Livin' (almost) free in Raleigh | Annual Manual | Indy Week
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Livin' (almost) free in Raleigh 

I'm not arguing that this is the healthiest diet on the planet, or the cheapest. But, as it often goes, the healthiest can be expensive, and the cheapest involves sitting at home alone with tomatoes, a jar of mayonnaise and a loaf of bread (heavy on the pepper with my tomato sandwiches, please). But this is a diet that is at least moderately cheap and loads of fun.

I set out for Raleigh with a simple task: Hit the town for seven days, eat well (well, almost--I usually skip breakfast), and have fun for less than $100. Longtime Chapel Hill musician and journalist Kirk Ross and Indy photographer extraordinaire York Wilson took more hypothetical, but well researched, swings at living large for less in Chapel Hill/Carrboro and Durham.

As a senior at N.C. State, I decided to spend my week around campus, hitting spots accessible for incoming students and cool enough for those that have been here for the long haul. We hope you enjoy reading these trips as much as we enjoyed living them.

Welcome to Raleigh, kids, newcomers, country folk. Before we begin here, I'd like to give you a few tips that may make your stay in Raleigh (that being a month, a year or a lifetime) a bit easier. First, get to know people. The clubs, movies and shows that I pay to enter in the narrative below can all be enjoyed for free if you know the right strings on the right friends to pull. If, say, you have a pal who is the projectionist at the North Carolina Museum of Art, you probably won't have to pay for admission, as all employees get to bring a guest to their Friday night movies. See, six bucks in the bag.

Second, don't be afraid to try something new. If a new restaurant pops up in town, your life will not be upended if you don't enjoy your pioneering meal there. You may be out four of the six bucks you saved by abiding by step one, but get over it. McDonald's is open late, and I hear their heart attacks in a bag come dirt-cheap.

Lastly, ask for help. Of course, there are people that have been here a long time, much longer than you've been alive. Most of them are pretty amiable, and they can recommend hot spots, quiet spots, good eats and places to avoid. You may find a few helpful tips and recommendations in these pages as well, not to mention in the monthly Raleigh Hatchet and on a handful of Web sites devoted to covering the Capital City's art, music, restaurant and shopping scenes.

You may have also noticed that there isn't any alcohol on this trip through Raleigh. Of course, if you're a freshman, you will have a hard time drinking in downtown bars, and an even harder time budgeting it into your $100. But do remember tip No. 1, and make plenty of friends. Your alcohol worries should be under control then.

Monday, July 19
We'll start this seven-day adventure with a lunch more expensive than the rest. El Rodeo is your customary anglicized Mexican restaurant, serving the standard enchiladas, tacos and fajitas while the south-of-the-border take on Muzak plays in the background. There's no need to order from the standard menu, though, as the lunch specials are more than adequate and run two dollars less than the same meal would two hours later. The taco salad comes with either beef or chicken in a billowing flour tortilla shell, smothered with melted cheese, fresh lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream. At $4.95 (and given the free, unlimited chips and salsa at your beck and call), it's a steal. With tax and tip, that rounds out to an even $6.00.

The evening's entertainment commences with a free advance screening of Napoleon Dynamite, a smart comedy that runs like Rushmore's protagonist committed to a lower demographic. These screenings most often run at Brier Creek just below the airport or at Crossroads 20 in Cary, and passes can be found at record stores and other select locations around the city. You'll want to arrive at the screening early, though; tonight, the lines wind around the theater as 500 people attempt to beg their way into a room built for 200.

After that, it's a trip to Raleigh's jam and country hot spot, The Pour House Music Hall on Blount Street. Tonight, jazz guitarist Scott Sawyer is playing a free gig as part of his two-month residency, and his takes on classics from The Beatles to Glen Campbell are intriguing. The Pour House customarily hosts free shows Sunday through Tuesday, and drink specials are always on tap. Around midnight, it's a trip to Cook-Out, the only chain in this narrative, but one that is deserving of the loftiest recommendation thanks to its $3.99 combo special, which includes a sandwich (I go with the Cajun-style chicken, with mustard), two sides (fries and a corn dog, please) and a huge sweet tea. With tax, it's $4.58, and with taste, it's hard to beat.

$100.00 -- (Food) $10.58 -- (Entertainment) $0 = $89.42

Tuesday, July 20
Tuesday is hot dog day, people. As for the domain of the dog in Raleigh, The Roast Grill is as good as they come, but at $1.75 they're a bit high. They've been at the same spot serving the same dogs since 1940, which may give them some right to refuse their customers ketchup as they do. But when you want ketchup, folks, you want ketchup.

That brings us to Snoopy's, the two-location Raleigh hot dog joint where it all can go onto the dog--relish, slaw, cheese, chili, mustard, mayonnaise, Texas Pete. On Tuesdays, they only run 99 cents, and a me-sized man can make a mighty fine meal from three with mustard, ketchup, chili and onions. With water, that's a steal at $3.21.

