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Restaurants for the Un- and Underemployed

By Marty Nemko

When money’s tight, we have to cut expenses. Here’s a cost saver that requires no sacrifice at all. It will actually increase your pleasure.

Maybe I have retarded taste buds, but I gotta tell you I like the following cheap restaurants more than most “nice” places where dinner for two with a “cheap” bottle of wine costs almost $100—I mean, a few lettuce leaves with Italian dressing for eight dollars? You gotta be kidding. $25 for a bottle of wine I can buy for five bucks at Trader Joe’s? Give me a break. And are their entrees really that delicious? Do you really like taste innovations such as osso bucco with kiwi fruit ($18.95 a la carte)? How about the ubiquitous polenta (caked farina)? Does anyone really prefer a mixed-berry tart ($6.95) to apple pie and ice cream? Haute cuisine; nouvelle cuisine, bah humbug. And the dining experience at “nice” restaurants? Usually hard chairs (to get you to leave quickly), intentionally noisy acoustics to make the place feel buzzy even if you can’t hear what your dinner companion is saying, and the waiter doesn’t bring you bread until you order for fear you might order less.

Screw that. Here are my favorite restaurants for the unemployed, underemployed, and the smart employed:

Swagat. I suppose an Indian restaurant might not be your first choice if your job has just been offshored to Bangalore, but why cut your nose off to spite yourself. Swagat’s buffet may be my very favorite dining experience. The curries are a symphony on a plate and the butter chicken may be the tastiest thing you’ll ever put in your mouth. $7.95 for weekday lunch, $11.95 evenings and weekends, all you can eat and, alas, you will eat a lot. It’s out in Concord next to a Petco, the last place I’d expect to find a great Indian restaurant, but that’s where she be. It’s worth the drive.1901 Salvio St. (925) 685-2777, M-Su 11:30a-10p.

Olive Garden. I don’t care if it’s a chain, you anti-corporate types. I’ll bet that if I held a blind tasting, 90+ of 100 people would prefer the Olive Garden’s entrees (especially the chicken or veal marsala) over the equivalent at Il Snootarini. And most of the generous-sized entrées including pasta, vegetable, and unlimited salad cost just $12 to $15, complete And the environment puts most Fru Fru joints to shame: artistically painted walls accented with beautifully stained beams that look truly old-world, arched entryways into alcoves in which, instead of smashed-on-top-of-each-other tables and hardwood chairs, are spacious booths, which you get even if you’re just a twosome. And service? One time, I left the restaurant without some photos I had brought in. I phoned the restaurant and the woman said she’d look for them. Five minutes later, she came back apologizing it had taken so long but she had gone through the garbage to see if the pictures were there. She asked if it would soften the blow if she offered me a $35 gift certificate. Try to get that at La Fru Fru. Go to for locations and hours.

Red Lobster. The seafood equivalent of Olive Garden. In fact they’re both owned by the same corporation. Yes Virginia, the fish is fresh, and the cheddar cheese biscuits join Swagat’s butter chicken on my list of the tastiest things you’ll ever put in your mouth. Go to for location and hours.

Little Shin Shin. My favorite Chinese restaurant. I order you to order Little Shin Shin’s contribution to my list of best-tasting dishes: the honey walnut prawns. And the lunch special (hot and sour soup, a piece of Chinese-style chicken, your choice of a dozen or more delicious entrees, rice, and fruit) for five bucks is a miracle. How can they make a profit on that? 4258 Piedmont Avenue, (510) 658-9799. Sun-Thurs 11:30 AM to 9:30 PM, Fri, Sat: 11:30 AM to 10 PM. An almost as good alternative. (I would have felt guilty leaving it out): Great Wall, Healthy yet yummy vegetarian and seafood Chinese dishes plus another amazing $5 lunch deal. 6247 College Ave, Oakland. 510-658-8458. 11:30am- 9:30pm Sun-Thu; 11:30am-10pm Fri-Sat

Siam Cuisine. This was the first Thai restaurant in the East Bay, and of the many I’ve been to, I think it’s the best. A dinner for two that will blow your taste buds’ mind: yellow chicken curry, hot pepper beef, prawns and scallops in spicy chili oil, sticky rice, plus two Thai iced teas. The tab: $30—for the two of you! 181 University Ave. Berkeley, 510-548-3278, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Mon., Wed, Thu.; 11 a.m. to midnight Fri-Sat.; 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Sun.

Sweet Tomatoes. This gets my vote for the world’s best salad bar, highlighted by Caesar salad and Chinese chicken salad made fresh every 20 minutes, and a broccoli salad that could make even George Bush the Elder crave broccoli. Also included in the miraculous price are soups such as the original US Navy Bean soup, which has been served in the US Senate Dining Room since 1901. And you’ll never taste better hot cheese bread. Plus lots of not-too-unhealthy desserts. I love putting frozen yogurt on one of their warm low-fat muffins. All you can eat for $8.49 for dinner, $6.99 for lunch, and, believe it or not, often there’s a $1.50-off coupon in the Sunday Chronicle. For hours and locations, go to

When you land a great job, then you can go to some “in” place, sit on hard chairs and eat a dinner that includes (and these are from real menus): an appetizer of “smoked trout with cornichons, quail eggs, and flash fried shallots on havarti dill toast points with Aztec lemon aioli” ($12) followed by a main course of “roasted filet of venison in a sauce grand veneur served with celeriac mash, roasted apple, fine beans, and pancetta.” ($44.95)

I’ll be at the Olive Garden.

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