4 Frugal But Unconventional Dining Spots Most People Overlook

There’s nothing worse than being stuck in a rut. When it happens, the quickest remedy is to try and think unconventionally.

The trouble is, for most of us, outside-the-box thinking can be extremely difficult.

True, thinking outside the box can get you into trouble: consider James Franco hosting the 2011 Academy Awards, for instance.

But when it works, folks, it’s magic. After all, I think we can all agree that the guy who decided to deep-fry ice cream was a genius.

Speaking of food, one of the more common places where people often get bogged down in the mire of boring conventionalism is when it comes time to pick a restaurant. More often than not, folks refuse to spread their wings and branch out, continually going to the same old tried-and-true establishments.

With that in mind, I thought I’d pass on a few offbeat suggestions of my own to help spice things up the next time you’re out and about and looking to get a bite to eat at a reasonable price.

Ikea. There is a large subset of people who regularly visit this Swedish furniture store for the famous Swedish meatballs served up daily at Ikea’s cafeteria-style restaurant. My daughter Nina happens to be an especially big fan of them. For $3.99 Ikea sells a lunch plate consisting of 15 meatballs with cream sauce, and a side of mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce. Ikea also offers other fare including cold-smoked Najad salmon with marinated vegetables for $4.99.  And if you think those are great deals, breakfast lovers can get a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon and potatoes for 99 cents.

Regional Airports. Many regional airports offer decent food at reasonable prices. That’s why my family and I will occasionally grab a bite to eat at one of Southern California’s numerous regional airstrip diners; the best ones — like Norm’s at Brackett Field in LaVerne — often provide clear views of the runway so you can watch airplanes taking off and landing while you’re eating. As recently as a few weeks ago I had an absolutely terrific breakfast at a small airstrip coffee shop in Monterey, California: eggs Benedict, hash browns, sausage, toast and orange juice, all for only $12, not including tax and tip.

Home Improvement Centers. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked out of my local Lowe’s or Home Depot and grabbed a hot dog from the stand that typically sits near the exits. For me, it’s truly difficult to ignore the tempting aromas of the traditional red hots, bratwurst and polish sausages — especially when they’re being served up with fresh sauerkraut or grilled onions. Toss in a soft drink and you’ve usually got a quick and tasty lunch for under five bucks.

Costco. One of the best things I like about shopping at Costco — aside from the money-saving bulk-purchase deals they offer — is tasting all the complimentary food samples they usually offer. Yes, you can try to fill up on the free handouts, but it’s difficult to do so without riling up the nice ladies who pass out the vittles. (Trust me on this one, folks.) Besides, if you’re really famished, you’d be much better off visiting Costco’s concession stand where you can get a quarter-pound hot dog with all the fixin’s and a 20-ounce refillable soft drink for only $1.50. Believe it or not, Costco has not raised the price on their hot dog special since 1985. And if hot dogs aren’t your thing, you can also get a giant slice of pizza, regardless of the toppings, for just $1.99. That’s less than many chains’ pizza delivery fees. Best of all, because Costco’s concession stands are usually outside, no membership card is required. Heck, the only way it could get any better is if they offered deep-fried ice cream for dessert.

Photo Credit: EpSos.de

63 comments to 4 Frugal But Unconventional Dining Spots Most People Overlook

  • Too bad there are no Costco’s here in Bangkok. Ikea just opened here last month though…I wonder if they have the cafeteria. Have to find out. Now I know what I’ll be doing this Saturday :)

    • Len Penzo

      Have fun! What’s funny is I know a few folks who wouldn’t be caught dead with Ikea furniture in their home, but still drop by just to eat the meatballs.

    • @MoneyInfant — But there are Dunkin Donuts in Bangkok! Colorado doesn’t even have that! …. and you get to eat Pad Thai from a street cart for about 25 cents, followed by mango + sticky rice for dessert. That beats Ikea meatballs any day (no offense to Ikea meatballs, which I also love).

  • When our kids were younger we’d sometimes grab a bite at the cafe at Target. Real cheap and the food is decent. The kids loved it because it was a novelty to eat where you shop. We still do grab a snack there on ocasion when we’re looking for a cheap lunch on the fly. It quick and even cheaper than McDonalds. Not a bad deal.

    • Len Penzo

      Thanks for the tip, Kevin. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve walked right past the Target luncheonette — I’ve never stopped to even look at the menu. I may have to try it next time I’m there.

  • Len, do not get me started on IKEA… Eat there, shop there, you name it…. I LOVE IKEA.

  • Kerri

    I love the meatballs and lingonberry juice at Ikea too! It’s a great place to eat! Not fancy, but definitely good and the price is right.

  • tracee

    sounds like i really need to go to ikea. too bad the closest one is 5 hours away. or maybe it is a good thing….the food may be cheap but i’m sure i’d leave with a moving van full of stuff i bought!

    • Len Penzo

      If you live five hours away, tracee, please please please do not drive all that way just to try the food. I’d feel terrible if you ended up hating the meatballs.

      Then again, if you happen to be in the area … :-)

  • We LOVE going to costco, or really any super market, on the weekends around lunch time. “Why yes, I’d love to try some of that.”

