March 2004 Dirt Cheap Eats

We Sent Four Twentysomethings Out in Search of Good Food at Rock-Bottom Prices. The Result: 50 Places to Eat for Under $15.

By: Ann Limpert, Brooke Lea Foster, Cindy Rich

When it comes to eating out, twentysomethings often have one question: What's good and cheap? Chipotle or Fuddruckers are tasty but without much charm. Maybe you have a date for dinner and want a little more class but at a very good price. Or maybe it's just fuel you need--a good meal and a beer or two.

Four young and hungry staffers at The Washingtonian scoured the area for some of the best cheapest eats out there.

For the magazine's annual Cheap Eats list of best bargain restaurants, the tab can go as high as $50 a couple. Our search turned up date and dinner eateries for less than $15 a person. We found happy hours, breakfast joints, and late-night spots that won't set you back more than $8.

HAPPY HOURS

Cafe Citron (1343 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-530-8844; www.cafecitrondc.com). Pull up a zebra-print-covered bench or lounge on low, red couches sipping a $4 mojito, apple martini, or tropical rum lemonade at this Latin American bistro. "happy-hour tasters" include a $5.95 Bolivian potato cake stuffed with beef, cheese, and spices, and $4 fried plantains.

Don't plan on quiet conversation. The loud Latin music makes you want to get up and dance, so some patrons do. The downstairs lounge, with its red mirrored walls, is lit by candles and hanging lanterns. You can also get happy-hour prices in the upstairs bar, where there's a flamenco show at 8:30 on Mondays.

Capital Lounge (231 Pennsylvania Ave., SE; 202-547-2098). The 25-cent Wednesday-night taco specials--there's a $1 minimum--at this Hill favorite are greasy but good. Nightly food and drink deals are available from 4 to closing. Monday is half-price pizza night; wings are a dime on Tuesdays. Thursday pitcher specials include Budweiser for $10.

You can't ignore the politics--LBJ hats, a JFK portrait, and signs like DEMOCRAT PARKING ONLY surround you--but it's fun and casual. One wall is exposed brick, booths have red vinyl seats, and the jukebox has everything from Hank Williams to White Stripes. Downstairs is a cigar and martini lounge.

Carpool (4000 Fairfax Dr., Arlington; 703-807-0091; www.gocarpool.com). Set up like an old filling station, with antique Shell and Texaco signs--the entrance is flanked by two old gas pumps--Carpool is more than a smoky pool hall. Twenty-somethings sip $2.25 drafts at tables covered in maps. Rent a pool table--$12 for two--under an awning stacked with oil cans.

You won't want to skip the menu: Rocklands Barbeque and Grilling Co. (www.rocklands.com) provides red-oak- and hickory-fired meats, like the pulled-chicken sandwich, slathered with tangy barbecue sauce, for $4.99. Or order $1.99 sides--perfect for solo munching--of whipped mashed potatoes or creamy macaroni and cheese. Searching for zest? Brave the "wall of fire," which offers 120 hot sauces, and sprinkle some onto your $5.39 quarter-rack of ribs.

Chadwicks (5247 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-362-8040). Step down the little stone staircase, open the cut-glass door, and you'll feel like you're walking onto the set of Cheers: The dimly lit, worn wooden bar is lined with regulars who know that Chadwicks offers lots of happy-hour specials no matter what time you get off work. Most weekdays from 4 until 7, you can enjoy low-cost libations like $1.95 domestic bottles, $1.95 glasses of house wine, and $2.50 rail drinks only at the bar. All nonseafood plates on the appetizer menu, which features all the great American hits--deep-fried buffalo wings, potato skins heaped with cheese, and gooey spinach and artichoke dip--are $2.95.

Last Mango (654 Centerpoint Way, Gaithersburg; 240-243-0550). It's hard to find beer this cheap. Monday through Friday from 3 to 7, it's $1 for pints of Miller Lite or Coors Light and $2.50 for 14 other beers on tap, including Guinness and Sierra Nevada.

There are three bars to choose from. The first-level bar, with a huge fish tank built into the wall, is classy with hanging lanterns and mosaic-tiled tabletops. An outdoor stairwell leads to a spacious upstairs bar--bands play at night on a small stage--and it's more like Dewey Beach-meets-neighborhood-coffeehouse. The cement floor isn't pretty, but the carpeted area with velvet couches is a swank place to share half-price appetizers, including barbecue chicken wings and vegetable quesadillas (both about $4). Tables line the windows in the other upstairs bar, which overlooks a Kentlands Village corner. It's open-air in the summer.

