Dining Deals

Stretch That Dining Dollar: Eat Fancy at Lunch

At Da Marco, as I ate the last, sweet bites of my antelope paillard -- the barely gamy meat pounded thin and just slightly crispy at the edges, draped with caramelized peppers and finished off with a beautiful mound of fluffy whipped potatoes -- a thought briefly hit my mind: This is going hurt when I get the bill.

It's a thought I'm used to entertaining when eating high-quality, skillfully executed food in a luxe environment, as we all are. And then I remembered...this is only $25 for all three courses. Before my antelope paillard was a salad of white and green asparagus with thick, curled shavings of parm in a mustard vinaigrette. After it, a chocolate torte with cherries and ice cream was headed my way. With tax and tip, I indulged in these three fine courses for just under $35.

Not a bad way to spend a lunch hour.

At a time when it's becoming increasingly difficult for some people to treat themselves to fine dining, Houston's best restaurants have a not-so-hidden secret: business lunches. Establishments like Da Marco have long been offering these prix-fixe menus at lunch, initially designed to get businessmen (or women) in and out in an efficient time frame. But these days, they're also an opportunity to enjoy some truly top-notch food without paying dinner prices. (Bonus: You probably aren't going to drink a bottle of wine at lunch either, so you're cutting down on the tab tremendously right there.)

These are some of our favorite lunch deals at the moment. Chime in with your own suggestions below if we missed yours.

Da Marco 1520 Westheimer, 713-807-8857

As mentioned, Da Marco has one of the best lunch deals in town starting at 11:30 a.m. on weekdays: three enormous courses for $25. Those three courses aren't just limited to a set menu, though. You can choose an appetizer, entree and dessert from nearly any part of the menu, even the stunning list of daily specials. (Except the $95 risotto with white truffles, sadly.)

Mark's 1658 Westheimer, 713-523-3800

Right around the corner, Mark's has a prix-fixe lunch menu for just a few cents more: $26.95 for three courses. And like Da Marco, they're not skimping on the good stuff: Avruga caviar, Bryan Farms chicken, New England diver scallops and soft shell crab are just some of the goodies on the menu, starting at 11 a.m. on weekdays.

Mockingbird Bistro 1985 Welch, 713-533-0200

This River Oaks/Montrose (we haven't really decided yet where it belongs, even after all these years) gem offers a low-key, elegant business lunch for $25 -- but it only comes with two courses. Despite this, the portions are very large and very good, as one would expect here. Now that it's chilly, try the luscious veal sweetbreads and keep an eye out for upcharges like the $3.50 glasses of iced tea.

Tony's 3755 Richmond, 713-622-6778

The prix-fixe lunch menu at Tony's is called The Greenway Express and comes in at a mere $17 for three courses. Of course, you have a far more limited selection to choose from here -- a soup or salad, two entrees -- but former EOW blogger Ruthie Johnson liked it quite a bit, compressed selection and all.

*17 at the Alden Hotel 1117 Prairie, 713-200-8800

Although the wonderful Voice Box is no longer offered during lunch at Voice, *17 is still doing a brisk lunch business at this hotel restaurant down the street. The weekday lunch menu offers a great deal with three courses for only $17, including your choice of items like sweet corn bisque with local Pola cheese and a pecan-smoked flat iron steak.

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Katharine Shilcutt