    I usually avoid IKEA at all costs but next time I find myself dragged there, I’ll check out the cafeteria.

    • Len Penzo

      I love the samples at Costco too. For someone like me who hates to shop, those samples really make a trip to Costco easier to take. I love it when their sampling main-dish items like ribs or burritos. Mmm mmm mmm.

      I also love their pizza and hot dogs though. It’s hard to believe that they’ve kept the price of their hot dog special at $1.50 for over 25 years.

  • Interesting choices! I would add some of the places at the outlets. I found a great pizza place at the outlets in Riverhead, New York.

    • Len Penzo

      That’s another good tip! Speaking of pizza, KC … although I didn’t mention it in the article, if it was considered a pizza chain, Costco would be the 15th largest one in the United States, based upon the number of stores.

  • A lot of home improvement stores in midwest have free popcorn. Toss in a one dollar hot dog and you’ve got a super cheap lunch.

    • Len Penzo

      Free popcorn? Really? I haven’t seen that here in Southern California, but I like it. I live on hot dogs and peanuts when I go to a ballgame — don’t see why it wouldn’t work for home improvement shopping too!

    • This is true! I always grab a bag at places like Rural King, a company with outlets all over the midwest. I think on weekends they even have free hotdogs.

      Ahh, the luxurious world of the middle coast.

  • IKEA fan over here! But I only go in these days when I absolutely need something and/or have budgeted specifically.

  • Michael

    You are spot on regarding the regional airports. You usually find some very tasty home cookin there. Some though don’t have diners. All they offer is a couple of vending machines.

    • Len Penzo

      True, Michael. It would probably be wise to check the Internet to see if the particular small airports in your area have a diner before jaunting out there with the intention of getting a bite to eat.

  • Mike

    No IKEAs here and the only Costco on the island moved its food concession indoors a few years after opening. Sigh.

    • Len Penzo

      Really? What’s up with that? The Costco I shop at actually has two concession stands — one indoors and one outdoors.

      I hope that is an exception to the rule.

  • I love iKea meatballs! Added with spaghetti, of course.

  • My wife the nutrition Nazi would lecture you about your food choices today Len.

    No vegetable or fruit mentioned. Tsk,Tsk,Tsk!

    I’ll keep your secret safe…

  • The coffee at Ikea is pretty good too. And…the Chocolate Overload cake is delicious!

  • My wife and I went out to dinner on a whim last night. Nothing crazy extravagent, but when I realistically added it up, $170 for a decent meal! Seriously! We went to a Seasons 52 for the great food and atmosphere but it’s a growing chain, nothing too fancy. Dinner bill came to $100 with taxes primarily due to a filet and some drinks boosting the bill. $20 for tip. It was a half hour away, so in total $40 for the sitter. And I figured $10 in gas/depreciation expense on the car. So, a $170 dinner.

    I felt like a scrooge pointing it out to my wife since we don’t get out often, but I couldn’t help myself.

    • Len Penzo

      Yeah, the sitter is a real killer. That’s why it helps to have grandmas and grandpas nearby! Then again, if you don’t, you have to look at the cost as an investment in your marriage.

  • Jessica

    I feel gypped – I think the only Costco I’ve ever seen that had the food court outside was in Lake Elsinore – everywhere else I’ve been (Washington state, central CA and the Palm Springs area) has them indoors, and they don’t take debit cards, which is really annoying! Love those hot dogs though, and the very berry sundaes.

    No one seems to have really touched on the Ikea furniture tangent, so I offer my two cents’ worth: When we were younger (read: broke), we got the Ektorp couch, love seat and chair in white slipcovers for $1000 because it’s a deal you just can’t beat. I do like the traditional styling, but the quality is very so-so (you get what you pay for!). The rest of their furniture is far too “modern” for my tastes. However, I agree that the cafeteria is usually a pretty safe bet :)

    • Len Penzo

      I agree, Jessica. I don’t think the Ikea furniture is too sturdy. I also got tired of having to assemble the stuff — which, on second thought, is probably why the furniture wasn’t so sturdy in the first place! LOL

  • DC

    We’ve chowed down at our local Akea a couple of times, but it’s really too far away to go there just for the food.

    Sam’s also has hotdogs, pizza and drinks for sale, although I’ll admit I just walk past, and have never really checked it out.

    If you’re not in the mood to cook, another way to have a quick and relatively inexpensive meal is to browse the prepped food areas of your local grocery store or membership warehouse (Costco’s, Sam’s). At Sam’s, for example, you can pick up a 16″ fresh pizza, a rotisserie chicken, and a selection of prepped veggies or fruit. I think you can do the same at Costco.

    The cost generally falls somewhere between cooking at home and eating out.

    Finally, try Googling restaurants near your address. You may discover places you didn’t know existed. For example, I’ve found a hole-in-the-wall family-run Brazilian cafe, and a Caribbean restaurant in a converted house. Both are very close by, inexpensive and yummy.

    • Len Penzo

      I think Sam’s has better fresh take ‘n’ bake pizzas than Costco. We usually take one of those home too with us when shopping there.

