cheap, much less “good and cheap? I would have said $30 for two, up from $20 just a few years ago. But those tax records tell another tale. That delicious Mexican lunch at El Mariachi was the only review meal of 2023 that cost me less than $30. Add a reasonable tip, and my list of under-$30 meals for the years falls to zero.

Relief for the thrifty isn’t likely coming soon. Although Nation’s Restaurant News reported on March 12 that restaurant price inflation showed some signs of cooling in February, it went on to glumly forecast that the improvement will likely be short-lived. 

So let’s review: When we speak of cheap eats nowadays, we’re talking about a restaurant meal for two, barring the occasional outlier, ringing up a $30 to $40 tab? Based on my experience, I’m afraid so.

But we do what we can. Here, listed alphabetically, are some specific recommendations for good local restaurants that won’t break the bank. I’m sure you’ve got more. Hit me up on social media or via email with your nominations.

Diners, drive-ins, and dives 

Check’s Cafe (1101 E. Burnett Ave., (637-9515)

Granville Pub (1601 S. Third St., 636-2748)

Hillcrest Tavern (3212 Frankfort Ave., 290-6917), and its siblings and cousins Burger Boy, Burger Girl, and Old Louisville Tavern.

Patty melt on marble rye at Hillcrest Tavern, one of our favorite affordable local diners.
Patty melt on marble rye at Hillcrest Tavern, one of our favorite affordable local diners.

Morris Deli (2228 Taylorsville Road, 458-1668)

O’Dolly’s Lounge and Restaurant (7800 3rd Street Road, 375-1690)

Ollie’s Trolley (978 S. Third St., 583-5214)

Shady Lane Café (4806 Brownsboro Center, 893-5118)

Toasty’s Tavern (1258 S. Shelby St., 614-7094)

Wagner’s Pharmacy (3113 S. 4th St., 375-3800)

World Food

District 6  Gastropub (3930 Shelbyville Road, 873-5561)

Eatz Vietnamese (2244 Frankfort Ave., 785-4450)

El Mariachi (9901 Lagrange Road, 413-5770)

El Molcajete (2932 S. 4th St., 638-0300)

Heart & Soy (1216 Bardstown Road, 452-6678)

Irish Rover (2319 Frankfort Ave., 899-3544)

Kathmandu Kitchen (3825 Bardstown Road, 202-1481)

Koreana III (5009 Preston Highway, 968-9686)

NamNam Café (318 Wallace Ave., 891-8859)

Noosh Nosh (4816 Brownsboro Center, 205-2888)

Oriental House (4302 Shelbyville Road, 897-1017)

Oskar’s Slider Bar (3799 Poplar Level Road, 395-9010)

Time 4 Thai (2206 Frankfort Ave., 996-7899)

Thai Noodles (5800 Preston Hwy., 961-9018)

Vietnam Kitchen (5339 Mitscher Ave., 363-7535)

Vin Bun Vietnamese Bistro (12422 Shelbyville Road, 708-1470)

On the Dock of the Bay

The Fish House (1310 Winter Ave., 568-2993)

The Fishery (3624 Lexington Road, 895-1188)

Pass Time Fish House (10801 Locust Road, 267-4633)

Sharks Seafood (3099 Breckenridge Lane)

 One of a Kind

The Table (1800 Portland Ave. 708-2505)

Meatloaf sliders with watermelon salad and Parmesan fries at The Table, Louisville's pay-what-you-can restaurant that welcomes everyone without regard to their ability to pay in cash.
Meatloaf sliders with watermelon salad and Parmesan fries at The Table, Louisville’s pay-what-you-can restaurant that welcomes everyone without regard to their ability to pay in cash.


I’m reluctant to get into a battle over who’s best. Maybe another day. Just pick your favorite, order a slice or a whole pie and a brew, and it’s not going to break the bank. 

Cost-saving measures

Even some of the places on this list can mount up to the $50 or $60 range without much effort. Here are a few strategies I’ve found, and used shamelessly, to dine happily and not risk the mortgage.

  • Split and share. No one is going to call you a cheapskate for sharing an appetizer or a dessert. Or both! Order one entree and a couple of apps rather than two pricey entrees.
  • Save on drinks. I enjoy a nice wine with my meal as much as anyone, but I’m willing to go with water, or a shared bottle from the modest end of the list, in order to save.
  • Take some home. To be fair, even in a time of rising prices, most restaurant dishes come in more than generous portions. It’s easy enough, and probably better for us, to eat our fill and call for a carryout box for the rest. Two meals for the price of one? Yes, please!

And finally …

Please do not forget to tip, and tip well, with 20 percent as a floor, not a ceiling. Servers work hard to please you, and even with gradually rising pay rates, they are overworked and underpaid. This is not a place for us to cut costs.