After a bit of schoolwork, this evening's culinary experience will be an international diversion. I head to the Neomonde Bakery & Deli, a newly renovated Mediterranean restaurant and grocery store hidden between two industrial sites off of Hillsborough Street. I go with the falafel sandwich with hummus and a heap of vegetable toppings, and I opt for an extra side of hummus. An extra pita for the side comes free, as does the water. This international delight runs me $7.59.

After last night's urban trailblazing, I'm going to relax a bit: I take a trip to Quail Ridge Books, browsing through a few selections until closing time before heading to a Barnes & Noble location in Cary. I'd rather buy my books from a local independent store like Quail Ridge than the ubiquitous B&N, but--because of the size of each store--one can browse and read for hours without buying a thing. I spend the night with Verlyn Klinkenborg's The Rural Life, a lo-fi, year-long journal of a Northeastern man. It's one of the most comfortable and provoking books I've ever read, but it goes back on the shelf until my next Quail Ridge run.

$89.42 -- (Food) $10.80 -- (Entertainment) $0) = $78.62

Wednesday, July 21
I've got to work on Wednesday, so take-out it is. Hillsborough Street's Sub-Conscious Subs is known for its excellent bread and for its extensive, seven-panel menu that runs the gamut from pressure-fried chicken and spaghetti with meatballs to pepperoni subs and New York-style pizza. Essentially, it's a one-stop eating resource that's open early and late. I go with the fried chicken combo--a breast, wing, fries and drink--for a bargain at $4.31.

After this afternoon's grease attack, it's time to eat something a little more healthy: I head to Mitch's Tavern, a long-standing bar overlooking Hillsborough Street that has been accommodating professors during the day and students until last call for two decades. Their salads are mammoth and fresh, and their chili is savory and steaming. I combine the two, going with the soup-and-salad combo for $5.95. They'll give you as much dressing as you want. The meal (which I can't finish) runs $7.43.

I finish the night with a trip downtown to The Berkley Cafe, where local blues impresarios Josh Preslar and Turner Brandon host a roaring open mic night every Wednesday. Loose improvisation and spontaneous collaborations abound on a myriad of covers (you may grow weary of "Red House"), but some acts bring their own material to the stage for an interactive crowd that appreciates a good vamp when the player finds it. Always lots of fun, and essential for understanding what makes this town so accepting musically.

$78.62 -- (Food) $11.74 -- (Entertainment) $0 = $66.88

Thursday, July 22
Given a nuclear strike, three things would survive: termites, Sadlack's Heroes and its regulars. Sadlack's has sat squarely on Hillsborough Street for 30 years now, serving up cold beer, hot sandwiches and loud rock for a steady group of locals, professors and students that consider the friendly dive to be a second home. If you're not allergic to cigarette smoke, Sadlack's has one of the best sandwich menus in town, running the gamut from the banana pepper-laced Skillinator X (named for Patty Hurst Shifter/Tres Chicas/Whiskeytown drummer Skillet Gilmore) to a mammoth-sized club. I go with the Big Mike, a hot pastrami sandwich smothered in melted provolone and your choice of fresh vegetables. With water and the constant conversation that makes Sadlack's a must for any newcomer, lunch runs $4.25.

For the evening meal, my roommate and I head to Moonlight Pizza Company, a friendly, bouncy pizza parlor just shy of downtown with perhaps the most comfortable, quiet and conversational patio in affordable Raleigh dining. It's pouring outside, so we sit indoors, splitting one of the Triangle's best large pizzas with Italian sausage as You Forget About Your Heart from local pop-rockers Schooner spins overhead. We barely finish our meal, but our charming waitress decides it's best to sell us two chocolate chip cookies for the price of one. They're of the crispy sort and well worth the dollar my roommate spends for both. For the $1.50 tip, half of the pizza and one cookie, I tender $8.25.

Keep in mind that if you like sushi, the downtown Sushi Blues Cafe will become one of your favorite Raleigh stops, and all dishes are half-price every Thursday at the chic Glenwood Avenue hot spot.

I'd planned on visiting Blue Ridge Cinema tonight, often referred to as "The Dollar Theatre" for its $1.50 blockbusters that run just before the movie hits video stores. Alas, Blue Ridge is closed this summer for renovations, but it should be in full swing for the school year. Instead, I catch Butch Walker at The Lincoln Theatre, which runs $12 a ticket. These are exceptional circumstances, though, so I get the $1.50 benefit of the doubt.

$66.88 -- (Food) $12.50 -- (Entertainment) $1.50 = $52.88

Friday, July 23
I'm working in Durham today, so I decide to grab a large, sit-down breakfast in Raleigh before heading over to the Bull City with a banana and a bottle of water for lunch.

