By Pauline Frommer
June 4, 2005
At ethnic eateries in business for as many as 100 years, residents of the Windy City can pack away giant portions of politically incorrect food at tabs of less than $12 for two courses and a drink

Carl Sandburg was wrong. Chicago is less the City of Big Shoulders than the City of Big Appetites. In our search for "Little Wonder Restaurants" charging less than $12 for a full-scale meal, we've encountered larger servings in Chicago - more copious sauces and sides, bigger mountains of meat, higher stacks of rolls and loaves - than in any other U.S. city we've surveyed. In Chicago, eating cheap doesn't mean eating lean or meagerly. It means tucking in to vast platters that crash through calorie limits and leave you near-catatonic at the end of the second course. Here are nine enthusiastic recommendations, of which five are old standbys that have fed frugal Chicagoans for at least two generations.

The Berghoff 17 West Adams St., 312/427-3170. From just $10.95 for a taste of history (and some of the best German food in the Midwest)

Where else could we begin this eating tour but at The Berghoff, in the heart of the Loop and a Chicago institution since 1898? An oversize beer hall, it survived prohibition (and nabbed the very first liquor license when the ban was lifted), and has wursted and knocked the masses with elan ever since. While dinner will take you a buck or two over our usual limit, lunch is still a budget treat, easily coming in at under a dozen dollars. To get the full experience, stick with the classic Teutonic dishes on the menu: savory sauerbraten ($9.50 lunch/$10.95 dinner); the famous Wiener schnitzel, as long as your forearm and served with the equally famous electric-green creamed spinach ($10.25/$11.95); Rahm schnitzel, a breaded pork cutlet ($9.50/ $10.95); or any of the sausage dishes. A starter soup is just $2 per cup, or try the classic Caesar salad ($3.50). Whatever you consume (and many "hop" by just for a stein of the house brew), having a meal in this turn-of-the-century gem with its stained-glass windows, dark wood paneling, original brass chandeliers, and stand-up bar is an experience in itself. Closed Sundays.

The Parthenon 314 South Halsted St., 312/726-2407. A Greektown delight with soup and entree for as little as $6.65

At a good Greek restaurant, a meal is never just a meal. It's a celebration with jaunty music in the background and waiters bellowing "Opa!" as the plates of flaming cheese sail by. The owners of this Greektown culinary institution are not only throwing one of the best nightly parties in town, they claim to have invented (back in 1968) the "flaming saganaki" presentation that's become a dramatic standard in Greek eateries across the nation. Whether or not that's true, the waiters pull it off with aplomb, lighting the platters with a flourish and bearing the plate-size infernos like Olympic torches across the crowded dining rooms.

But who cares about pyrotechnics? It's the food that counts, and The Parthenon delivers-and then some. Here I've enjoyed some of the tastiest Greek food in my not-so-young life. The best of bechamels, topping every helping of those wonderful Mediterranean casseroles, moussaka ($5.75 small portion, $8.50 monster-size), and pastitsio ($5.25/$8.25). Moist and flavorful lamb ($11.25), which you'll see roasting on a spit as you enter. Flaky spinach and cheese pies ($4.50), exquisitely tart egg-lemon soup ($1.75 cup), and exceedingly tender octopus in white wine sauce ($6.75).

The eggplant dishes require special praise. The Parthenon's chefs have tamed the tricky aubergine, turning what can be a tough and seedy vegetable into the most melting of treats. Try the eggplant spread ($3.75), the baked stuffed eggplant ($8.50), or the melitzanopita ($8.50), which is cheese and eggplant encased in phyllo. All are delish.

While The Parthenon is not the most up-to-date of the restaurants in the area (most now look like the Greek Isles as imagined by a Pottery Barn exec), it's a colorful, oversize place with fun, hokey murals (blue seas, men in togas) and the kind of old-fashioned hospitality that can't be faked. Open daily. It's a bit out of the way, unfortunately, so drive or cab it.

Andalous 3307 North Clark St., 773/281-6885. Marvelous Moroccan meals at a bit over $10

Some restaurants strive to be exotic, others simply are. Andalous falls into the latter category, seemingly plucked off a St. in Marrakesh and plopped down one long pitch from Wrigley Field. There are few accommodations to American tastes here. The lamb is adamantly bone-in, and it's a big bone at that. The couscous is laden with ungainly slabs of vegetables. The owner's one-year-old periodically scoots through the spare dining room on a little play car, followed by her smiling, kerchiefed mother. But are we complaining? Of course not. This restaurant is a delight, with food that's unfailingly pleasing. Try the lemony harira ($2.25) or the thick, garlicky lentil soup ($2.25) to begin. Then make your choice from the many kebabs, couscous, bastillas, and tagines. We particularly like the lamb tagine ($9.99) with prunes and the chicken tagine doused in lemon confi (pickled rind), for $9.50. If you have room left, spring for any of the nutty, honeyed pastries, just $1.25 each. Lunches and dinners all week; take the El to Belmont.

Foodlife 835 North Michigan Ave., 312/335-3663. Right in the heart of the Magnificent Mile, an abundance of options for as little as $8.15 for two courses

We don't normally recommend food-court dining, but a phenomenon called Foodlife is so imaginatively executed, so well located, and most importantly, so well priced, that I'd be remiss not to mention it. Mimicking a charming town square, down to the cobblestone floors and arbors strung with fake grapevines, the ambience is much gentler than that of your local mall. A host greets you at the gate and then seats you at a table after first giving you an "eat the world" credit card that allows you to go from kiosk to kiosk, charging your food (you pay as you exit). Then you get up and wander through this "global village," choosing barbecue chicken ($6.95) from the "Kickin' Chicken and BBQ" area, or the jambalaya ($5.95) at "Creole King," a bottomless bowl of Italian wedding soup ($5.50, or $2.20 for a cup) at "Souplife," a brownie sundae ($3.25) from "Sweetlife." We could go on. While we can't pretend to have tried everything available (that would up us a dress size), the grub we grabbed was all quite tasty, high-quality stuff. Open seven days.