      I like Costco’s rotisserie chickens better though. We usually heat the chicken and then shred it up and use the meat for burritos or tacos.

  • JE

    Most will not believe this, but our local hospital has a cafeteria with good food at unbelievable prices! This is NOT what they feed the poor patients. It’s home-style cooking in a cafeteria style restaurant, and the two of us have a full meal of for example, meat, two veggies, a bread, and a drink for $10.00 total. I’m saying that $10.00 pays for BOTH of our meals together. And those who choose water or iced tea get free drink refills. Because there are no servers, there is no tip needed. I’ve heard some other hospitals have the same setup. Our hospital is one of the most popular restaurants in town.

    • Len Penzo

      LOL! That is really hard to believe, JE. But I’ll take your word for it! I’ve heard that patients who eat the hospital food stay an average of three extra days than those who have food brought in.

      (Okay, not really. But I bet you were nodding your head as you read that.)

  • There should be a law against that hot dog smell in a Home Depot exit area. Personal foul! Tantalizing the guests! It’s almost impossible to get out of there without money escaping my wallet.

  • Norman

    I feel deprived. We don’t have an Ikea or a Costco in my entire state! However, I did go to an Ikea in another state once and tried their Swedish meatballs. They were a great value indeed!

    • Len Penzo

      And I forgot to mention that if you want extra meatballs you can get them for, I think, only 99 cents more. So the deal gets even better!

  • Kris @ Everyday Tips

    Gotta have a hot dog at Home Depot! Those deals at Ikea sound great.

    My favorite suggestion is airport dining. I would have loved that as a kid. Actually, I would love that as an adult. Too bad we dont have airstrips nearby.

  • I absolutely do NOT overlook IKEA. My husband even stopped by one year the day after Thanksgiving for their free breakfast offering. But it gets me thinking, how can they POSSIBLY be making any profit on a 99 cent breakfast? Then I remember, I usually walk away with plenty of merchandise to make up for it. D’oh!

    • Len Penzo

      It’s the same thing with casinos. They more than make up for it in other areas. Not that long ago, the Horseshoe casino in Las Vegas used to offer a complete steak dinner, with bread, salad, baked potato with all the trimmings, and coffee or soda for $2. And I’m not talking a crappy tough piece of meat; they were selling very decent New York strips. I used to eat there all the time when vacationing in Las Vegas.

  • I have to admit that airport eating establishments are way overpriced for the quality of food they offer. Costco scares me with its junk food offerings. But Ikea! I love Swedish meatballs! And priced quite reasonably.

    • Len Penzo

      The places in the major airports are overpriced Aloysa — probably to compensate for the high rents. However, my experience has been that the diners and coffee shops at the small regional airports (especially the ones that only handle very small commuter aircraft) are not overpriced at all.

  • you are WAY better off cooking at home than eating at any of these places! I mean, gas stations serve food too, but you shouldn’t consider that a “frugal dining option”!

    • Len Penzo

      I agree; you’re always much better off cooking at home. That’s a given. :-)

      However, this article is focusing on when you’re looking for a bite to eat on those days you don’t want to — or can’t — eat at home.

      Your point is taken regarding gas station food to a point: it may not be fine dining, but their still a frugal dining option. Well, they are for some folks, anyway. ;-)

  • CJ

    what about hospital cafeterias -especially handy when traveling by car also.

  • I visit Costco at lunch time and sampling food I eat quite a bit.

  • Kelly A.

    Costcos in Phoenix don’t have the outside food carts but then it’s 110-degrees here in the summer. $1.50 for a thick, juicy Polish dog on a fresh bun, free sauerkraut if you want it (yes, please!) and some spicy mustard. Can’t beat that price for a quick lunch! And it comes with a 20 oz. drink too.

    Target’s lunch counter is the only place I can find that has pasta dishes, outside of an expensive Italian restaurant. Try their baked ziti, yum.

    I’ll add one for when you want a finer dining experience than Ikea, Target or Costco. More expensive but still extremely reasonable. Culinary schools. To train their students for the working world of restaurants, many cooking/chef schools serve fine dinners once or twice a month. You have to reserve a seat and the menu is limited but the food and service is always superb (students’ grades depend on it). Some have a regular lunch cafe, three courses for $12. If you watch for deals or get on their mailing list for specials, you can get quite a fine evening dining experience for around $20-$25 per person. More expensive than Target but a lot less than the Four Seasons!

  • Crissy

    We affectionately call it “Lunchco”. The best! The only problem is we end up spending about $200 each time we go so it totally negates the cost savings. Genius business strategy though. Target has really upped their game on food tasting stations as well. We are also fans of the Home Depot and Lowe’s hot dogs.

  • Ann

    My local grocery store Harris Teeter in the “nice” neighborhood, has $2.99 six inch deli sandwiches with chips and drink! Also one meat and two sides..$2.99
    salmon, roasted vegetables and twice stuffed potato
    it is a bargain that can’t be beat.
    Pulbix has $9.99 family night, whole chicken with two sides and 6 rolls.
    Caesar’s large one topping for $5.00 is pretty good too.

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