McCormick & Schmick's (1652 K St., NW; 202-861-2233; locations also in Bethesda, Tysons Corner, and Reston, plus the newly opened restaurant at Ninth and F sts., NW). Can't afford the $29.95 Maine lobster? Don't sweat it. At happy hour, you can order steamed mussels with garlic chili sauce, two oyster shooters, or a cheeseburger with fries for $1.95. The dimly lit bar teems with as many suits sipping $5.45 lagers--drinks are full price--as with patrons in jeans munching on specials. Don't worry about the two-drink-per-person minimum--it's seldom enforced. Specials are available from 3:30 to 6:30 and from 10:30 to midnight.

PJ Skidoos (9908 Lee Hwy., Fairfax; 703-591-4515; www.pjskidoos.com). On weekdays from 11 to 7, $2 glasses of wine are served in long-stemmed glasses. House drafts are $1.90.

While the dark wooden booths and brick walls make PJ Skidoos feel like an Irish pub, posters of scantily clad women posing on fast cars make it feel like a testosterone-infused sports bar. Ignore the tacky pictures and order half-price appetizers from 4 to 7. Fried calamari, nachos, and buffalo wings are all $3.50. Chicken tenders are perfectly browned. Potato skins--four half spuds smothered in cheddar cheese and bacon--are more than enough for two people.

Seafood lovers will savor Thursday nights, when a half pound of shrimp goes for $6.95. On Wednesdays, there's a complimentary taco bar.

Summit Station Restaurant & Brewery (227 E. Diamond Ave., Gaithersburg; 301-519-9400; www.summit-station.com). Forget Miller Lite--house brews are the deal here. Sunday through Friday from 4 to 7, draft pints are $2.25. Check the chalkboard for the strength of your beer: Irvington, a British pale ale, is 6 percent alcohol.

In the second-floor pub--roomier than the downstairs bar--'80s hits play while friends feast on piles of crispy, black-bean nachos ($4.95 during happy hour). Other specials include guacamole and chips for $3.25, Moe's spicy wings for $4.95, house wine for $3.25, and $3 rail drinks. It doesn't get cheaper than "Blues-n-Cajun" Wednesdays, when drafts are $2 and the complimentary Cajun buffet includes steamed crawfish, red beans and rice, wings, and seafood gumbo. There's an open-air deck for warmer months.

CHEAP DATES

Bambu (5101 MacArthur Blvd., NW; 202-364-3088). This former gas station has cleaned up well. The owners of nearby Chen's Gourmet took it over last year, painted the walls buttercream, and added slab stone floors and hanging rice-paper screens. With its cloth napkins and teak tables, Bambu hardly feels dirt-cheap, but there are bargains. Look for the $7 noodle and vegetarian dishes, from an excellent pad Thai to sweet-and-spicy egg noodles, which can easily serve two. Or make a meal out of small plates like duck rolls (at $5 they're a budget take on Peking duck), spring rolls ($3), and pumpkin and coconut soup ($2.50). Either way, the sexy setting makes you forget you're on a shoestring.

Churreria Madrid (2505 Champlain St., NW; 202-483-4441). Off the main strip in Adams Morgan, this Spanish restaurant and bar is easy to miss. The dessert churros alone--the crisp, fried strips of dough are 12 for $3--make it worth a visit. To start, share a small pitcher of sangría ($6.50) and a few appetizers, like the $3.50 Tortilla Española, a thick Spanish potato omelette, and an order of empanadillas, six small meat pies for $4.25.

The Pollo al Chef--it's like chicken stew--costs only $7.25. The chicken, soaked in a tomato sauce with peas, onions, and red peppers, is falling-off-the-bone tender. Cheap seafood choices include trout, grilled shrimp, and hake in wine sauce with mussels--each for $7.95. You'll probably need a takeout box: Two large sides--choices include fried eggs, a meat pie, fried plantains, and sautéed bell peppers--come with main dishes.

Franklin's (5123 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville; 301-927-2740). The last thing you'll do at Franklin's is eat. First, browse the general store, where you can buy frames, earrings, specialty soaps, wine and beer, bags of candy (you pick) for $3.50 a pound, and oddities like chocolate voodoo dolls and life-size stuffed dogs.

If there's a wait, relax on a bench or sit in a large hand-shaped chair. Like the old hardware store the space once housed, the restaurant is funky, with exposed brick, bright yellow walls, and patchwork tablecloths. Upstairs is a bar devoted to Terps fans.

The kitchen serves everything from Vegetarian Cottage Pie--chili smothered with cheese and piled high with mashed potatoes ($10.95 and enough for two)--to a plentiful appetizer of chicken satay ($5.95) and barbecue chicken pizza ($10.95). Franklin's brews its own beer; house drafts are $3.95.

