How do you find cheap, interesting, counter-service restaurants?
March 1, 2021 11:19 AM   Subscribe

So I'm not traveling right now, but one of the things getting me through this era is planning future travel, and one thing that's eluding me is this question. It's easy to find recommendations for upscale and fancy restaurants, but that's not what I'm interested in; I want to find restaurants where you can get a sub-$12/€10 meal that's filling, unpretentious, and quick.

I have no idea how to find these restaurants, especially ones that aren't e.g. the international chains. Ideally I'd love to find each country/city's equivalent to things like Chicago's hot dog stands, or (as another Chicago specific example) each city's Ghareeb Nawaz or Taste of Lebanon, e.g. dirt cheap ethnic cuisine. Any suggestions on e.g. search terms, or databases would be appreciated!
posted by LSK to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The first thought that came to my mind was Diners Drive-Ins and Dives for the US. Not all of the featured restaurants fit your criteria, but many do and those we've visited have been definitely unpretentious but very tasty.
posted by DrGail at 11:28 AM on March 1, 2021 [5 favorites]

This is one of the things Google Maps actually does well, at least in Europe - they display the rough price range and number of stars right on the map. Delve into the reviews a bit to confirm. Places like that are less destinations, more refuelling stops, so in the morning, just search in the area you'll be around lunch. I've found very good sub-€10 meals in Venice city centre, a stone's throw from Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, and in the back of an Asian store in Dublin.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:30 AM on March 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

I cannot tell you how much I would pay right now for a tofu halloumi sandwich from Sahara Imbiss, Berlin's local chain of Sudanese food. Well I guess I would pay like €5-6 plus however much it cost to fly to Berlin and it would be worth it.
posted by babelfish at 11:31 AM on March 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Oh I guess that doesn't answer your actual question which is how to find them. I guess ask Metafilter, where people might go into a reverie about a specific sandwich joint!
posted by babelfish at 11:33 AM on March 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

Yelp does let you filter by cost. My methodology for Yelp in an unfamiliar area is to look at Highest Rated and then read the reviews of people who didn't give 5 stars to see if I can tell if the problem was with the restaurant or the reviewer. I further tend to filter out places where the negative reviews all coalesce around the same issues (if those issues are important to me).

Testing this theory out for 5 miles around my current location (Cincinnati) gives me pretty good results in the top 10 (a wonderful Venezuelan walk up window, a taco truck, and a chili parlor, etc.)
posted by mmascolino at 11:35 AM on March 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

For Paris specifically, there is a website (Les Petites Tables) whose concept is literally "le guide des (vrais) bons restos parisiens autour de 10 €" = "the guide to (real) good Parisian restaurants around €10".

It is, however, only in French, which brings me to my general belief that you are likely to find better resources if you speak the local language and/or can find resources dedicated to natives and residents.

Otherwise, in some European countries, for obvious reasons, there are often lots of restaurants featuring cuisine from former colonies (South Asian in the UK, Vietnamese in France, Indonesian food in the Netherlands, etc.). A lot of times this food is expected -- unfairly IMO but that is a whole other discussion! -- to be at a relatively low price point, so it's often a good economical option.
posted by andrewesque at 11:38 AM on March 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

I've had very good luck with a simple Google search of "best [food item] in [region/area/city]", eg. "best falafel in the midwest" or "best pho in Chicago".
posted by mezzanayne at 11:38 AM on March 1, 2021

Steve Dolinsky's face is framed on the wall of every single one of my favorite hole in the wall places. To the extent that if he says a place is good, I will trust him. He's got several city guides on his website.
posted by phunniemee at 11:56 AM on March 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

I used to love Foursquare for this. With my recommendations tweaked to my preferences (basically the same as yours), it highlighted a lot of gems for me. Sadly, a lot of its data has fallen out of date. I now tend to poke around Google Maps’ guide for the area and look for categories like “quick lunch” or “cheap eats” or whatever, paying attention to the tone of reviews.
posted by Ryon at 12:01 PM on March 1, 2021

If I can toot my own horn, I'm pretty good at this, albeit for a more limited scope (mostly burgers). I've used Yelp before, sometimes with success, but honestly, the first place I start is Wikipedia. I'll look up the city I'm visiting and usually there's a subheading for "Culture" or something thereabouts, and my goal is to find local specialties (e.g., Cincinnati chili, beef on weck in Buffalo, Maid-Rite for Iowa, Whataburger in Texas, etc.). From there, I'll generally look at the Eat section of the city's Wikitravel page. This usually doesn't yield many results (most places are more expensive sit-down restaurants), but when it does, the quality outweighs the quantity. After that, I'll look at TripAdvisor. I don't know why, but they're usually better than Yelp at showing me what I'm looking for.

