There's no such thing as a free lunch, but if you plan a little and go to the right places, you can get a restaurant meal for less than $10, which is my standard for inexpensive.
Fast food places, such as McDonald’s and Burger King, are generally pretty cheap, but you may not want to eat there all the time. Below are a few suggestions for more variety. It’s worth pointing out, too, that what you order and whether or not you decide to split something can have an impact on the cost. For instance, you can go to a restaurant where the typical meal is more than $10, but still eat for $10 or less per person if you:
- Order an appetizer, side item, or soup as a small meal
- Some restaurants have specific sections of their menu for snacks and small meals that cost less than a full-size meal. Sometimes, you can order a couple of items a la carte inexpensively.
- Split a meal with another person who doesn’t mind sharing
- Restaurant meals are often large enough to do this easily, and it can save on calories as well as cost.
- Order something with the idea of taking part of it home to eat later
- Again, restaurant meals are often large enough to easily make up two meals (maybe even three, in some cases), so even if you pay more than $10 immediately, it may effectively be less if you get more than one meal out of it.
- Always order water to drink whenever a drink isn’t included with the cost of a meal
- Restaurants don’t charge for water, whereas a soft drink may cost about $3 at many sit-down restaurants. Besides, water has no sugar or calories, and it’s good for you.
- Go at lunchtime instead of dinner
- Some places have special lunch deals or a menu of smaller, less expensive dishes they serve only at lunch.
- Are older than 55 years old, and the restaurant offers a senior menu or senior discounts
- Diner-style restaurants are particularly good for having special senior menus which include slightly lighter or smaller dishes than those on the standard menu for a somewhat lower price. Many people I know wish that they could order off the senior menu even though they're decades too young to qualify because the smaller-sized plates and lower prices are good for many people, not just seniors. Some restaurants may allow an adult to order something off of the children’s menu if they want something smaller-sized, but not everyone allows that. (People I know who get away with that usually only do it at take-out places, where it isn't obvious who will be eating the food after they've brought it home.)
- Take tips into account!
- Remember that sit-down restaurants where someone buses your table also expect tips for the server, and take that into consideration when calculating your costs! Similarly, delivery also involves extra fees.
Cafes and ice cream parlors are also good places to go to get a cup of coffee or a snack for under $10, if you’re looking for something less than a full meal. So, if you and your friends feel like going out but don't want to eat much or spend a lot, you can always meet for coffee or dessert instead of dinner.
Note: When talking about the prices for items at restaurants below, I’m not including tax or tip. Taxes can vary by city, and tip is determined by you. I talk about the original prices on the menu.
"I must be cheaper now than I was ten years ago in order to get a laugh. It's not funny now if I leave the table and give the waiter a nickel tip, which was a laugh years ago. Today I must maneuver it so that somehow I get the waiter to give me a nickel tip."
-- Jack Benny
The restaurants below are grouped by type:
I've often found Asian restaurants to provide good value for money. They're also good for saving part of the meal to have as leftovers, partly because they are often served family-style, with large entrees that are meant to share, supplemented by rice.
|Beijing Express||You can dine in or order food to take out. The restaurant also delivers orders made through Grubhub. Not every dish is under $10, but many of them are, and they are also typically sized to share and come with your choice of white or brown rice (for a couple dollars more, you can upgrade to fried rice or lo mein for your side item).||
219 E Baseline Rd Ste H2
Tempe AZ, 85283
|Golden Gate Chinese||The lunch special is a good deal because you get hot tea, soup (choice of egg flower soup or hot and sour soup), an appetizer (egg roll and fried wonton), and a fortune cookie included with your entrée, and the entrees are under $10 each. Lunch is served between 11:30 am and 3 pm. After that, they switch to their dinner menu, which goes over the $10 limit.||