Heaven on Seven 3478 North Clark St., 773/477-7818; 111 North Wabash Ave., 7th floor, 312/263-6443; and 600 North Michigan Ave., 312/280-7774

Almost as fun as baring your breasts on Bourbon St., this New Orleans-style eatery is cheap: from $7.95 for soup or salad and entree. It's Mardi Gras every day at Heaven on Seven, which celebrates the New Orleans version of that holiday in all its tacky glory. The restaurant is festooned with carnival beads (the drinks are too!), there are masks everywhere, and a museum-worthy collection of hot sauces graces one wall as you enter. Tables are loaded up as well - we counted a full 25 hot sauces at our four-top.

But don't overdo it with the sauces, since much of the food already packs a fiery punch, as it should. This is real, down-home Cajun cooking, bravely spiced and as flavorful as anything you'd find in the bayou. All the standards plus a few unusual picks are here: jambalaya ($9.95), red beans and rice with andouille sausage ($8.95), a creamy cheese grits and shrimp platter ($10.95), southern-fried chicken ($9.95). All entrees come with your choice of soup, gumbo, or salad. By the way, this is a great place to take kids. They'll love the decor and music, and there's a special children's menu ($4.95) for blander palates. Open daily (Wabash location closed Sundays).

Hi Ricky 941 West Randolph St., 312/491-9100; 1852 West North Ave., 773/276-8300; and 3730 North Southport Ave., 773/388-0000. Noodles and starters from just $9.90

Somehow the humble noodle has become a vehicle for high-concept cooking, as sleek au courant eateries have popped up in cities across the country. One of the smartest is the cheerfully named Hi Ricky, which mixes things up a tad by introducing a slew of fab satays into the mix. These meats-on-a-stick are a great way to start your meal and affordable, too, at just $3.95 to $6.25 per trio of skewers (there's shrimp and tofu, too). If you're not a big carnivore, the salad ($2.95) is a distinct treat, garnished with crispy noodles and dressed in a succulent sesame vinaigrette. Then move on to the pasta, which ranges from fiery, cabbage-laden Indonesian bakmi goreng ($7.45) to curried thin Singapore noodles ($7.45) to the pad Thai classic ($6.95).

You do your noodle-slurping in some stylin' settings, by the by. Hi Ricky has that "industrial with just the right splashes of color" look down. There are terrific photos of Asia on the walls (in corrugated tin frames, of course), and the background music is tres alternative. Open daily.

Pizzeria Uno 29 East Ohio St., at the corner of Wabash Ave., 312/321-1000. Soup or salad and the thickest pizza ever, from $6.98.

he pizza joint that inspired the chain. If only its namesakes in other burgs were as good! Forget about fast food! "The pizzas we make are all done from scratch, so they take about an hour to cook," the host at the door explains to somewhat stunned patrons. "I'd suggest you order now." And with that he hands you the menu, and you choose your toppings, as quickly as you can. Then you take a seat, ordering the simple but fresh salad ($2.95), zippy wings ($4.99), or the thick minestrone called Florence's soup ($2.69) in honor of the founder's wife. And you wait. And wait. And wait.

Is it worth it? Assolutamente. More "pie" than "pizza," the densely layered concoction that arrives at your table is certainly more interesting texturally than your average thin pizza. The massive crust is crispy on the edges, soft and doughy towards the center. It's topped with just the right amount of sauce and an extra-gooey layer of cheese. If you order meat, it's nicely peppery. If your choice is vegetables, they arrive still crisp atop the pie. But don't over-order. Remember, these pizzas have girth - a medium can easily feed a family of four.

And that's just what founder Ike Sewell planned when he created the "bigger is always better," Americanized version of the Italian classic in 1943. Yes, this is where Chicago-style pizza was invented, so eating in this old-fashioned joint, with its pressed-tin ceiling and down-at-the-heel charm, is as much a pilgrimage as a meal. Open seven days a week, an easy walk from Michigan Ave..

La Creperie, 2845 North Clark St., 773/528-9050. Fattening French food (ah, don't we love it?!), two million calories, and a swell time for a mere $9.50. La Creperie inspires a fierce loyalty among Chicagoans. As I recently stood outside, scribbling notes about the look and menu, three passers-by stopped to encourage me to go in. "The best crepes in the city," one told me, and I had to wonder how much competition there was. No matter, this remains one of the top buys, an oh-so-Parisian little joint, redolent of frying butter and decorated with colorful, if faded, travel posters.

You might think of crepes as a light in-between-meals snack. Not here. These are crepes to tickle a trucker, dinner-plate-size and plumped with heavy if savory fillings: coq au vin ($7.25), boeuf bourguignon ($7.25), spinach creme ($6.50), ham or cheese ($5.50), egg ($5.50), broccoli with cheese ($6.50). You can start with soup ($2.25) or salad ($4.25), or finish with a dessert crepe (from $3.50), but we doubt you'll be able to do all three. Portions are midwestern (read: big) and addictive - you won't put your fork down until the plate is clean. Closed Mondays.

Ann Sather, 929 West Belmont Ave., 773/348-2378. As little as $9.95 for a Swedish feast

'Tis a gift to be simple, according to the old Shaker hymn, and our final pick has that gift in spades, serving food that is proudly simple but far from plain. A Second City fave since 1945, this was once one of many Scandinavian restaurants on Belmont. As demographics shifted, so did tastes, and Ann Sather is the last buffalo, overlooking an urban meadow of funky shoe stores, tiny theaters, and crowds making the trek to nearby Wrigley Field. It still has a sedate Scandinavian look with "Rosemaling" murals on the walls (those swoopy, whimsical paintings you see across Sweden and Norway), a dignified portrait of founder Sather above the fireplace, and upgraded diner banquettes throughout the two large rooms.