Haydee's (3102 Mount Pleasant St., NW; 202-483-9199). With wooden booths, stained glass, and rows of communal tables, this is one of the cheapest sit-down Salvadoran restaurants in the city. Try the $5.95 thick and cheesy enchiladas, a $5.50 chimichanga packed with shredded chicken, or sizzling $8.25 chicken fajitas. Every plate comes with guacamole and sour cream.

Filled with Latinos and Mount Pleasant yuppies, the dimly lit restaurant is cozy, with mariachi music playing in the background. A serve-yourself chips-and-salsa bar keeps the waitstaff from having to fill your basket. There's also a tiny free salad bar next to the salsa.

Lost Dog Cafe (5876 N. Washington Blvd., Arlington; 703-237-1552; www.lostdogcafe.com). Dogs are the theme at this cozy cafe, where you're almost shoulder-to-shoulder with the people at the next table. A portion of what you pay helps owners Pam McAlwee and Ross Underwood fund a foundation that rescues and places lost animals.

For starters, try the Dog Collars, Tabasco-flavored onion rings for $3.25. The 50 sandwiches--they're huge--include the Healthy Dog ($5.25), warm pita with hummus and veggies, and the Fat Molly ($6.95), roasted red peppers, spinach, grilled chicken, mozzarella, feta, and basil in pita. You might share a pizza--the $13.95 white pizza is popular--to stay within your budget. The 34 toppings include oddities like pastrami. There are 300 different beers, $3.50 to $8, with a three-beer limit.

Mark's Kitchen (7006 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park; 301-270-1884). A hint that this is a neighborhood favorite came when our server asked if we needed menus. You can see into Mark's open kitchen from the cafeteria-style tables, and photos of historic Takoma Park hang near Asian art and kids' paintings. "Roommates Wanted" signs fill the windows. Ginger-and-honey sticks are for sale near the cash register, which is busy with carryout customers.

There's a little bit of everything. Asian choices include jahp chae, cellophane noodles with vegetables and rice, for $5.95, and Korean short ribs for $7.95. Vegetarian options range from a $5.50 veggieburger (on a croissant) to spinach-tofu cakes for $7.95. Sides vary from roasted seaweed to fries.

The juice bar offers malts, milkshakes, espresso drinks, and unusual vegetable and fruit blends, including a green-tea milkshake for $3.75.

Pasta Mia (1790 Columbia Rd., NW; 202-328-9114). At least 30 minutes before this small trattoria opens at 6:30 for dinner, people line up on the sidewalk to get a seat. There is no list. You just wait until others get up from the red-and-white checked tables.

Expect servers to bring out crusty bread and olive oil for dipping. A good way to start is by splitting a platter of mixed greens ($5). You don't have to tiptoe around the menu--all main dishes are $10 to $13, and portions are huge. The tortellini rosa, tomato cream over tender cheese pasta pockets, is one favorite. We also liked the penne pasta smothered in tomato sauce with a pile of pesto at the center. The mixture is intriguing and delicious.

Red Tomato Cafe (4910 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-4499). We weren't surprised when a guy walked in selling roses. The place is romantic: Red velvet hangs from the windows and ceiling; two smiling suns are painted on the walls; colorful vases fill window sills; candles burn on each table.

You'll probably need to stick with soda to keep the check low, but it's fun to share pizza and pasta. The eight-inch pizzas, baked in a brickoven inside the bar, range from $6.25 for cheese to $9.95 for specialties like shrimp pesto and garlic chicken. We especially liked the gnocchi ($12.95), served in a tasty tomato-cream sauce.

Thai Tanic (1326 14th St., NW; 202-588-1795). A small Buddha fountain greets you at this cute Thai eatery. Glittery red chairs slip under tables with hologram-like tops. Asian ornaments hang from the ceiling. Fresh orchids adorn every table.

Prices are low enough to allow for a few appetizers before the main course. The Golden Triangle ($3.95), lightly fried tofu, comes with peanutty chili sauce for dipping. The crisp vegetarian spring rolls ($3.95) are packed with a garlicky stuffing. Veggie lovers will want to try the pad Thai ($7.95), which includes broccoli, green beans, zucchini, mushrooms, and carrots. Penang Chicken, white slices of chicken in a coconut curry sauce, is very spicy, but the kitchen will tone it down if you ask. For dessert, don't miss the great mango- and coconut-flavored sticky rice ($3.95). It's enough for two, but you'll be tempted to order more.

Zorba's Cafe (1612 20th St., NW; 202-387-8555). At this charming Greek cafe, colorful tapestries and photographs of the Parthenon hang on the walls. Bouzouki music plays in the background.

