The best cheap eats in St. Louis

Places to Know

Billie’s Fine Foods

Overview: Don’t let the name fool you. Right- eously good, plentiful eats are served in a diner-like setting. Dishes: The meatloaf omelette, the biscuits, and bigger–than–a–dinner plate pancakes. Insider Tip: Check out the board for daily specials and pies. 1802 S. Broadway.

Blues City Deli

Overview: Owner Vinnie Valenza is always in house, serving up smiles and some of the best sandwiches in town. On Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons, there’s live music from the intimate stage. Dish: Sandwiches are substantial, so half a po’boy for $3.25 might suffice. Insider Tip: Vinnie’s son Joey runs Melo’s Pizzeria out of a former garage behind the deli. It’s only open Thursdays and Fridays, but it’s worth the trip. 2438 McNair.

Carl’s Drive-In

Overview: Those stools are prized, so once you’re seated, don’t dally! Dish: The crispy double burger, crunchy onion rings, and a frosty mug of homemade root beer. Insider Tip: It’s one of the few places in town where you can get a fist-sized Ronnie’s Rocky Mountain cone. 9033 Manchester.

The Dam

Overview: Burger bar–meets–Belgian joint, The Dam fuels famished soccer fans from the next-door Amsterdam Tavern, where you can order a pint and cheer on your favorite futbol team. Dish: The Animal: a triple burger with jalapeños, bacon, onions, American cheese, and barbecue sauce. Insider Tip: For early-rising soccer fans, The Dam serves breakfast, including The Dam Omelet, a bacon cheeseburger wrapped in an omelette and topped with Swiss and special sauce. 3173 Morganford.

Elaine’s on Cherokee

Overview: A former Subway manager serves toasty subs in this 15-seat dining spot on Cherokee’s Antique Row. Menu: Don’t be fooled by the restaurant’s small size; the sandwiches, which range between $6.50 and $9, will easily last two meals. Dish: The Flora Deli, packed with artichokes, squash, habanero Jack, and mozzarella. 2311 Cherokee.

Guerrilla Street Food

Background: Before partnering, owners Joel Crespo and Brian Hardesty hit it off over their love of pop culture, which shines throughout the restaurant.  Insider Tip: Guerrilla’s Alliance Dinners, a celebration of Crespo’s Filipino heritage, seamlessly blend business and community. 43 S. Old Orchard.

Lulu’s Local Eatery

Overview: If any restaurant can convince your carnivorous friend that vegan food is delicious, it’s Lulu’s. Mission: Using local, non-GMO ingredients and paying employees a living wage, Lulu’s aims to promote a sustainable system. Dish: Buffalo Cauliflower Bites. Burgers and bowls are sizable and satisfying. 3201 S. Grand.

The Sweet Spot Café

Overview: This folksy, friendly diner would have been the perfect subject for a Norman Rockwell painting. Anomaly: The all-day breakfasts are lovely, but the menu covers the Midwest and Middle East, from burgers to baba ganoush. Insider Tip: Try the buttermilk rings. (The doughnuts and many other pastries are always fresh—and go fast.) 3586 Adie.

Taco Circus

Overview: Tasty tacos, burritos, and more are filled with an array of ingredients—from eggs to seasoned fajita meat—and served in a bright, art-filled atmosphere. Dish: The Nachos Superior. You’ll dig into trays piled high with chips, queso blanco, cheese, guacamole, meats, and more for just under $10. Insider Tip: Fans of singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt should chat up owner and Austin native Christian Ethridge. (The company’s official name is Pancho & Lefty, after Van Zandt’s best-known song.) 4940 Southwest.

Dishes to Know

Bacon Double Cheeseburger at Bus Loop Burgers

Two crispy-edged patties, crackly bacon, and golden cheese are wedged between two buns at this St. Ann spot. Accompanied by superb fries, it’s simple yet extravagant. 10462 St. Charles Rock Road.