While the restaurant serves a wide range of American fare, we'd suggest you stick to the Scandinavian specials, all of which come with a starter and two side dishes. We like the Swedish fruit soup, although it is an acquired taste, a peachy concoction filled with massive chunks of mystery fruit (the composition changes daily, but expect prunes, apricots, figs, dates, or kumquats); also good is the pickled herring. For the meat of the meal, choose...well, meat. The Swedish meatballs ($9.95) are a treat, lighter than you've ever tasted and subtly nutmeg-scented. Roast duck with lingonberry glaze ($10.50) is another champ, as is the surprisingly delicate potato sausage ($10.50). Open seven days; take the El to Belmont.

Plan Your Next Getaway
Keep reading


English-speaking and just a tad larger than New Jersey, lush Belize looks like a Caribbean island accidentally washed ashore on the Central American mainland. Its pace is molasses--slow, its populace smiling and easygoing--and its politics not perfect but relatively open and stable. With reggae rhythms, coconut palm-lined beaches, and breathtaking scuba diving (on the world's second-largest barrier reef), it's easy to mistake it for any of the more famous tradewind-kissed island "paradises" out to sea further east. But there's a key difference: Belize has none of the megaresorts, casinos, and sprawling development that have ruined so much of the Caribbean, looking instead to low-key cultural tours and ecotourism. The lack of large, glitzy resorts and hotel chains means an abundance of inexpensive, laid-back mom-and-pop guesthouses, and the low per capita income means an abundance of affordable restaurants and other services. The Belizean dollar is stable and pegged at 50: to the U.S. greenback (no need even to waste commission fees on changing money; almost any tourist establishment will take U.S. dollars and give you change in Belizean dollars at a rate of two to one). For the budget-minded looking for a relatively close and multifaceted tropical vacation with Maya culture to boot, friendly Belize is one of the cheapest places on earth. Why multifaceted? Because there's plenty of life beyond the reef and beaches: Belize's interior is a 65-percent uninhabited wonderland of deep jungle rain forest, exotic native species, and myriad Maya temples. The country's populace is an English-speaking rainbow mix of Creole, Garifuna, Mestizo, Spanish, Maya, and even German Mennonite, in a sea of Spanish-speaking neighbors like Honduras and Guatemala (a mere two decades ago, Belize was British Honduras, one of the last British colonies in the Western Hemisphere). Most visitors opt for "surf-and-turf": a few days of inland adventure (usually in the lush Cayo district), then some R&R on one of the offshore islets called "cayes" (pronounced "keys"). Belize City is mostly for passing through, having little of interest - not to mention a somewhat dicey reputation. Belize was hit by Hurricane Iris in October of 2001, devastating the once popular backpacker beach village of Placencia on the country's southeastern shore. Luckily, the remainder of Belize's verdant and wild beauty was left for the most part unscathed. Your basic costs The most popular way of getting around - for tourists and locals alike - is "puddle jumping" on small aircraft, since Belize is home to only four paved roads (and just four traffic lights, which in any case are usually out of order or simply ignored) and boat rides can be wet and bumpy. Most flights use Belize City as their hub; Tropic Air (26-2012, and Mayan Island Air (23-1140, both operate short flights throughout the country. Round-trip airfare from Belize City to the cayes, for example, costs you $52. Most accommodations in Belize are on the simple side, with ceiling fans and no TVs, but their prices are nothing short of astounding. All offer much cheaper rates in low season (roughly Easter through Thanksgiving - which includes the autumn rain-and-hurricane season). You can try your hand at bargaining hoteliers down below their asking rates in low season, but winter usually means everything is booked up, so planning ahead is crucial. One very special accommodation option is the Maya Homestay Network (72-2470) in the southern Toledo district, where you can stay with a Maya family and learn local cooking and traditions for as little as $5 per person per night (plus a $5 registration fee) and meals for $2 each. The Cayo district: the jungle interior Ultrabudget travelers or those just passing through stay in town - otherwise, most tourists opt for the more comfortable jungle lodges around the area. If you're in San Ignacio, try the cheekily named Hi-Et (12 West St., 92-2828), in an old-fashioned plantation-style building with wraparound porches. Five basic but bright rooms with double beds, shared baths, and fans are located directly above the friendly host family's living room and cost a mere $12.50 per person for a double. Within a short drive of San Ignacio, rain forest lodges are made up of quiet, stand-alone cabins with two double beds and private bath, as well as inexpensive restaurants on the premises. My favorite is the Black Rock River Lodge (92-2341,, ten miles outside San Ignacio and perched on an ancient Maya site within its own steep, dramatic valley of limestone cliffs visible above a rain forest river below the property. Spacious cabanas with shared baths are $25 per person per night, and for $8, John, the friendly manager, will whip you up an American breakfast with unlimited coffee and juice. A little closer to town is Clarissa Falls Cottages (92-3916). Its simple but comfortable thatched-roof bungalows sit aside the Mopan River, where you can swim and play in inner tubes. Your own private bungalow with bath is $20 per person ($32.50 in winter's high season), and the vivacious host, Chena Galvez, serves a hot and filling breakfast including fruits and local "fried jack" biscuits for only $4.50. For in-town chow, the best-known travelers' tavern in San Ignacio is Eva's Restaurant & Bar (22 Burns Ave., 92-2267), where local characters enjoy the chairs on the sidewalk and a wall of notices announces shared rides and cheap excursions. The food's so-so (entrees from $5) and the service iffy, but the atmosphere's a gem. Another budget traveler favorite is Martha's Kitchen (10 West St., 92-3647), serving up T-bone steaks with veggies and fries for $7.50 and stewed beef or pork with fried plantains for $3.50. Three thousand years ago, Belize was a thriving home to more than one million Maya, and Cayo is where you'll find a good selection of ruins from their great civilization. Two