The cafe is serve-yourself, so it's easy to while away an evening drinking $13 carafes of Greek wine or California vintages for $9.15. At $8.95, the chicken shish kebab plate comes with generous helpings of rice and salad. For $1.85, you might nibble on a slice of pizza topped with kalamata olives and Greek meatballs. The $5.45 Greek salad (request dressing on the side) is a treat, as is the $5.95 souvlaki sandwich. Ask for extra tzatziki--a perfectly balanced sauce of cucumber, yogurt, and garlic.

DINNER AND A MOVIE

Big Bowl Asian Kitchen (11915 Democracy Dr., Reston, 703-787-8852; 2800 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington, 703-875-8925; www.bigbowl.com). Big Bowl does Asian Food 101. Each item on the menu has a detailed description and a key to guide you: The red dragon means the dish is spicy hot; the bowl with chopsticks denotes a Big Bowl favorite. The restaurant even has training chopsticks for patrons who fumble their way through Chinese meals.

Tasty main dishes include the Chili-Pepper Chicken with Noodles and the Chicken Pad Thai (each $8.95). Or try the create-your-own-stir-fry bar. Pick the vegetables, meat (chicken, shrimp, or beef), one of six sauces, and noodles or rice. We liked the Spicy Kung Pao Shrimp. The homemade fresh ginger soda ($2.50) packs a punch.

Closest theater: Reston Multiplex Cinemas, 11940 Market St., Reston; 703-502-4060.

Cafe la Ruche (1039 31st St., NW; 202-965-2684. www.cafelaruche.com). Have your first kiss under the Eiffel Tower--a miniature one, that is--as you scan the dessert counter (delicate chocolate mousse and tangy orange cheesecake for $5.50 each) at this adorable French restaurant. In the spirit of a Paris bistro, dozens of dark wooden tables are squeezed side by side. French street signs and mirrors line yellow walls. Candles flicker on the tables.

If you stick to the daily menu and avoid the specials, it's easy to eat cheap. The potage Parisian ($4.25) is a steaming bowl of authentically French leek-and-potato soup. The spinach quiche ($7.75) comes with a nice-size salad. So does the croque monsieur ($7.75), a hot ham-and-cheese sandwich smothered with creamy cheese. An appetizer portion of escargots for $6.25 might make for good conversation.

Closest theater: Loews Theatres Georgetown (3111 K St., NW; 202-342-6441).

Cantina Mamma Lucia (1350 Dorsey Rd., Hanover; 410-684-2900; www.mammalucia.com). Shop till you drop at the Arundel Mills outlet mall and see a movie at its massive multiplex, but eat around the corner at Cantina Mamma Lucia. Two people can order house salads ($1.95), share a pasta entrée ($6.95 to $8.95), have two glasses of house wine ($3.95 each), and split a dessert cannoli ($2.45) for less than $30 total.

As at many New York-style pizza places, you'll find wooden booths with green tabletops. You serve yourself, but it's still romantic: Couples can share a bottle of Italian wine ($8.95 on Wednesday nights) and twirl each other's pasta around their forks. Mamma's tomato sauce tastes like--well, mama's tomato sauce. It makes everything from the pizza (16-inch for $10.95) to the calzones and strombolis ($4.75 each) and the chicken parmigiana sub ($5.95) taste like good Italian grub in Brooklyn.

Closest theater: Muvico Egyptian 24 Theaters, 7000 Arundel Mills Cir., Hanover; 443-755-8992.

Hard Times Cafe (4922 Del Ray Ave., Bethesda; 301-951-3300, and nine other area locations; www.hardtimes.com). Hard Times is known for its tasty chili--the Texas style ($6.25 to $8.25) is said to be based on a 100-year-old family recipe--but it also has atmosphere. Horse pictures, lassos, and Texas flags cover the walls. Above the bar, lit by a string of hot-pepper lights, are steer horns and posters from old Westerns. There's an old-fashioned jukebox. After a few visits, the bartenders know your name. We can't figure out why there's never a wait.

From 4 to 7 Monday through Friday, appetizers and draft beers are 40 percent off. Wednesdays are half-price wing nights--normally $7.95 a dozen, they're grilled and delicious. It's loud on game days, when Maryland alumni gather to watch games on eight televisions, including one big screen.

Closest theaters: Walk to Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema (7235 Woodmont Ave.; 301-652-7273) or United Artists Bethesda (7272 Wisconsin Ave.; 301-718-0229).

Il Radicchio (1801 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 703-276-2627). Bottles of olive oil line a window sill at this sunny Tuscan-inspired restaurant. Pictures of rabbits nibbling on radicchio are painted on the peach walls. Pastas are served family-style: Each table receives an unlimited helping of spaghetti (at $6.50 a person). Then each person chooses a sauce.

