12 Budget-Friendly Ideas for Dining-Out Romance in Houston

We recently posted a list of 20 Romantic Restaurants, and while the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, a few readers pointed out that most of these places are on the expensive side.

It's a fair point that needed to be addressed, so here are a dozen budget-friendly ideas for dates that include some kind of dining out. One big cost-cutting tip: Nothing will add to the tab faster or more significantly than alcohol. Consider this: Two glasses of wine is pretty much the dollar equivalent of buying a third entrée. It's cheaper (and safer) to have a nightcap at home after dinner.

Each of these ideas costs around $60 or less -- no creative skimping required.

12. Dinner and a Movie at Alamo Drafthouse Theatre

Both the Alamo Drafthouse locations at 114 Vintage Park in far northwest Houston and in Katy on 531 South Mason can be terrific for date night, depending on what kind of evening you're looking to have. A full menu of appetizers, entrées and desserts makes them one-stop shops. Order popcorn and feed each other. Cut down costs by ignoring the wine, beer and cocktail menu, or just hold it down to one drink each to keep things modest. A two-hour break from the rest of the world is a treasure, especially if you're both stressed out more than usual. The only downside is that you don't actually get to look at and talk to each other, but holding hands and having something to talk about afterwards has value, too. Movie tickets are $9.50, or take advantage of the current late-night special where showings after 10 p.m. are only $5. There's a late-night menu with deals on food, too.

11. House of Pies, 6142 Westheimer and 3112 Kirby

I know, you're thinking, "There's no way House of Pies can be romantic," but if you and your date both have a fun, goofy sense of humor, it really can be. The people-watching potential at 1 a.m. is some of the best in the city. My husband and I have had some really memorable nights where the manager was making balloon animals for the adults and we had everyone hanging spoons off their noses. (Fine, maybe it's not your idea of romance, but it's a cherished memory for us.) The corned beef hash (well done, please) and eggs is a good choice. They apparently have a good cheeseburger, too. For dessert, there's something about good pie and mediocre coffee that's apt to set off a twinkle in your eyes and laughter in your heart.

10. Breakfast at Pondicheri, 2800 Kirby

Want to dine out but don't want to spend a lot of money? Don't go out for dinner. Go out for lunch or even breakfast. This one is especially good for people who work the night shift. Maybe a romantic dinner won't work, but how about a nice breakfast instead? Get traditional Indian flavors like cardamom and rosewater involved, and breakfast suddenly just got sexy. Try Pondicheri's outstanding breakfast thali, a sort of combination plate with that includes potato curry, saffron yogurt, fresh fruit, carrot paratha, a fried egg and more. There are two different types of mimosas available, even on the weekdays. There's one with orange juice and raspberries, and another with mango juice and blueberries.

9. Go Out for Ice Cream

Whether your creamy confection of choice is found at Fat Cat Creamery, Cloud 10 Creamery, Sweet Cup Gelato or somewhere else, going out for ice cream is fun and economical for couples. Cap it off with a budget-friendly trip to a museum, the Houston Zoo or a walk in a park.

8. Thai Pepper, 2075 West Alabama

While most Thai restaurants have reasonable prices, the fact that Thai Pepper is housed in an old bungalow with dim lighting and real tablecloths makes it more romantic than most. Get a big bowl of tom yum goong (spicy broth with shrimp, lemongrass and chiles) and some creamy red or green curry, and soon the heat of the food will match the effect your date is having on you. There are only a few parking spaces directly in front of the restaurant, but you can park in front of the house next door as well, which belongs to the same owners.

7. Have a Picnic

When the Trader Joe's at 2922 South Shepherd first opened, several of us Eating...Our Words bloggers were given an assignment: Take $20 and figure out the most fun you can have with it with products from Trader Joe's. For my assignment, I chose a romantic picnic. I picked up a pre-made salad, a bottle of wine and some chocolates. It all worked just great and my husband and I had a lovely, romantic lunch. Even if you don't go to Trader Joe's, picnics are inherently economical. There's no premium to pay for a restaurant meal and no tip. Just don't forget to check the weather forecast and the rules of the park you are going to. Most ban glass containers and some prohibit alcohol.