fascinating and popular sites are Cahal Pech and Xunantunich ($2.50 entrance fee each). Cahal Pech was once a royal residence and is perched on a hill right above San Ignacio, while Xunantunich is the country's most visited Maya site, eight miles west of town and accessible via a hand-cranked ferry across a small river, then a milelong road to the site. The panoramic views from the top will make your head spin. San Ignacio is also used as a base to visit the impressive Tikal ruins in neighboring Guatemala, about a two-hour drive away; Clarissa Falls Cottages (92-3916) offers a full-day trip from San Ignacio for $50 per person (minimum two), including lunch. The area's other great draws include eco-adventures like rain forest horseback riding (typically $40 for a day) and exploring Maya caves filled with ancient pottery ($25 for a three-hour tour). Most of these excursions have standard prices and can be arranged through lodges, except for the extraordinary full-day adventure innertubing through river caves offered by the terrific, deep-jungle Jaguar Paw Resort (888/775-8645, for $70, including lunch. On the way back from Cayo along the Western Highway to Belize City (between Milepost 29 and 30), stop by the fun Belize Zoo (81-3004). Hilariously clever placards explain the land's unique fauna, and this may be your only chance to see disappearing wildlife like the black howler monkey (with a cry as loud as an elephant's), tapirs, ocelots, crocodiles, scarlet macaws, and rare black jaguars. And it's all for a cool $7.50 for adults, $3.75 for kids. The offshore isles: first, Ambergris Caye Right on the water, the three-story Rubie's Hotel (26-2063, fax 26-2434), at the south end of Barrier Reef Drive, has been a budget anchor of Ambergris for 20 years, offering 24 basic but pleasant double rooms with private baths and fans for $12.50 per person ($15 in high season), including three with shared bath for $7.50 ($10 in high season). A short walk south of "downtown" San Pedro is the Exotic Caye Beach Resort (800/201-9389, with a pool and bar, plus four small hotel doubles for $25 ($35 in winter) as well as large condos featuring balconies, lofts, separate bedrooms, air-conditioning, and full kitchens that rent for $60 per person ($87.50 in winter). Munching out in Ambergris can cost mere pennies: Celi's Deli (26-2014) just next to the San Pedro Holiday Hotel on Barrier Reef Drive, has an amazingly inexpensive menu of take-out food like 58: chicken tacos, 50: beef meat pies, and $1.15 slabs of rum cake; you're welcome to eat them on the hotel's oceanside back terrace. A popular town eatery called Elvi's Kitchen (26-2176) features wooden benches, a smiling waitstaff dressed in bow ties, and a thatched roof built around a tree. Rice, beans, and a quarter of a stewed chicken go for $6.90, while a huge plate of "Maya chicken" (served in banana leaves with fried plantains) is $10. Ambergris Caye is ringed by sandy beaches with so-so swimming (due to lots of sea grass), but the snorkeling and diving on the nearby reefs is extraordinary - with prices that are rock-bottom compared to most you'll find in the Caribbean. For instance, SEArious Adventures (26-2690) zooms you out to both the Hol Chan Marine Reserve and Shark Ray Alley (where you can touch wild stingrays and toothless nurse sharks) for a half-day trip of snorkeling for a mere $20, while various full-day dive trips start at $40 - all including equipment and gear. And then there's Caye Caulker Built on a walkable grid of spacious dirt roads, most of Caye Caulker town lies just south of "the Split," a hurricane-carved channel. Adjoining the Split is a small sandy area where folks enjoy lounging in the bathtub-warm water. Caye Caulker's caught on with the young crowd, but you don't need to stay in a crowded hostel or sleep in a hammock (although the latter can be had for a laughable $5 a night if you ask around). Trends Beachfront Hotel (22-2094, fax 22-2097, is a baby blue and pink two-story hotel with eight comfortable rooms, all with both a double and a queen-size bed, fridge, ceiling fans, and large private baths. Double rates are $20 per person in summer, $30 in winter. Sandy Lane Guesthouse (22-2117) has individual cabanas with private bath, kitchenettes, and funky decor, sleeping three for an amazing $20; shared bungalows go for $7.50 per person. The very pleasant Lazy Iguana Bed and Breakfast (22-2350, presents four tidy rooms in a four-story building in the southern part of the village, including 360-degree views from the roof deck and hammocks, as well as hearty breakfasts cooked by friendly Texan hosts Mo and Irene Miller. Rates are $37.50 per person in summer, $42.50 in winter. Cheap eateries abound in Caye Caulker, but Syd's and Glenda's, both located in the inland part of the village, are where the islanders flock for cheap eats. Syd's is a white, rather spartan-looking affair, but dishes up yummy plates of three garnachas (mini-tostadas) for 50: or lobster burritos for $2 each. Glenda's is in a blue island-style home, with kitschy touches like a hanging beach towel depicting Leonardo's Last Supper. Here, chicken, rice, and beans (the local mainstay) are $3, and locally famous cinnamon rolls, 25: each. Belizey does it In some cases you may save money by opting for independent packages (airfare, transfers, and hotel, but no organized touring). America's top budget-friendly Belize specialist is Capricorn Leisure (800/426-6544,, which offers three nights in Cayo and four nights on Caye Caulker this winter with a three-day car rental and round-trip air from Miami for $708. Tara Tours (800/327-0080,, meanwhile, is selling a $658 five-night package at the Spindrift Hotel in Ambergris Caye, including round-trip airfare from Miami. Marnella Tours (866/993-0033, has great three-night dive packages (with five dives, while staying at a beach resort) for around $700. A somewhat cheaper but more grueling alternative: Take a charter flight to Cancon, Mexico, from a selection of U.S. cities for about $300 with Apple Vacations (available only through travel agents; and $400 with Sun Trips (800/357-2400,, then undertake a ten-hour, two-bus road odyssey from Cancon. ADO GL buses (800/702-8000, leave daily from Cancon to Chetumel, Mexico (five to six hours) for $20, with video movies to distract you from the lack of scenery. From Chetumel, you switch to a Novelo's bus (27-7372) at Nuevo Mercado for the four-hour drive to Belize City for $10; the last bus leaves at 5 p.m., so be sure to time it right and secure a safe hotel in Belize City for the night. Get more tourism info at 800/624-0686 or at,,,,,, and