2640 W Baseline Rd.
Mesa, AZ 85202
|Tott’s||You can dine in or order food to take out. The restaurant also delivers orders made through Grubhub. Not every dish is under $10, but many of them are, and they come with your choice of white or brown rice (for little more, you can upgrade to fried rice or lo mein for your side item).||
4030 W. Ray Road, Suite E-1
Chandler, AZ 85226
|Teriyaki Kitchen||You can dine in or order food to take out. The restaurant also delivers orders made through Doordash. They serve rice bowls, sushi, soups, and salads, and almost everything is under $10!||
2028 W Guadalupe Rd
Mesa, AZ 85202
Mexican restaurants are good places to go for inexpensive small meals and snacks because you can often order items like tacos and burros a la carte. At sit-down restaurants, they often provide free tortilla chips with salsa and sometimes bean dip before the meal. This complimentary appetizer helps to fill a small meal. However, don't try to abuse their hospitality and con them into giving you these things without ordering anything else. It's unethical, and it's been tried before (not by me, but I've heard stories). If you accept the free food, at least order a drink or a taco or another small item to go with it, and support their continued generosity!
|La Fonda||The lunch menu has the best deals, but there are also items that you can order for less than $10 at dinner, including appetizers (which can be like a small meal), soups and salads (there's also a soup and salad combo), quesadillas, and some of the egg specialties. There is a menu of gluten-free items, but they cost more than $10. This is a sit-down restaurant, so remember the tip!||
1831 E Baseline Rd
Tempe AZ, 85283
|Rosita's Fine Mexican Food||The lunch menu has the best deals, but there are also some fairly inexpensive dishes that you can order for dinner, including a la carte items. They also have daily specials. This is a sit-down restaurant, so remember the tip!||Various locations, see website.|
|SomeBurros||Pretty much everything is under $10, including combo meals (drinks are extra). You can also order individual tacos, burros, quesadillas, and other items.||Various locations, see website.|
Although sit-down restaurants of any kind will include tips for the servers, diner-style restaurants are still relatively inexpensive and sometimes offer special value menus with lower-cost items.
|Denny’s||Check out the items on their value menu!||Various locations, see website.|
|Village Inn||Soups, Chili, and breakfast items are your best bets for the lowest prices. You can also go for just dessert and coffee! On Wednesdays, you can get a free piece of pie if you order a meal.||Various locations, see website.|
|IHOP||The best bets for meals under $10 are the breakfast items, especially the pancakes!||Various locations, see website.|
These are place which tend to specialize in different types of coffee and sandwiches.
|Back East Bagels||Bagel sandwiches for less than $10 each! Breakfast ones are cheaper, but the lunch ones include a pickle spear and the side item of your choice (coleslaw, cottage cheese, or chips). You can also just get a bagel as a light breakfast or snack. They have many different kinds and a variety of spreads. Breakfast and lunch only.||
1628 E. Southern Ave. Suite 2
Tempe AZ 85282
|Steve’s Espresso||Besides making various types of coffee drinks, they also serve breakfast and lunch items (which could also be dinner because they’re open until 7 pm), all of which are currently under $10. They also have some alcoholic drinks (for the price conscious, alcohol costs more than coffee).||
1801 E Baseline Rd #102
Tempe AZ 85283
Other Types of Restaurants
This section is for restaurants that do not fit into the above categories.
|Cornish Pasty Co.||A pasty is a kind of meat and veggie pie, almost like a very large, much tastier Hot Pocket. Some of them only come with veggies, and they do have a vegetarian/vegan section to their menu. A typical pasty costs roughly $11 or $12, putting it slightly above the range I aim for, but I almost never eat an entire pasty in one sitting. They’re pretty filling, and it would be easy to split one with other person. Some of the more inexpensive pasties are only about $10. They also have some soups that are nice and come with fresh bread that cost much less. There are also salads that are under $10, and the Spanakopita Cocktail Pasties under the appetizer menu could be a light meal themselves. This is a sit-down restaurant, so you will have to remember the tip.||Various locations, see website.|
|Salad and Go||This is a drive-thru salad restaurant that also serves wraps and some breakfast items. Plenty of items for less than $10!||Various locations, see website.|