The cream of pistachio sauce ($3.75) was light but filling. The most expensive sauces, like vongole--clams in the shell in white wine--are $4. The cheapest sauce, tomato purée with basil, is $2.25. You can construct your own pizza from 28 toppings. The wood-fired, crisp pies, large enough for two, are $13.50 to $18.95.

Splitting dessert, such as tiramisu or sliced strawberries with balsamic vinegar, each $5.75, is the perfect way to end the evening. Two glasses of house wine ($5.25 each) could break the budget.

Closest theater: Walk to AMC Courthouse (2150 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 703-998-4262).

PF Chang's (Tysons Galleria, 1716-M International Dr., McLean, 703-734-8996; 4250 Fairfax Corner Ave., Fairfax, 703-266-2414; www.pfchangs.com). Try tapas Asian-style. There are 12 appetizers on the menu, and it's easy to make dinner of three or four. The garlic-heavy make-your-own chicken lettuce wraps ($6.50) are the most fun. Chang's spare ribs ($6.50) are smothered in barbecue sauce. Shanghai cucumbers ($4.95) are sprinkled with soy and sesame.

The restaurant, with a backlit U-shaped bar, is always packed with twentysomethings waiting for tables. Cozy up in a glossy wood booth and enjoy the view--bamboo nailed in the shape of houses on the walls, tables scattered around terra cotta warrior statues, a Chinese mural above the bar.

You probably won't use your plastic chopsticks unless you order an entrée, which won't break the bank. One dish easily serves two. Crispy honey chicken ($9.50) is caramelized and tender. A heaping plate of pork lo mein ($8.95) could serve four as a side dish. Vegetarians might try garlic noodles ($5.95), flavored with chilies. We love Chang's spicy chicken ($10.95) with a slightly sweet sauce.

Closest theaters: Across the street from Tysons Corner mall in Fairfax Square is a Cineplex Odeon (8065 Leesburg Pike, Vienna; 703-506-6898); near the restaurant in Fairfax Corner is Cinema Deluxe 14 (703-502-4060).

Taipei Tokyo (11510-A Rockville Pike, Rockville; 301-881-8388). Look past the shabby dining area. It's the food that counts at this "order and sit" Chinese and Japanese mainstay, where entrées above $10 are rare. Hunan chicken--like all of the chicken dishes--is lean, sliced white meat, smothered in a spicy brown sauce. Noodles float happily alongside everything from shredded pork and Szechuan cabbage to shrimp and black mushrooms. A sushi bar--some see it as the main attraction--sits opposite the Chinese counter. California and tuna rolls are $3.95 for six pieces during lunch.

Closest theater: Loews Cineplex White Flint (11301 Rockville Pike; 301-881-5207) is a few blocks away.

LATE NIGHT

Alberto's, (2010 P St., NW; 202-986-2121). Watch your step if you're coming from the bars: Alberto's is tucked down a flight of stairs in Dupont Circle. On Fridays and Saturdays you can get Chicago thin-crust slices--$2.75 for cheese, $3 for pepperoni--until 4 AM. One slice here is like two at most pizza places. The menu--available until 2 AM--includes a large stuffed Chicago pie ($17.95 for plain) that feeds at least four. You choose the crust--traditional, garlic, or honey. The drawback? There aren't any tables, just a counter with stools.

Amphora's Diner Deluxe (1151 Elden St., Herndon, 703-925-0900; 377 Maple Ave. W., Vienna, 703-938-7877). This gem is worth a drive: There's a cocktail bar; the waiters wear white coats and bow ties; they bring you bakery-fresh sun-dried-tomato or cranberry-walnut bread; they serve peanut-butter pancakes. Open 24-7, Amphora has 350 menu choices, all available at any time of day.

It might not feel cheap, but it is. Diner fare includes a deluxe burger with full fixings and fries for $6.59 and a western omelet for $6.29. Falafel, gyros, and souvlaki are under $9. The place also does fancy: The Arna chicken, with feta, garlic, cinnamon, and tomatoes, is $11.59 and comes with a salad. The fried filet of sole sandwich is $9.99, peanut-butter pancakes are $5.49, cheese blintzes $6.29. Leave room for dessert, like the $4.69 homemade cheesecakes or the $5.29 chunky chocolate mousse.