How to Eat in London and Gain Pounds

Quick: Name Britain's favorite dish. Fish- and-chips? Toad-in-the-hole? Shepherd's pie? The correct answer is...chicken tikka masala, which most people think of as Indian but (legend has it) was created in Britain by Indian cooks, who adapted a traditional recipe to please the British by adding a tomato cream sauce. Most travelers to London have noticed that the one sure way to eat cheaply is to go for Indian food. Or it was-commercial property prices have increased dramatically, British pop culture has been in the throes of Indian influences to a degree not seen since the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper's (when things get trendy, prices go up), and the dollar is worth less. Cheap curries haven't disappeared altogether, but it takes more digging to find them. The best buys are likely to be at lunch rather than dinner, for vegetarian meals rather than meat ones. Look for places advertising lunch specials, and study the menus, which by law should be posted outdoors by the entrance. Die-hards will want to head for Brick Lane (aka Banglatown) and the ethnic enclaves around the Great Portland Street Tube stop for the top values in South Asian cuisine. ("Indian food" is used in Britain as a catchall term encompassing Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi dishes.) Meanwhile, when you're in Central London, you can get a two-course meal for about $10 at the following 10 restaurants. (When calling London from North America, first dial 011-44 and drop the first zero.) Soho Tiffinbites 88 Wardour St., 020/7287-6155, Opened last February by two former buyers for Marks & Spencer's underwear department, Tiffinbites feels like an Indian version of Pret A Manger. Their "tiffin boxes" are based on traditional Indian packed lunches and include three dishes: a main (lamb rogan josh, chicken tikka masala), a vegetable, and rice ($7.40 to $9.30). An assortment of appetizers, such as samosas (pastry triangles stuffed with meat or vegetables), go for $2.40 to $4.40. And here's a sweet deal: Between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., you can sample the latest recipes in return for your written feedback. Tiffinbites also has two branches in the City (122 Cannon St. and 24 Moorfields; closed weekends). Soho Spice 124-126 Wardour St., 020/7434-0808, At two courses for $9.60, the set menu at Soho Spice-daily from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.-is one of Central London's best buys. Choose one of two appetizers (one vegetarian) and a main (vegetable, lamb, or chicken). All mains are served with rice, nan bread, dal (spiced lentils), and a vegetable. The setting is ^ la Ikea, rendered in exotic colors, and there is a downstairs bar open on the weekends where you can order veggie samosas, seekh kebab (minced lamb on a skewer), and crisp spinach-and-onion bhaji (similar to fritters) for $4 each. After 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, the bar turns into a nightclub. Govinda's 9-10 Soho St., 020/7437-4928; closed Sundays. At this "pure vegetarian restaurant" run by the Hare Krishna organization next door, the dinner buffet ($6.40; 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.) is cheaper than the lunch one ($8; noon to 7 p.m.). Either way, you get a lot for your money: steamed veggies, a mixed vegetable dish that changes daily, brown or white rice, dal, beans, salad, a roll, and a pappadum (a cracker-like bread made with lentil flour). E la carte items are also reasonably priced, from $1.45 to $7.20, but they tend to be Western dishes such as pizza, quiche, and lasagna. The setting is akin to a local cafZ, with spiritual artwork and Hare Krishna literature on the tables-happily, there's no active proselytizing. Covent Garden Mela 152-156 Shaftesbury Ave., 020/7836-8635, This usually expensive restaurant has a set lunch menu from noon to 3 p.m. Dishes range from sandwiches to two-course meals served with rice ($4.70 to $7.90). Mela also offers a three-course pre-theater menu ($17.50; 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.). From the contemporary pinewood-furnished dining room you can see the cooks busy at work through the kitchen's glass windows. Iky's Cafe Unit 4-5, Jubilee Market, Covent Garden Piazza, 1a Tavistock St., 020/7836-9279. If only there were more places like Iky's in the overpriced Covent Garden shopping area. It's part of a mall-style food court, where you order at the counter, pay, and carry your own meal to a table. The menu is split between traditional Indian dishes and Anglo-American fast food (skip it). Appetizers start at $1.30 for a meat or vegetable samosa and go to $4 for a large order of barbecued tandoori chicken; curry entrZes range from $3.20 to $6.30. The best buys are the set lunch deals, which also include a drink, bread, and a salad or vegetable for $4.80 to $7.20. Earl's Court Star Kebab House 178 Earl's Court Rd., 020/7370-4051. This carryout bills itself as a kebab house (kebabs are $4 to $7.20, if you're interested), but it also serves a variety of Indian meals. All food here is halal-prepared according to Muslim dietary law. Curry dishes with rice range from $5.20 for lentils to $8.80 for meat and chicken, but the snacks are a better value (from $1.15 for a samosa to $4.80 for chicken tikka). In the backpacker's haven that is Earl's Court, Star Kebab closes at 3 a.m. Sunday to Wednesday, 4 a.m. Thursday, and 5 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Eat at the counter if it's raining; otherwise get your food to go. Masala 4 Hogarth Rd., 020/7370-4483. Masala hews to more traditional dishes cooked according to halal standards, such as chicken tikka masala for $7.85 and mattar paneer (curried peas with homemade cheese) for $5.75, and starters like aloo tikki (potato cakes) for $2.40 and nan bread for $1.45. The room is small and unpretentious; you choose from a deli-counter display and the server brings the food to your table. Prices are higher than at Star Kebab House, but the atmosphere is more soothing. Bayswater/Marylebone Salwa Restaurant 4 Crawford Pl., 020/7262-3356. It's more of a halal deli than a proper restaurant, but the surroundings on the ground floor are clean and decent (alas, the seating area, with only a few tables, is a bit cramped). There are more places to sit upstairs, but you have to brave a dingy, narrow staircase in the back. Not recommended for a full sit-down meal, Salwa will do for a quick nosh. The curry dishes start at about $9.60, or you can load up on a variety of samosas at $1.50 a pop. YMCA Indian Student Hostel 41 Fitzroy Sq., 020/7387-0411, This hostel for expat students was founded in 1920 as a London satellite of the YMCA of India. The dining hall offers cafeteria-style Indian food to residents and visitors alike. On weekdays, lunch is served ^ la carte, with dishes costing less than $4. Dinners daily and weekend lunches are a buffet. Included in the $7.20 price is a curry, rice, and chapati (unleavened whole-wheat bread). Pay at the front desk, then bring your receipt to the dining hall and line up, tray in hand, for whatever the cook dishes out. Lunch, popular with non-Indian students from the nearby universities, is served from noon to 2 p.m. (12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. on weekends); an Indian crowd predominates at the dinner service, daily from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. South Kensington Majli's 32 Gloucester Rd., 020/7584-3476. Cheap Indian restaurants are almost nonexistent in this neighborhood of "bright young things." That said, Majli's has a two-course set-lunch menu ($11.15), and you can pull off a bargain at dinner if you choose carefully from the vegetarian options. Appetizers cost $4 to $4.80, and they can be combined with nan bread ($2.40 to $2.80), raita (spiced yogurt with cucumber or other vegetables, $4), or one of the veggie side dishes ($5.60). The restaurant is small but comfortable; on nice days there may be an outdoor table or two on the street.

