Tapenade 7612 Fay Ave.La Jolla 858-551-7500www.tapenaderestaurant.com
These are tough times for a professional eater. To be up-front, it feels kind of strange to encourage people to eat out while the sky is falling around us. As we're all tightening our purse strings, who am I to tell you to loosen them up again just for dinner? But here's the thing: We've all gotta eat. And beyond that, what is food if not comfort, which we could all use a bit of these days. Most food-industry folk—restaurant owners, chefs and servers—are feeling the pinch, too, so if we all stop going out to eat, there go the livelihoods of a lot of good people who are just trying to provide a little escape from the doom-and-gloom we're feeling. There are still occasions to commemorate with a nice meal, and, really, eating is just fun.
Some of these restaurants have adjusted their prices to better jibe with the times, while others are offering set dinners that offer multi-course meal experiences without the commensurate sky-high bill. The Better Half has its “Stressed Economy Special,” an early-bird three-course dinner for just $15. On Tuesdays, Hillcrest's Bite offers four courses for $20.08, and $25 gets you a five-course tasting meal at the Wine Vault & Bistro. Cavaillon, a great French place up north, just rolled out a happy-hour menu with tapas plates starting at $3, and in La Jolla, another higher-end spot, Tapenade, has a bar area that serves an abridged, more-affordable menu. If you're bringing someone you want to impress, don't worry—the bar section isn't a low-budget annex; the seating is plenty cushy, the service just as attentive as the main dining room.
I've taken lots of people to Tapenade over the years, usually with success. It's refreshingly un-trendy, so if you're looking for flash, keep on walkin'. What you will find is a quiet, comfortable place to have a good conversation and nice food that costs a good deal less that it could. In this day and age, I'm hard-pressed to want for more. And there's no need to break the speed limit to make a fleeting magic hour, since the happy-hour prices run from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday.
For $7, the escargot (they're snails, and they're delicious!) come six to a plate but can be stretched into a light meal with a basket of crusty baguette from Bread & Cie to mop up every last drop of the garlic, herb and hazelnut butter they're nestled in. A seasonal vegetable plate, also $7, sounds boring but is tasty enough to hold the interest of this carnivore; the farm-fresh medley gets enhanced by parsley, olive oil and aged parmesan. Add a side of hot pommes frites and garlic aioli for a pretty elegant meal that barely breaks the double digits.
My favorite is the homemade ravioli, stuffed with a wild mushroom and Port wine reduction. The dish is covered in frothy white-truffle foam—kind of precious, yes, but the foam actually keeps each bite from tasting too rich and helps pump up the earthy mushroom flavor. It's filling, too; all else you need is a glass of wine ($2 off during happy hour).
There are heartier plates, half-priced portions of coq au vin and steak au poivre, and for dessert, $5 for chocolate-drenched profiteroles filled with ice cream. Sure they're all semi-outdated bistro classics, but I'm an old-fashioned—and budget-conscious— kind of girl.