Black's Bar and Kitchen (7750 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; 301-652-6278). The $2 Miller Lite and Yuengling drafts aren't the only things getting sucked down late-night at Black's. From 10 to midnight, the second daily happy hour, youngish patrons lounge in black leather booths and comfy oversize chairs feasting on freshly shucked Chesapeake Bay oysters for 50 cents each. Sierra Nevada and Pilsner Urquell drafts are $3. Martinis are $5 from 4:30 to 7 and from 10 to midnight.

Glass separates the lengthy bar from the dining room, which cheap-eaters will avoid. Happy-hour choices include $8 poblano-shrimp quesadillas, steamed shrimp, and buttermilk calamari.

Continental Modern Pool Lounge (1911 N. Fort Myer Dr., Arlington; 703-465-7675; www.modernpoollounge.com). Continental does for pool what Strike! Bethesda did for bowling. The retro decor features a red bar with shiny silver stools, thick columns painted in pinks, oranges, and blues, and colorful hanging ball lights. Restored furnishings from 1960s tiki bars accent one side; purple felt covers the eight pool tables.

On the late-night menu--available till 2 AM--are basics like fried calamari and chicken tenders for $6.95. Classier choices include veal meatballs ($6.95) and a portabello mushroom panini ($7.95). On Mondays, when ladies play pool for free, cosmopolitans and apple martinis are $4; burgers are half-price Wednesdays from 5 to 11. Pool costs $18 an hour for four players Sunday through Wednesday; you'll pay $2 more Thursday through Saturday. A cheaper choice? Darts for $1.

Five Guys (2301 Georgia Ave., NW; 202-986-2235; seven other area locations; www.fiveguys.com). This longtime cheapie favorite continues to draw crowds. It's bare-bones and messy by design--customers are invited to eat peanuts and drop the shells on the floor. The burgers are famously delicious--the regular-size, amazingly ungreasy burger ($3.69) has two patties; little burgers ($2.69) have one. Free toppings include fried onions, sautéed mushrooms, and jalepeño peppers. The massive "small" portion of Cajun fries ($1.19), crispy and spiced with Old Bay, deserves high praise. Open until 2 AM Friday and Saturday; midnight during the week.

Hope Key (3131 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-243-8388). There aren't a lot of Chinese restaurants that stay open this late. Hope Key serves its entire menu until 2 AM Friday and Saturday and until midnight during the week.

Before you get your coat off, you'll probably be served hot oolong tea. For starters, try the crabmeat-and-asparagus or vegetable-seafood soups, which serve two, for $5.95. Most dishes on the Platter Rice menu, including curry chicken and duck on rice, are $5.55 to $6.50. Kung Pao chicken and shrimp is $10.95; snow-pea tips are $9.95. Portions are big enough to share--and still take some home. Think you can't eat healthy? The diet menu includes steamed mixed vegetables for $7.25 and steamed shrimp with vegetables for $9.50--all cooked without oil, salt, sugar, or cornstarch.

Julia's Empanadas (1221 Connecticut Ave., NW, 202-861-8828; 2452 18th St., NW, 202-328-6232; 1410 U St., NW, 202-387-4100). Don't expect white tablecloths. This place is more storefront than cafe, but at $3.18 each, the empanadas, which feel like hand-held pot pies, are a delicious and uber-cheap way to dine. Try the Jamaican Style, stuffed with ground and chopped beef, onion, potato, and curry, or the chorizo version, packed with Spanish-style sausage, rice, and black beans. Choose from a long list of Dixie-cup-size salads--including cucumber and onion, black bean and corn, and chopped tomato--at $1.15 a pop. Add a pear-nectar juice and plop down in one of the outdoor seats. Open until 3:30 AM Fridays and Saturdays.

Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe & Grill (1517 Connecticut Ave., NW; 202-387-1462; www.kramers.com). Dinner can get pricey at this bookstore-and-restaurant combo, but who needs a full meal late at night? A $14 order of Sharezies--three different appetizers--is a cheap treat with a cute name served in a three-tiered wrought-iron rack: Good friends skip the plates and just reach. Choices range from nachos and Thai Water Buffalo Wings to steamed mussels and catfish fingers. For an extra $2, the platter can include grilled Moroccan lamb tenderloin or three jumbo gulf shrimp. A pitcher of beer with the Sharezies is an additional $7.

While you're in the sharing mood, finish the evening with a Dysfunctional Family Sundae ($6.25)--vanilla ice cream on an amaretto-soaked chocolate brownie with hot fudge, nuts, whipped cream, and raspberry purée. It'll feed at least four.

Soho Tea and Coffee (2150 P St., NW; 202-463-7646). Open until 5 AM on weekends, this funky coffeehouse, where works by local artists decorate yellow walls, hosts lots of espresso-buzzed students plugged into the Internet and taking study breaks. Try the $4.50 chicken-salad wrap or the $6.50 threesome plate--chicken salad, tuna salad, and pesto pasta. Wash it down with a coconut-and-banana Bahama Mama Latte for $4.25 or a peach smoothie for $3.95.