Banff to Jasper

Travelers of the Victorian age called the hundreds of snowcapped peaks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains "50 Switzerlands in One," and they couldn't have been more accurate. The Tetons are molehills next to the Canadian Rockies, with hundreds of peaks over 6,000 feet tall. They harbor the Banff, Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper national parks. The awesome phenomenon now attracts more than four million annual visitors, making the area's centerpiece, Banff, and the surrounding region the most popular tourist attraction in Canada. Once there, you'll find pure lakes made electric blue by glacial runoff "rock flour"; an array of wildlife such as elks, cougars, and grizzlies; and dreamlike mountain landscapes taken straight out of a Maxfield Parrish painting. This is truly one of the last huge, untarnished wildernesses, and thanks to the excellent exchange rate and low winter prices, it's all yours for a song. You start in Calgary The first place most visitors to the Canadian Rockies see is the city of Calgary, Alberta (population: nearly one million), just about an hour's drive from Banff. It's an oil-boom location, buttoned-down and conservative, but with lovely, lush river parks meandering through its corporate heart. Its most famous attraction is the enormous annual Stampede festival ( in summer, with rodeos, concerts, and lots of parties. Cheap flights to Calgary can be had from Air Canada's Jazz Airlines (888/247-2262,, a low-cost carrier flying from many American cities (even as far south as Atlanta and Dallas), while Jetsgo (866/448-5888, offers cheap flights from New York/Newark, and Horizon Air (800/252-7522, has well-priced service from the West Coast. It's worth a day or two to poke around Calgary's clean streets and chic bars and restaurants, where prices are quite reasonable throughout the year. A must-stop, even if you're just passing through, is the Glenbow Museum (130 9th Ave. SE, 403/268-4100,; admission CAD$11/US$7.85), the largest in western Canada and housing thousands of impressive artifacts from Canada's "First Nation" native peoples. Also have a look at the impressive Olympic Park (88 Canada Olympic Rd. SW, 403/247-5452,, where the '88 winter games were held and top athletes still train. Self-guided tours are CAD$10/US$7.15. Duck in for an authentic Irish meal for under CAD$14/US$10 at the James Joyce Irish Pub (403/262-0708) on the pleasant pedestrian-only Stephen Avenue Walk in downtown, lined with cafZs and bookstores. Find budget digs at "Motel Village," near the intersection of Crowchild Trail and Highway 1, where the rates of Econo Lodge (800/553-2666), hovering around CAD$70/US$50 a room, are typical of any number of other privately owned, low-cost motels in the immediate area. Then hop on to the famously scenic Trans-Canada Highway ( for the roughly one-hour ride to Banff, passing otherworldly mountains and jagged peaks. Grizzly towns and buffalo nations Banff's main street is dwarfed by towering mountains on all sides. A town before the national park around it was formed, wildlife still dominates here-one year a grizzly bear strolled through downtown! Although you'll want to rush out into the wilderness, don't leave town without stopping by two important museums. The Whyte Museum (111 Bear St., 403/762-2291,; admission CAD$6/US$4.30) has outstanding paintings and historical displays on early exploration and tourism. The Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum (403/762-2388,; admission CAD$8/US$5.70) is housed in a log fort along the Bow River and presents collections of stuffed wildlife, life-size dioramas of Native American culture, and awesome quillwork and beadwork. Most of Banff's cheaper lodgings can be found just at the entrance to town, strung along Banff Avenue. The very least expensive is the 100-plus-bed Global Village Backpackers (449 Banff Ave., 888/844-7875,, a "five-star hostel" that attracts a young, social crowd and includes an Internet lounge, game room, hot tub, and outdoor patio; its beds start at a mere CAD$23/US$16, and self-contained private apartments go for CAD$89/US$64. A more standard motel close by, the Red Carpet Inn (425 Banff Ave., 800/563-4609) offers doubles starting at CAD$75/US$54 and operates two restaurants, underground parking, and whirlpools. But even at a higher price, Brewster's Mountain Lodge (208 Caribou St., 888/762-2900, is arguably the best value in town (around CAD$100/US$85), with its large rooms featuring pine furniture, and granite and tile bathrooms. And check out the Timberline Inn (off Hwy. 1 at Banff, 877/762-2281, on a scenic perch above the town, with panoramic views of the surrounding Bow Valley. Doubles start at CAD$88/US$63, and even if you don't stay there, have a meal at its panoramic Big Horn Steak House, where New York striploin steaks are just CAD$20/US$14, and most meals cost less than CAD$14/US$10. The non-budget hotels are led by the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (403/762-2211,, called "the castle" by locals. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1888 to attract rich travelers, it's a stunning piece of architecture framed by a green carpet of forests. You can wander about and poke through the rock-wall lobby and grounds free of charge. Nearby are the Banff Upper Hot Springs (403/762-1515,, where visitors can soak outdoors amid the scenery for just CAD$7.50/US$5.35. Diamond in the rough outdoors Banff Springs Hotel's sister, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (403/522-3511,, is another must-see. About a half-hour drive north of Banff, it's called the Diamond in the Wilderness and sits on the edge of the peacock-blue-colored lake, gazing up at the dramatic cliffs. Eating at the swanky hotel's bar under huge windows is a real treat and not too expensive-just CAD$13/US$9.30 for the chicken Caesar salad or CAD$11/US$7.85 for the tempura prawn satay. Afterward, rent a canoe and paddle on the lake for CAD$32/US$23. Or take the (free) three-hour round-trip hike from the hotel to Lake Agnes, a pristine alpine pond with stunning views and an old-fashioned log teahouse where you can munch on sandwiches (CAD$6/US$4.30) and sip tea (CAD$3/US$2.15) outside on the terrace. Banff was regarded as a summer-only destination for years (the Banff Springs Hotel only opened year-round in 1969), but now with the nearby Ski Banff at Norquay, Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise ski resorts (877/754-7080,, the area is busy in winter, too. Considerable renovations have taken place at each (Sunshine Village now has the fastest eight-person gondola in the world), and a three-day lift pass good for all three resorts is only CAD$186/US$132. The above Web site offers cheap packages as well. The road to Jasper A great many tourists turn around and head back to Calgary after Banff and Lake Louise, but this is a mistake. Banff is just the tip of the iceberg; the less-visited Jasper National Park to the north is arguably even more of an attraction than Banff National Park, with miles of hiking, tons of fishing, cross-country skiing, and other outdoor pursuits. The magnificent three-hour drive along the Columbia Icefield Parkway ( to Jasper takes you through the highest section of the Canadian Rockies. Be sure to stop to gaze at the ultra-green Peyto Lake and Bow Lake. The latter is site of the red-roofed, cabin-style Num-Ti-Jah Lodge (403/522-2167,, filled with fireplaces, historical photos, mounted animal heads, and live piano music. Dine on its large buffet breakfasts for CAD$15/US$11 or sandwich lunches, which cost even less. You can stay cheaper about halfway between Banff and Jasper at The Crossing Resort (403/761-7000,, where rooms start at CAD$55/US$39 in winter and CAD$95/US$68 in summer. The highlight of the drive to Jasper is the Athabasca Glacier, one tongue of the huge Columbia Icefields. Stop by the visitor's center (877/423-7433) at the base of the glacier for free displays on geology and history, or opt for the special shuttle tours to the top of the ice from mid-April to mid-October for CAD$30/US$21. Jasper, the friendly host Jasper is a quaint town that, like Banff, existed before its surrounding national park, with friendly folk who make visitors feel right at home. Stay at the historic (1929) brick Athabasca Hotel (510 Patricia St., 780/852-3386, in the center of town for CAD$59/US$42 in winter, CAD$109/US$78 in summer. Or e-mail the Jasper Home Accommodation Association (, which can set you up with stays in private homes and B&Bs for as little as CAD$35/US$25 per couple per night. Jasper is wilder and emptier than Banff and Lake Louise, perfect for solitude. Be sure to make a trip out to Maligne Lake, undiscovered by Europeans until 1908 and home to a string of extraordinary mountain peaks. The 90-minute, CAD$35/US$25 boat trip (780/852-3370, to Spirit Island is worth the splurge. Another side trip is to the Miette Hot Springs (780/866-3939, in Fiddle Valley, where you can hike along the heavenly Sulphur Skyline without seeing another soul and then finish your day with a long soak in the clean, modern pools for CAD$6.25/US$4.50.

