This pizza joint in Allston had a counter that ran the back length of the narrow space. The wall behind the counter was blue subway tile, with black tiles spelling out SUBS. Two-seater tables were in singles and pairs, and if you sat towards the back of the restaurant you probably had to pivot sideways to get to your seat.
But the owner’s Mama, Italian through and through, began cooking daily specials to help boost business, and her dishes are fantastic. The lasagna is to die for, the marinara will change your life, the cacciatore sends me to a transcendent plane. People gave up ordering the subs although the pizza is still popular, mostly we go for Mama’s cooking.
Carlo’s Cucina is still there, the SUBS wall gone, replaced by Italian murals of earnest but iffy quality. The prices are a bit higher but still cheap. If you get there before 6 pm you can get a table right away, otherwise guests amiably spill onto the sidewalk with a glass of wine, watching the Allston flora and fauna. This post is in praise of dining out cheap and meeting fellow foodies along the way.
Maybe I shouldn’t even say restaurant, but places that dispense food for a nominal fee. My parents taught me the love of cheap food. My father was the tightest of wads and would drag us over hill and country for a plate of frugal goodness. My favorite was the lawnmower repair shop with a frialator dishing out greasy cardboard plates of fish and chips only on Friday nights (mostly to old school Catholics). The haddock was fresh, the french fries crisp, and it was cash and carry only. I’m sure the health department would have a heart attack today, but back then we’d often see town employees standing in line along with us.
Signs of a Good Cheap Restaurant
There is good cheap, and there is bad cheap. The dollar menu at a fast-food chain is cheap, but what percentage of the content of your bag is actually food? Here are the signs of greatness:
A hole in the wall, generally with bad lighting and bad décor. No fancy lighting fixtures, no tasteful color palette. It’s about the food, if you don’t like the chairs, take it to go.
Mom and pop owned. They are passionate about food, they cook because they must, food is in their blood. This dive is not a corporate-owned entity; it’s about family and don’t be surprised if the high schooler taking your order is one of their kids.
Your friends already know about it. When I first talked about Carlo’s to my friends they all burst out with, “I love that place!” If you’re looking for cheap but good, ask your foodie friends for their secret haunts. Be prepared to work for an answer, the more people who know, the harder it’ll be to eat there and they won’t be willing to share it with just anyone. Also be prepared to swear on the lives of your progeny you won’t tell another soul.
It’s crowded but friendly. I’ve found this true over the years; the word gets out, people flock, but it’s always a friendly crowd. Perhaps it’s sharing the “secret” with your fellow guests, or just the nature of a little adventure that brings people together. But it’s worth the wait and worth chatting up your fellow patrons to see if they know any other great places to try.
It’s always out of the way. Cheap restaurants, by their nature, can’t afford high rent, so look in out the way places and less desirable neighborhoods. One upside, you won’t have to pay for valet.
It’s probably ethnic. My favorite dives include a Turkish restaurant, a Cuban restaurant and a Thai place. Straight up American fare is rarely on the menu, so you’ll also have the chance to try some new flavor profiles and up your foodie cred.
The thing about dives is they tend to have a tenuous hold on life. While some, like Carlos, will thrive for decades, other give way to exhausted owners and urban creep. The owner of my favorite Cuban restaurant got tired of the grind and went into catering. My first favorite Turkish place is now a parking garage for a major hospital.
But therein lies the adventure. New dives are popping up all the time in dusty buildings and tiny spaces, waiting to be discovered and savored. Tell us your favorite dive and why you love them. If you’d like to share, give us the name and the city so others can check ‘em out too.
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