Don't leave without visiting the unisex restroom--it's the door with Rosie the Riveter--where you'll find newspaper and magazine clippings, and even someone's homework, plastered floor to ceiling. Bring cash: Credit cards aren't accepted, and the ATM fee is $3.

Philadelphia Cheesesteak Factory (3347 M St., NW; 202-333-8040). With its crumb-filled tables, gray tile floors, and cramped booths, this Georgetown fixture ain't a pretty place. But at 2 AM on weekends, it doesn't have to be. That's when collegiates and bar-crawlers pile in for big messy cheesesteaks ($5.23) and chicken cheesesteaks ($5.73). Slathered with mayo, provolone, and onions (sorry, purists--no Cheez Whiz) and stuffed into rolls from Philly's Amorosos Bakery, these greasy torpedos recall the glories of South Street. Open until 2 AM Sunday through Thursday and until 4 Friday and Saturday.

Tastee Diner (7731 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-652-3970; locations also in Laurel and Silver Spring; www.tasteediner.com). No need to be grumpy--the late-night waiters are often gruff enough for two. But that's part of the charm at this sticky-tabletop landmark in the heart of Bethesda. We'll never tire of the $2.50 grilled-cheese sandwich, buttery and crisp with a simple slab of American melted inside. A side of fries ($1.50) was a post-drinking dream.

You can eat breakfast all night--the place doesn't close--and it's hard not to order a creamy milkshake ($3.50) to sip while you scarf down your $6.50 chicken tenders.

HANGOVER HELPERS

The Diner (2453 18th St., NW; 202-232-8800). No jukeboxes here. This 24-hour diner fits right in with its Adams Morgan neighbors. The booths and bar stools have red vinyl seats. There's a high, ornamental-tin ceiling. The servers can't be much over 30. Jazz plays in the background, even on weekday mornings.

For real cheap, the $2.99 egg sandwich does the trick. If you're hungrier, try the Diner Breakfast Royale--two eggs, two pancakes or French toast, toast, coffee, and ham, bacon, or sausage--for $7.99. Other choices include the B&B Omelet (bacon and bleu cheese) for $6.99, burger patty and eggs for $6.99, and the $7.45 Atkins feast: Nelli's All-Meat Omelet (with bacon, ham, sausage, and cheese).

Dos Gringos (3116 Mount Pleasant St., NW; 202-462-1159). In the sunny living room of a rowhouse on busy Mount Pleasant Street, you'll find this homey cafe. A haven for yuppies young and old who sit at mismatched tables reading newspapers or chatting with friends, the restaurant offers simple, healthy breakfasts. Case in point: scrambled tofu with grilled tomatoes ($3.50).

Ask about the frittata of the day ($5.25). One Friday in January, it was a perfectly cooked sweet-potato-and-green-pepper omelet. On the side: a pile of chopped kiwi, banana, and apple, and a toasted bagel with cream cheese. Cilantro scrambled eggs with melted havarti cheese ($3.50) are served on a bagel. Don't miss a steaming cup of the creamy vanilla chai tea latte ($2.75)--maybe the best in the city.

Murphy's Irish Pub (713 King St., Alexandria; 703-548-1717). There's nothing unusual about this casual pub, decorated with Irish flags and Guinness-pouring awards, but on Sundays from 10 to 3 the staff rolls out white tablecloths for a classy Champagne brunch. For $7.95, the choices range from French toast to an Irish country breakfast--two eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, and a homemade biscuit. Your first glass of Champagne is free while you eat; additional glasses are 50 cents. Check the specials board: You might be surprised by pork chops or salmon.

Original Pancake House (7700 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 301-986-0285; and locations in Falls Church and Rockville; www.originalpancakehouse.com). It seems that a lot of the same folks who bar-hop in Bethesda on Saturday night come back to cure their hangovers on Sunday morning.

Autographed photos of local celebs and framed pictures of Bethesda in the 1940s decorate the Original Pancake House, which gets packed on weekends. But once you get a seat--it may take an hour--service is quick. Don't order an omelet if you're starving--they're oven-baked, so they can take 30 minutes. A Western is $8.95; the Irish, filled with corned-beef hash, is $9.95. The 15 pancake choices include Georgia pecan ($6.95) and Three Little Pigs in a Blanket ($5.95)--sausage links wrapped in pancakes and dusted with powered sugar. At $9.45, the oven-baked Apple Pancake is the most expensive, but just try finishing it.