Punta Cana: Penny-Wise in Paradise

With fine beaches and one of the most relaxing vibes in the Caribbean, la Repoblica Dominicana, which is roughly twice the size of Vermont, has sprouted some 80 resorts since the 1970s. Almost all of them are all-inclusive, meaning that for one price they sell everything vacationers need: a room; airport transfers; all meals and drinks, including alcoholic ones; a slew of daytime activities; kids' clubs; entertainment; and tips. Because of its undeveloped economy and extremely low wages, the Dominican Republic's prices are among the lowest in all the Caribbean for such arrangements. Though properties on other islands may occasionally match the DR's low rates, none do so consistently. And among the best values on the island are the accommodations in the modern development of Punta Cana. What is the atmosphere like in Punta Cana and what sort of vacationer chooses it? Located along 23 miles of beaches and an 18-mile coral reef in low-lying, arid land at the eastern tip of the country, Punta Cana is serviced by direct flights to its own airport, making arrival easy. Most visitors don't come to be submerged in Caribbean culture (there are no real towns nearby), but rather to get away from it all in a quiet, self-contained vacationland of large, low-rise, mellow resorts, each with its own palm-lined, soft-sand beach. Punta Cana's guests want to feel as if their hotel is the only one around for miles, and they rarely leave the grounds. Punta Cana is the cheapest area on the Caribbean's cheapest island-and here are its six most affordable all-inclusive resorts, all of high quality. They offer the amenities mentioned above, as well as private bathrooms, A/C, cable TV, phone, hairdryer, and fridge or minibar. High season runs January through April, low season June to mid-December. Rack rates for doubles (all are per person, per day; kids under 14 often less) are given as guidelines. You'll save much more by booking an air/resort package from a vendor such as Apple or Funjet, which in some months fly there daily and supply all-inclusive stays for as little as $500 a week, from New York and Miami (see box for more operators). Breezes Punta Cana Built in 2000 and managed by the SuperClubs chain, it has an elegant neoclassical design, with vaults and arches in the main buffet restaurant. Most of the 735 rooms are not enormous, but comfy, all with a balcony or terrace, CD players, and fridges stocked with soda and water. There are five bars and six restaurants: the elegant main buffet, El Alcazar; five good reserved-seating eateries serving Italian, Japanese, French, and Mexican cuisine; plus one near the beach offering grilled meats, fish, and a cold buffet. In addition to a small casino, Breezes offers unusual extras: a bank with ATM, a circus trapeze and trampoline, a rock-climbing wall, and-believe it or not-a little hockey rink. There's even an offshore shipwreck for snorkelers. Free wedding (ceremony, cake, champagne, flowers, etc.; legal fees extra) with a three-night stay. Wheelchair accessible. High season $130 all-inclusive, low season $91; 877/467-8737, Carabela Bavaro Opened on El Cortecito beach in 1992, this Spanish-owned property is intimate and private, as it's tucked away on a park-like spread with shady tall pines and palms and patrolled by pink flamingos and peacocks. An ocean mural peers over wicker chairs in the cool, open lobby, and its 399 rooms are arrayed in eight low-slung buildings. There are two pools with a swim-up bar, a children's pool area, and an enormous round spa tub. Besides the La Noray buffet restaurant, three others are reservation-only: Italian, seafood, and international cuisine; there's also a snack bar and five bars. Nightlife is not a strong suit, but there are funky little bars down the beach and in adjoining El Cortecito village. Extras: miniature golf; a hairdresser; massage on the beach for around $20. High season $80 to $90 all-inclusive, low season $70; 809/221-2728, Catalonia Bavaro Another Spanish-owned property, this five-year-old has bungalow-style buildings with 711 bright and spacious units, each with a terrace with hammock and a living area (some have hot tubs). Apart from the Gran Caribe buffet and a beach buffet, there are four ? la carte eateries with reserved seating (Japanese, Mexican, French, Italian). Bars number five, including a swim-up in the pool. Extras: archery, a basketball court, a small casino, an ice cream parlor/cr?perie, and (for a charge) a decent nine-hole golf course. The beautiful beach has a bit more sea grass than at some other resorts. Wheelchair accessible. High season $125 all-inclusive, low season $80; 809/412-0000, Club Med Punta Cana In 2000, this 74-acre member of the classic French chain was part of a $350 million renovation project. It has always been family oriented (rooms are now extra-big) and strong on tennis, with 14 courts and good instruction. It now offers an all-inclusive program closer to those offered by other resorts. There are two bars and round-the-clock snacks. The food is among the best in Punta Cana; apart from the main buffet, there's a fabulous over-the-water restaurant. The pool is huge and dreamy, there's a smaller one for kids, and the half-mile of talcum-soft beach is the area's longest, with its own coral reef. Some rooms are far from the main facilities. High season $140 all-inclusive, low season $100 to $110; 800/258-2633, Fiesta Bavaro: Part of a three-resort complex with a great beach and coral reef, its 608 units are in two-story bungalow-style structures. The fare gets good reviews at its main buffet, three ? la carte eateries (Mediterranean, Tex-Mex, international), and pizza bar. Guests may use the adjoining Fiestas-nine restaurants, twelve bars, two discos, and four pools. There's also an ocean-view fitness center offering (for an affordable price) massage and spa treatments. High season up to $128 all-inclusive, low season from $99; 809/221-8149, Occidental Allegro Punta Cana This older resort serves up 540 rooms in nine three-story buildings. Besides Topaz (the buffet) and a half-dozen bars, good food is found in four a la carte eateries (Italian, seafood, Caribbean, a caf?) and a poolside snack bar. There's a bit more energy here than at some of the more laid-back resorts above, but it's far from a "party-till-you-puke" kinda place. The helpful staff is a particular plus. A slight minus: no fridges in rooms. Horseback riding is included. High season from $105 to $169 all-inclusive, low season from $89; 800/858-2258, Package it, Pedro Apple Vacations, book only through a travel agent 800/915-2322, FunCaribe 800/680-6991, Funjet Vacations, travel agents only Inter Island Tours 800/245-3434, GOGO Worldwide Vacations, travel agents only MK Tours 888/441-7600, TourScan 800/962-2080, Travel Best 800/955-2378, Vacation Express 877/784-3786, Vacation Travel Mart 800/288-1435,