If the city has an alt-weekly paper, or is big enough to have a monthly lifestyle magazine, it's sometimes helpful to look in their Best-of archives. There's usually a category for Cheap Eats, and they often live up to their billing.

One thing I've had success with, if I'm spending multiple nights in the same place, is to find a spot the first night and then explore (either on foot or on Google Maps) around it. It's not a rule that there will be another good cheap place nearby, but it sometimes works. I found some good tacos in Bergen County, NJ that way.

I'll admit to being super cheesy and asking the person at the hotel front desk for recommendations. It's easier to explain what you're looking for to a human than to a computer. "Where would you go if you wanted a really good, cheap burger?" is something that most people will have an answer to (and it often won't be the first result on Yelp).

The Ask Metafilter archives are a pretty good source of information, too. Search the name of the city and even if the posts in the search results aren't about food, there's likely to be an comment saying "and while you're there, go to ____ and get the ____".

Finally, if you're flying, Eater has guides to most major airports. I've found quite a few good lunches this way.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:15 PM on March 1, 2021 [6 favorites]

There are a ton of places like this in New Orleans. All the po boy shops, my fave is Parkway. Do not stand in line for Mother's like all the other tourists, not worth the wait.
posted by radioamy at 12:17 PM on March 1, 2021

You can try checking the reddit groups for your destinations. The reddit group for my city is pretty much all pictures of cactuses, sunsets, and restaurant recommendations.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 12:20 PM on March 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Seconding Google Maps. You can choose to filter by a certain map area, and sometimes when I'm traveling I'll just search the map for a specific dish I want or even just a vibe (you could do this now, from home as well). They have pictures and reviews and honestly it works better than yelp at this point (I usually just look at the pictures and skip the reviews). Tripadvisor is another option but it's heavily weighted towards ... less adventurous American tourists.

Eater can be really good for cities where it has a presence.

Oh, also, when I've picked a specific place to travel to, sometimes I'll just spend some time on instagram looking at relevant hashtags like #PLACEfood or #PLACEstreetfood or whatever. You can get some good ideas that way. You can also search youtube for videos - I swear, every city I've ever been to with any tourist business has had dozens of videos of people showing you their favorite places to eat there.

Another fun thing to do for COVID future-trip-planning would be to post an AskMe along the lines of "what are the best counter-service restaurants you've ever been to" and let that guide some planning/fantasizing.
posted by lunasol at 12:20 PM on March 1, 2021

"post an AskMe along the lines of "what are the best counter-service restaurants you've ever been to'"

That reminds me: I did that once. I know someone else has another, similar one, but it's not as easy for me to find since I didn't post it.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:51 PM on March 1, 2021

Does it have to be "counter service"? I like this kind of place too and usually what is helpful for me in an unfamiliar place is looking for "Family restaurants" (if you're okay with diner-type food, not as good for non-burger non-Italian type places) and then you can check Yelp for costs. Other than steakhouses, this usually will get you low-cost unassuming places, though sometimes the food isn't great but sometimes it is! Not always with counter service though.
posted by jessamyn at 1:51 PM on March 1, 2021

In Italy, tavola calda means hot table, in other words exactly what you are looking for, counter service places that usually provide lunch, and sometimes (rarely) an early dinner for locals. For the purpose of answering this ask, I tried typing in tavola calda on the google maps for Rome and Milan, and the right type of places came up. Not fancy, but fair, and local, often with drinks included in the price. Mostly outside of the tourist centers. If you are in the center, go for a pizza slice. They are often amazing. Also in Italy: bars are not just for drinking alcohol, and bar snacks can be good and filling. But it is often cheaper to stand in the bar than to sit at a table. "Snack bars" and food trucks are for tourists and almost always way more expensive than regular bars. Often a meal at a so-called snack bar will be more expensive than a meal at a basic trattoria (plain restaurant).
TBH, this is not something I would plan ahead. I'd look at the options when there and choose the place where most locals are having lunch and/or the smells are most alluring. Also, maps didn't show the places I know and love. They don't need to advertise.

