You just booked a trip to one of those elephant sanctuaries in Thailand and you’ve decided the “responsible” thing to do for the time being is cut back on eating out. But that’s like sentencing yourself to house arrest with a convenience store carrot stalk serving as an ankle monitor. Luckily, there are a lot of places around Philly where you can have a very good, sit-down dinner for about $30 (here we’ve defined “dinner” as an entree with either an appetizer or a drink), and we’ve put the best ones in this guide.
From the outside, Little Nonna’s just looks like a bakery or small cafe. But once you walk through the tiny dining room and out the side door, you’ll realize it’s all just a front for what’s happening out back - a big garden space with string lights that’s open throughout the year. For a date night in Midtown Village, you can’t do much better. The menu is full of classic Italian things, but the Sunday gravy (which you can get any night of the week) is both delicious and a steal at $24. You’ll get a plate full of braised short ribs and fennel sausage covered in marinara with a side of pasta, and you can easily split it between two people. Finish that off with a glass of wine and maybe an order of wild mushroom arancini, and you’ll still walk out having spent only about $30 per person.
When you’re looking for somewhere that only feels expensive, Helm is one of your best bets. They change up the menu a lot, but it’s always made up mostly of smaller plates that are easy to share between two people and that range from rhubarb and soppressata wontons to chicken with sunchoke confit. The one in Rittenhouse is the newer of the two and has a full bar, but the one in Kensington is BYOB and, probably because you’re saving on the cost of alcohol, meals here always end up being cheaper.
Dmitri’s is a tiny Greek BYOB in Queen Village that’s been on the same corner since “Never Gonna Give You Up” was at the top of the charts. It’s cash only and doesn’t take reservations, but if you’re willing to risk waiting a few minutes, you won’t be disappointed. The food is simple and good, from the grilled octopus to the shrimp pil-pil, and even though you’ve probably seen most of the things on the menu before, they do throw in a few wildcards - like a plum pasta that should definitely be on your table.
Since first dates have somewhere around a 7% success rate, you’re not about to spend all your money on someone you’ll probably never see again. So the next time you’re taking someone to dinner to find out if there’s any so-called “spark,” head to Nunu, split a katsu sandwich and some wings, and attempt to connect while tipping back a few of their on-tap whiskey highballs. You won’t spend a ton, so even if you never see them again, you can just write the date off as research for your book on how miserable courtship is in the age of apps.
Flambo sounds like a really bad remake of Rambo that maybe stars Guy Fieri, but it’s actually a really solid Caribbean restaurant in Fairmount where you can get a huge dinner for about $20. Add in a couple of drinks - you bring the alcohol and they’ll add some Trinidadian peanut punch - and you still won’t even get close to the budget you promised yourself you’d stick to.
Zavino has two locations - one in University City and another in Midtown Village - and it’s probably the only place that’s mentioned in your group chat every single time you try to pick a spot for a casual weeknight dinner where you won’t have to spend a ton of money. That’s partly because it’s an easy choice with reliably good food, and partly because you can share a couple of pizzas and a few glasses of wine for under $30 per person.
There are a lot of places to eat pasta in Philly, but most of the really good ones come with a steep price tag or are old-school spots with those tables that you have to put napkins under the legs to keep them from wobbling through the entire dinner. Cry Baby, however, falls into a third category of Nice-Looking Places To Eat Pasta With Your Friends On A Tuesday, and it’s one of only a handful of places where you can show up without a reservation, sit down in a bright, pleasant room, and order a plate of $12 cacio e pepe and a moderately-priced bottle of wine. The menu is short and simple, but everything on it, from the bruschetta to the larger shared plates, is exactly what you want from a casual weeknight dinner that you’ll actually remember days later.
Buk Chon is a quiet Korean spot in Old City that serves a variety of classic dishes, from Korean fried chicken to bibimbap and budae stew, and everything is delicious and pretty cheap. You can get a full dinner here for about $25 per person, and it’s also a BYOB with no corkage fee, so you won’t spend any extra money on mark-ups. The space is small, so you can’t get away with rolling in with a huge crew, but it’s one of our favorite spots for a small group dinner with five or six of your closest (or hungriest) friends.
Fat Salmon is one of our favorite sushi spots in Old City, and it’s especially good for a group dinner where you don’t want to end up arguing with that one friend who calculates every bill down to the penny. They serve big platters of interesting rolls that include things like plum paste and pico de gallo and are perfect for sharing, and it’s difficult to spend more than $25 a person. That is, unless you go crazy with their cocktails, which are much better than you’d expect from a neighborhood sushi spot.
Margaritas and tacos are the perfect combination for a night out with a few friends, as long as you don’t get too carried away and end up spending all the money you had set aside for the 14-carat gold dog bowl your sister put on her wedding registry. Fortunately, the portions at Rosy’s are big (you’ll get three overstuffed tacos for $10), and the margaritas are potent, to put it mildly. All in all, it’s hard to walk out of here having spent any more than you probably would have spent on groceries to make your own subpar tacos.
Brigantessa is a casual Italian spot where you can get good pizza and a glass of wine when you don’t have a bottle at home to bring with you (and don’t feel like making the trek to buy one). It’s already a pretty inexpensive place to grab dinner, but if you’re really on a budget, they serve $10 pizzas and $5 drinks during Happy Hour, so you’ll likely be able to get an entire dinner for around $20 if you come before 7pm on weeknights.
There are a lot of ways to save money. You could get rid of the cable you only use to watch the Oscars once a year or remember to turn the lights off every single time you leave a room. Or you could save yourself a bunch of time and just find places like Ekta, that have good, affordable food and let you bring in your own drinks. Between the big portions and the family-style option, this place works especially well for groups. Go with the biryani and the spicy Goan shrimp curry, along with some extra naan to mop up the sauce.
Kanella Grill is pretty small, but they’re always willing to push a bunch of tables together when you roll in with your entire acapella group, and for around $30 a person, you’ll be fed a family-style Greek feast. The kebabs are perfect for sharing, as are all of the dips (which are only about $3 each), and they’ve got lots of options for anyone with dietary restrictions. It’s also BYOB, so grab some ouzo or wine at the store on the way.
Tria is one of those places that you can show up to last minute with a friend you haven’t seen in years, have a non-awkward meal that consists mostly of wine and cheese, and leave having only spent about $25. All three locations will serve you well for this occasion, but the one on Spruce Street has our favorite outdoor seating in the area, which is an added plus for the three months out of the year that it’s actually warm enough to sit on the sidewalk.