5. Allô French Rotisserie, 126 Vintage Park

The quality of the rotisserie meats at this casual option in Vintage Park is consistently impressive. Allô is a welcome addition to Houston's few independent French cafes. It always offers rotisserie chicken ($12 for a half one; $14 for all-white meat) and one other meat that changes daily. (The herb pesto lamb, offered on Wednesdays, is especially tasty.) Even better, the rotisserie offerings come with two side dishes, which makes this a great deal. Choose from among sexy sides like dauphinois potatoes, ratatouille, mushroom duxelles, grilled asparagus and more. Increase the romance factor by adding a carafe or half-carafe of one of the house wines on tap.

4. Mala Sichuan, 9348 Bellaire

The spicy Chinatown darling of Houston food writers deserves a great deal of its positive press. It not only sports a menu full of flavorful delights but it also offers a wine list curated by Justin Vann of PSA Wines and Public Services Wine & Whiskey. It's recommended for adventurous couples who are not afraid of dishes with names like "Couples Lung Slices," a $6.95 starter that's a lot tastier than it sounds. It's marinated beef shank, beef tendon and honeycomb beef tripe tossed with spicy vinaigrette and topped with crushed peanuts. Most entrées here are $10 and under.

3. Paulie's / Camerata, 1834 Westheimer

Paulie's is an unassuming Italian place that nonetheless takes great pride in what it serves. It makes most of its own pasta and not only has its own wine selection, but it's also next door to notable wine bar Camerata. So you have choices, depending on your budget. Have a cheese and meat platter with some wine at Camerata, and either stay there or make your way to Paulie's. Alternately, just stay at Paulie's and re-enact the spaghetti scene from Lady and the Tramp. Thursday is osso bucco night, but get there early as it can run out quickly. The peppery bucatini amatriciana may in fact have aphrodisiac properties -- or maybe it's just really spicy. Either way, it will get your blood pumping. For dessert, get an iced shortbread cookie and a cappuccino from one of their baristas (who receive a good amount of training to make the best espresso drinks possible).

2. Giacomo's Cibo e Vino, 3215 Westheimer

Chef Lynette Hawkins's casual Italian restaurant takes all haughtiness out of the dining experience. If the weather is nice, sit on the patio adorned with lush greenery and flowers. About half the entrées are $15 or less, and they include the cotoletta di maiale alla milanese: a loin chop of pasture-raised pork coated in seasoned breadcrumbs with frisée, fennel, Sicilian green olives, radish and vinaigrette. Not only is there a big wine selection, but you can order in increments as small as half a glass.

1. Prix Fixe Lunches at French Restaurants

Most people know that French places are geared for serving up romance on a plate. Here's a secret, though: Many offer a multi-course fixed-price lunch! It's the same quality of food as what you'd have for dinner, but for about half the price. Here are some examples: Le Mistral, 1400 Eldridge, has a "business lunch" that includes soup or salad, entrée of the day and dessert for $20.

Artisans, 3201 Louisiana, offers variations on that same type of three-course deal: the "express lunch" is $20 while the "business lunch" is $27. Author's note: an employee with Artisans contacted us to say the express lunch is discontinued and the business lunch price has increased by $2 due to rising food costs. Still though, that's not a bad deal for a three-course meal.

The best deal on coursed lunches may be at Aura Brasserie, located at 15977 City Walk in Sugar Land Town Square. Its three-course lunch is a mere $15.95.

It's Creole, not straight French, but Brennan's of Houston has a $16 à la carte lunch that includes an appetizer and one of three entrée choices. Bonus: They have 25-cent mini-martinis until 3 p.m.

A three-course lunch in a beautiful restaurant is affordable romance. To make it complete, take the afternoon off and spend the rest of the day at home.

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Phaedra Cook
Contact: Phaedra Cook