Chicken Tenders at Grace Meat + Three

Chef Rick Lewis offers one of the best deals in town in the former Sweetie Pie’s space in The Grove: three fried chicken tenders and two sides from a revolving selection for $10 (and that includes hot pickles). 4270 Manchester.

Soup & Half Sandwich at The Gramophone

Somewhere between queso and beer-cheese soup lies Jalapeño Popper Soup, a pepper-infused bowl of late-night love for $3.50. Pair it with a half sandwich, perhaps the $5.50 Mississippi Nights Club, which comes with Billy Goat Kicker Chips. 4243 Manchester.

Burger at The B-Side

Simplicity and economics go together here, where the bar-top grill’s made-to-order burgers are only $3. For $10, you can get a cheeseburger, chips, a beer—and a shot. 2709 Cherokee.

Sunday Brunch at Dado’s Cafe

The all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch, for $12.95, includes a bountiful selection of breakfast items, as well as weekly lunch dishes: kebabs, chicken fried steak, baked fish… For $5 more, you can get 12 ounces of prime rib or a mimosa. 5425 Hampton.

Lunch Sandwich Special at The Vine

There’s a reason the Lebanese restaurant is a popular spot for the “fresh out of college but still saddled with debt” crowd. Every day between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., you can get fries and your pick of sandwich—beef shawarma, shishkafta, and more—for $6.99. 3171 S. Grand.

Two Slices & a Pint at Pizza Head

If you’re a frugal vegan—but also a little punk rock—try the special at this South Grand restaurant/music venue: two cheese pizza slices and a pint for $7.95. 3196 S. Grand.

Tamale Tuesdays at Southwest Diner

Though Doug Marshall (a.k.a. The Tamale Man)  doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar, you can find his handmade tamales at farmers’ markets and Southwest Diner on Tuesdays. Choose your fave filling: pork or vegetarian squash, corn, pepitas, and a three-cheese mixture—topped with an egg and house-made chili sauce. 6803 Southwest.

Two-Piece Chicken Plate at Southern Currently closed for winter.

Some like it hot—and some like it even hotter. At Southern, you can pick just how hot you like it, from original to “cluckin’ hot.” We prefer the milder General Tso’s–style two-piece chicken plate, with mac and cheese casserole and vinegar slaw, for $10. 3108 Olive.

Poke Nachos at BLK MKT Eats

If tuna poke is hot, poke nachos, made with fried wonton chips, is its cool brother. A platter is $13—but it includes a Mauna Kea–sized mountain of toppings and spicy tuna. 9 S. Vandeventer.

Sope at Taqueria Taqueria El Bronco

Fried on the outside and pliable on the inside, a thick tortilla is topped with beans, cheese, tomato, lettuce, sour cream, and your choice of meat. (Try the lengua—tongue—for $3.50.) 2817 Cherokee. 

Pork and Crab Soup Dumplings at Soup Dumplings STL

Lawrence Chen’s no-frills lunch spot—an affordable alternative to Private Kitchen—serves a single unique offering: puffy pillows of tender steamed dough, plump with glorious broth, ground pork, and shreds of crab. Hoist one to your mouth, nip the delicate twisty top to savor the soup, and enjoy—then go for another order of six dumplings for $12. 8110 Olive.

Grilled Cheese at The Wood Shack

A grilled cheese sandwich for $7 is a deal? Well, yeah, when it’s filled with five types of cheese and your choice of smoked meat: pulled pork, ham, smoked chicken, or turkey—plus a homemade side. Consider a cup of “debris gravy” for dipping. 1862 S. 10th.

Puffer at Fort Taco

At $3.85, the signature overstuffed taco is a meal in itself. A crispy, bubbly shell is filled with your choice of beef or chicken and topped with chili verde or chipotle sauce. Order two only if you’re famished. 8106 Manchester.

People to Know

The Taco & Ice Cream Joint’s Salvador Rico Jr.