In Denmark, the equivalents of hotdog stands are pølsevogne. They can have a strictly hotdog focused menu, or a wide range of fast food, often there are more options on the menus outside of the biggest cities, most have a personal touch. Other cheap but very good food can be found at shawarma bars, where they serve many other dishes than shawarma. Both are all over the place in the cities. In the cities and in less populated places, you can also find traditional smørrebrød at expensive restaurants, at little specialized (and cheap) stores and inside larger supermarkets, often with a seating area attached. I'm not sure you can even google these places, they are so normal, the stores probably don't advertise them. As part of the smørrebrød menu, there may well be a couple of warm offers, often fried fish or meatballs, served with potatoes and condiments. There are different types of smørrebrød. The fancy types can be a little expensive, but you only need one or two pieces. Everyday håndmadder cost the equivalent of ten dollars for three or less and are a good deal. Not at all vegetarian, though. Only shawarma bars and a few pølsevogne will be open at night. For dinner, you can instead find Thai food most places, sometimes also offering a "Chinese" menu. There are pizza places everywhere, all on maps, mostly owned by Turkish immigrants. Ask for their Turkish specialities.

In Spain, there are the tapas bars. The further you get from the tourist areas, the more delicious, cheap and filling the menus. (Actually, there is an equivalent in Northern Italy where some bars serve free or cheap bar food). But whereas I live in Denmark and often work in Italy, I only know Spain as a tourist, so I can't be more specific in my recommendations. And again, the better the place is, the less the online presence.

Once I worked in Germany, and there are tons of good options, but I've lost touch, hope someone else will pitch in.

In all of Eastern Europe and Portugal and Greece, the prices are generally so low that it makes little sense for an American visitor to source out the lowest in advance. But generally, if one looks for areas that are not very touristic, one will find very good food for little money at local cafes and restaurants. Look on the map where there is a university -- nearby there will be places offering meals for students. Or look for the central markets. They will have excellent food at the bars and restaurants serving the stall holders. Counter service is not as widespread as in the US, but you can find fast and friendly service at sit-down restaurants too. If you are in a hurry, tell the server when you arrive, and they will accommodate your needs. Most people know a little English, but make sure to have a translation app.

In Northern Scandinavia, the food costs are high. Least in Sweden, perhaps. But there are government incentives to provide fair lunch prices, so this is when you eat out. And then you picnic at night, if you are looking to save money.

Generally in Europe, one eats at certain hours. It varies from country to country which specific hours they are, but if you want to eat outside them, the big international chains are the only option. Seriously, people will just say no. Also, in many EU countries, breakfast is not a big thing. You can always get brunch at a fancy café or hotel, at a price, but if you want to live a frugal life, this is something to prepare for.
On the other hand, many charcuteries and groceries and even gas-stops will make you a cheap fresh sandwich if you ask for one, at any hour.
posted by mumimor at 1:59 PM on March 1, 2021 [2 favorites]

I often go back to Jane and Michael Stern's expertise via their website Road Food. It isn't necessarily counter-focused (there are plenty of diners and sit-down places represented) but conceptually it covers a chunk of what you're looking for.
posted by bcwinters at 2:19 PM on March 1, 2021 [1 favorite]

Yes to google maps reviews/ photos, clicking around neighbourhoods. Not very efficient. I use the "Save/ Want to Visit" function a lot.

I've made ask.mefi questions when visiting other cities.

City-specific subreddits are all over the board in terms of friendliness and quality, but posting questions (specify specific neighbourhoods! or major intersections) are sometimes informative.
posted by porpoise at 2:25 PM on March 1, 2021

oh you like to travel to eat, do you? Culinary Backstreets is the place for you - the only thing better than the articles and photos of deliciousness and the people responsible are their food tours which weve been in in several cities (still bitter we didnt get to see Tokyo with them but it was scheduled for March 2020)
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 2:45 PM on March 1, 2021 [3 favorites]

In the UK, you probably want independent sandwich shops for lunches (generally made to order) with good Yelp reviews. It's the equivalent of a hot dog stand or similar. Otherwise independent cafes also fill this niche (specifically cafes, not coffee shops). Every town of any size has at least one good Indian restaurant, usually inexpensive. TripAdvisor is the place to get reviews. Local chains fill some of the same niches as similar places as in the States, ones that I would recommend offhand include Leon, Wagamamas and Yo Sushi. If you want to experience the same lunch the middle-class British office worker, would have go to a branch of the ubiquitous Pret a Manger.
posted by plonkee at 2:54 PM on March 1, 2021

Seconding lunasol’s recommendation of Eater. For larger cities they will have maps/lists of great places for cheap eats. I can vouch for their Seattle Iist (especilly Frelard Tamales and Kedai Makan) and I’ve had good luck with their maps in other cities as well.

Eater also has guides for many airports. Some are great, and even the so so ones are better than nothing when you’re looking for something halfway decent while traveling.
posted by lumpy at 5:34 PM on March 1, 2021

Came to say Road Food, so I'll second it. On our cross-country trips decades ago, their paperback was our bible. We were looking for exactly what you're looking for. So I think their website will have exactly the vibe you want.
posted by escabeche at 6:03 PM on March 1, 2021

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