Silver Diner (11806 Rockville Pike, Rockville, 301-770-2828, and nine other area locations; www.silverdiner.com). After a hearty breakfast in this old-fashioned diner, you'll probably skip lunch. The line for a table starts around 10 AM on weekends. For $7.49, try the caramel French toast and eggs, with caramel sauce that drips from four thick slices of cinnamon-battered challah bread, topped with powdered sugar. The staple buttermilk pancakes are $6.99--add crisp chicken sausage for $2.29. The spinach, feta, and mushroom omelet is a favorite. The friendly service (coffee gets topped every few minutes), mini-jukeboxes, and sound of dishes clanging make it a refreshing morning pick-me-up.

Tune Inn (3331H Pennsylvania Ave., SE; 202-543-2725). Slide into one of the timeworn booths and prepare to have ice water served in frosted beer mugs--at breakfast. The Tune Inn, which gets packed late-night, looks like a hunting lodge: Deer heads and bear skins cover the walls. Specials are scribbled on a piece of paper and left on the table with the one-page menus. It's the kind of place where truckers and Hill staffers might mix.

If you love pancakes, don't pass up the stack of three plump buttery ones ($3.50). The tastiest kind of grease clings to the Western omelet ($5.50), served with a large helping of home fries that we kept eating long after we were full. Really short on cash? Two dollars buys you an egg sandwich; two quarters gets you a hardboiled egg.

Woodside Deli (9329 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring; 301-589-7055). You gotta love a place that prints on its menu: "If you are not served in five minutes . . . you'll get served in 6, or 8, maybe 10 minutes. Enjoy and relax." We got our spinach-and-feta omelet ($6.95) and single blueberry pancake ($2.95) with an egg (95 cents) in about seven minutes on a Saturday morning. Our server asked for our drink orders before we sat down.

This 57-year-old restaurant isn't fancy, but there's plenty to look at--like old photos of presidents and movie stars, Life magazine covers, and historic Montgomery County maps. We sat under a gold-framed antique mirror. The challenge is fitting the large portions--one blueberry pancake was plenty--on the narrow tables.

WHERE THE CHEFS GO FOR REALLY CHEAP MEALS

Frank Morales of Zola likes the beef breakfast sausage with grits ($6.95) at DC's Florida Avenue Grill (1100 Florida Ave., NW). For lunch, he heads to the Italian Store (3123 Lee Hwy., Arlington) and orders genoa salami with Italian dressing on a hard roll ($5.99). Morales's favorite dinner spot is Nam-Viet Pho 79 (3419 Connecticut Ave., NW), where he gets the caramelized chicken with ginger ($9.55).

15 Ria's Jamie Leeds goes to the Georgetown branch of Pizzeria Paradiso (3282 M St., NW), where she orders an eight-inch pie topped with prosciutto ($11.06).

Ris Lacoste from 1789 ate the "excellent" pad Thai ($8) from Cafe Asia (1550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington) every Sunday night for a year.

Ann Cashion of Johnny's Half Shell and Cashion's Eat Place heads for DC's Flying Scotsman (233 Second St., NW). She gets the "unbelievable" hamburger ($7), fish chowder ($6), or the Scotch eggs--deep-fried hard-boiled eggs wrapped in sausage and served with mustard sauce ($6). "You don't find them anywhere else in the city." She also loves the bento boxes ($7.75 to $8) and curries ($7.75 to $8) at Teaism (2009 R St., NW).

Equinox's Todd Gray and his wife, Ellen, are frequent customers at Spices (3333-A Connecticut Ave., NW), where they get the ginger salad ($6) and the nabeyaki udon soup ($9). They also swear by Elite of 17th Street (1523 17th St., NW), where, Ellen says, you can get "the best falafel in town," for $4.50. On the weekends, they walk along Columbia Road in Adams Morgan and buy pupusas and cabbage, and sliced mango and papaya from roadside carts.

Roberto Donna of Galileo takes his breakfast--French toast ($1.82) and cappuccino--at BreadLine (1751 Pennsylvania Ave., NW). For lunch and dinner, he likes the roasted duck with sautéed snow peas ($9.95) from Eat First (609 H St., NW) and the truffle-cheese-topped burger ($9) from the bar at Palena (3529 Connecticut Ave., NW).

DC Coast's Jeff Tunks often has lunch at Potbelly (555 12th St., NW), where he gets a turkey sandwich with hot peppers, lettuce, mustard, and onions ($3.79). He and his children stop at the Vietnamese restaurant Delight (13948 Jefferson Davis Hwy., Woodbridge), where they eat spring rolls ($2.95) and pho ($5.25).

--ANN LIMPERT