At age 20, Rico manages his family’s restaurant with maturity and grace. He grew up working in his parents’ Bridgeton grocery store. Today, at The Taco & Ice Cream Joint, he’s responsible for everything from ordering supplies to paying bills to ensuring that the salsas are fresh. Beyond the restaurant, he’s helping shape the Cherokee neighborhood. “My family’s businesses will always be about the communities we serve,” he says. “What I love about Cherokee is, the community gives back… Everyone is part of the conversation here.” 2738 Cherokee.

Mac’s Local Eats’ Chris “Mac” McKenzie

With a background in IT, McKenzie didn’t see this life coming when he was working overnight and reading a local food forum. It was there that his own quest for high-quality meat sparked the group purchases that became Mac’s Local Buys. He’d visit a farm to get top-quality meats, load the product into a dozen coolers, and hustle to a meeting point for folks to collect their half hogs or quarter steers. Those group buys spawned a successful business, and when Byrd & Barrel’s Bob Brazell approached him about a space in Tamm Avenue Grill, McKenzie went all in again, serving up one of the best smashed burgers in town. Today, he shares a roof with Bluewood Brewing and plans to roll out a food trailer, appropriately named The Patty Wagon. 1821 Cherokee.

The Houston Family at Diner’s Delight

Jo Alma Houston spent years acquiring kitchen equipment. Then, she and her husband, Herman, found the perfect storefront on Compton. Starting a restaurant was her two oldest daughters’ idea, and in 1969, Diner’s Delight opened as a small carryout-only establishment. The Houstons wanted to own their own business and save enough to send all of their kids to college. They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, eventually buying the entire building. When Jo Alma retired, her sons Markeith and Gregory (pictured) took over the business. “We pretty much grew up here,” says Gregory, who was 1 when the diner opened its doors. When his mom retired, he left his job as a district sales manager at General Motors to help run the diner. He’s since expanded the customer base, thanks to social media. The City Hall workers who have been a constant presence still flock here; Rodney Crim, Tishaura Jones, and Louis Reed are all regulars. Among the favorites are the fried chicken and the vegetarian-friendly greens, which are not cooked with pork. Former Mayor Francis Slay is also a fan—in fact, he named March 4 Diner’s Delight Day. (Check out the city proclamation on the wall as you wait in line, stomach grumbling in anticipation of ribs, meatloaf, or mac and cheese.) 1504 S. Compton.

Urban Eats’ John Chen & Caya Aufiero

For the husband-and-wife team, Urban Eats is a labor of love. The restaurant serves affordable healthy options with an international flair, including baoand flatbread pizza served on naan. Before starting the café—in 2008, at the worst of the financial crisis—both Chen and Aufiero worked in the corporate world, but they wanted to give back to the Dutchtown community. “If you see a problem, fix it,” says Aufiero. “That’s our philosophy.” 3301 Meramec.

Paddy O’s CJ Baerman

Only a madman would assume responsibility for the overhaul of a baseball-season standard in St. Louis, and Paddy O’s found just that in Baerman, better known as the BBQ Madman. Using cooking skills learned in his grandma’s kitchen and recipes perfected on the competition circuit, he created a menu that’s noteworthy not only for its flavor and creativity but also for its prices: Nothing’s more than $5. Baerman dons his bandana and fires up the pit at 6 a.m. each day as part of Paddy O’s now full-time, year-round business. 618 S. 7th.

Classic Red Hots Catering’s Steve “Big Pappy” Cori

A native of Chicago’s South Side, Cori grew up eating hot dogs. Hoping to share his hometown fare with St. Louis, he opened Classic Red Hots Catering and runs a stand in the Chesterfield Valley Home Depot. He’s also working on a brick-and-mortar space in Town & Country, where he plans to serve hot dogs and gyros with new flavors such as coriander-and-ginger and Jamaican jerk. “I always come up with new creations,” Cori says. “It’s a science.” 390 THF Blvd.

Deals on Wheels

4 must-try dishes from local food trucks

Essentially Fries 

Want the most bang for your buck? Order the Carolina Pork Fries. “The dish feels like it weighs 5 pounds,” says owner Matt Borchardt. The fries are topped with pulled pork, Carolina barbecue sauce, house-made slaw, and, topping it off, pickles. At $9, the dish is big enough for two.


When you want a burger sizzling off the grill, look for the Taste-D-Burger truck. Owner Dennis Miller built the truck himself for $20,000. (Similarly outfitted trucks clock in at $150K). Miller passes on the savings, offering a burger, fries, and fixings for $6.50.

Walk-Away Waffles 

Jack and Pat Williams fire up the waffle irons at the Kirkwood Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. From basic waffles to seasonal fruit–infused waffles and dessert waffles, there’s something for everyone—at just $4 apiece. Another buck gets you bacon or sausage cooked into the waffle.

Doughboy’s Wood-Fired Pizza 

Owner Todd Noel can crank out a $7 wood-fired cheese pizza in no time, using a pizza oven that runs at 1,000 degrees. “Pizzas take about 90 seconds to cook,” he says. The result: Freshly made pizzas served in just three minutes.

An Ode to the Eat-Rite

A few days before Halloween, St. Louis received horrifying news: The Eat-Rite’s exhaust fan had wheezed its last, and the 516-square-foot diner was closing its doors. Longtime owner L.B. Powers, who bought the diner with his wife, Dorcas, in the 1970s, said the fan’s demise was the last straw: He’s in his eighties and in poor health, and it seemed time to hang up his apron. The couple has survived a lot over the past 45 years: a holdup attempt that left a perforated ceramic tile; the flotsam and jetsam stumbling in from 3 a.m. bars for slingers and coffee; and multiple cars crashing through the tiny façade (twice in 2014 alone!). But there was also the good stuff: visits from mayors, celebrities (including Chuck Berry), and good-hearted regulars. And there was the camaraderie between the Powerses and their staff, a bond that could only have been forged in an environment like the Eat-Rite’s. At press time, St. Louis patriot BJ Kraiberg had raised enough to fix the fan and handed it over to the Powerses, in the hope that the legacy will live on, even if it must be under new management.

What’s the Deal With Daily Deals?

When Chicago-based Groupon hit the St. Louis market, more than seven years ago, luring prospective diners with up to 50 percent discounts, the response was dramatic. The ease of duplicating the model spawned copycats—locally and worldwide—that ended up crowding the market. Over the years, Groupon and sites such as permitted their clients to tweak the model to their benefit—limiting redemption times and days, allowing varying discount percentages, and offering one-day-only deals. Deep discounting remains a boon to the restaurant customer willing to play by the rules. It can be an effective marketing tool, especially for a new restaurant. But for the established restaurant, increased use can be dangerous: Customers will wait for the next Groupon before visiting again. 

Fine Dining on a Dime

If they could afford to do so, diners everywhere might visit swankier restaurants more often. Oh, but they can—if they go at the right time and order the right dishes. Get a feel for The Capital Grille (101 S. Hanley) by visiting at lunch, when a two-course lunch plate is $20. At the award-winning Vicia (4260 Forest Park) lunch runs $11 for two items and $14 for three. And instead of dropping serious coin at Annie Gunn’s, consider the daily blue-plate specials at the Smokehouse Market (16806 Chesterfield Airport)—say, Lou Rook’s Old School Meatloaf Sandwich for $7.99—every Wednesday. It’s the same high-quality food served at Annie’s but at a lower cost.

Urban Research Brewery

For just a buck (and a brief survey), you can sample three short-run Urban Chestnut beers. It’s possibly the best focus group ever. 4501 Manchester.

Related Reading:

Cheap Eats: Budget-friendly plates, places, people

Cheap Eats ’09: 35 people, places, items, and trends that make St. Louis a bargain-dining dynamo

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