Finch's is a favorite of Raleigh cops, politicians, businessmen and hipsters alike, a long-standing Raleigh diner hidden just off Peace Street with a huge parking lot. It's open for breakfast and lunch only, but getting there for either of those meals is a surefire treat. I go with two eggs over easy (delicious, which is expected from a place that has been called the "best breakfast joint in the world" by WTVD) and a cup of coffee. With a tip and the moral dilemma that ensues as I realize I'm leaving less than a dollar even though that's more than 20 percent, it runs an even $4.

Though Finch's is a plainly decorated country diner, it has a few surprising twists. Here's one: The staff seems to be obsessed with Internet technology, so Finch's is one of Raleigh's more popular and free WiFi hotspots. And if the silver camera staring at you from the right corner of the diner (near the grill) scares you, have no fear. It's simply a Webcam, sending your image out in perfect black and white every second via www.finchrestaurant.com . That's fancy.

Inspired by the screening of Napoleon Dynamite earlier in the week, a friend and I catch Rushmore on a mammoth outdoor screen strung across one side of the North Carolina Museum of Art. It's a relaxing night and, of course, a hilarious film. True, the $6 admission price is twice that for a Blockbuster rental, but there are some things--like the cool summer breeze and the soft grass reserved for lounging--that don't have a price on a night like this.

I've seen more than one wayfaring stranger wander Glenwood South wondering where to eat, staring at the beaten door leading upstairs to The Rockford. They normally give up and go elsewhere, spending too much money at a place with little to no atmosphere. That said, try the aforementioned Rockford, MoJoe's, The Armadillo Grill, Enotica Vin (late at night, mind you) and Helios (for great coffee, smoothies and wine). We head to MoJoe's, my favorite burger joint in town that actually has waitresses and ice-cold buckets o' beer. MoJoe's generally has indoor and outdoor seating available throughout the year, since their front patio has a handy, removable plastic covering. The burgers are fantastic (try the Carnivore or the Blue's Burger), but the other sandwiches are as exceptional as they are overlooked. MoJoe's chunky, grape-packed chicken salad is a hit on toasted bread, but I choose the three cheese and tomato sandwich with mustard, mayo and onions. The crinkle fries at this corner spot are always on target (for an indulgence, splurge for the chili-cheese fries), so my friend and I split a basket. Excellent, and an even $6 with the appropriate tip.

$52.88 -- (Food) $10 -- (Entertainment) $6 = $36.88

Saturday, July 24
There are plenty of seafood restaurants around the Triangle, but none seem quite as convenient as the North Carolina Seafood Restaurant in the Farmers' Market. A lunch shrimp plate costs only $5.99, and it's more than I can eat (a rare feat). If you're a people watcher, this warehouse restaurant will become one of your hot spots--businessmen, retired couples, students and kids abound throughout the day. With water, the meal runs $6.47. If your budget is tight, I recommend a few trips through the market. The samples should suffice.

Tonight, I'll run a few errands downtown before heading to The Countdown Quartet show at Martin St. Music Hall. I'm running out of time and looking to eat quickly, so I head to The Armadillo Grill, located directly on the vibrant south end of Glenwood Avenue (its shorthand, Glo-So, is an aural offense). I order a soft-shell guacamole taco and a hard-shell ground beef taco, as well as a basket of chips (the salsa and pico de gallo are exceptional). I sit on Glenwood as I did the night before, watching the wealthy partiers flock in and out of the ritzy Sullivan's. A filling, delicious meal for a mere $5.58.

Martin St. Music Hall is the newest venue in town, and it may be on its way to becoming one of the best (Kings currently holds that honor). The basement is Lizzie's, a relaxed bar with a great seven-day variety of soul, rock and jazz, though the middle floor is in the midst of a redesign that will make it the "Martin St. Kitchen," the latest enterprise of Five Star's Chris Binder. The rock happens on the third floor, one long, newly renovated (by members of Patty Hurst Shifter and ex-6 String Drag man Rob Farris) red room with a top-notch light and sound rig. The Countdown Quartet is the absolute best party band in Raleigh, interweaving multi-horn melodies into Dave Wright's smoking New Orleans rhythm 'n' blues numbers. For $7 at the door, tonight is a celebration.

$36.88 -- (Food) $12.05 -- (Entertainment) $7 = $17.83

Sunday, July 25
I'm working on Hillsborough Street on this Sunday afternoon, so, again, I go for take-out. Cameron Village is generally not known for its thrift-worthiness, as you can easily drop a few hundred on anything from a pair of pants to a pocketbook. But they do have a handful of restaurants where you can eat well for $6; Moe's has gargantuan burritos, but this isn't a survey course on Raleigh's Tex-Mex hotspots. Instead, I go next door to The Village Deli, a friendly Southern spot whose sandwiches would probably fare just as well in Greenwich Village as they do in Cameron Village. Their Reuben is the best in town, but--on a recommendation--I order the veggie on ciabatta with onions (free and pungent) and a side-cup of one of the best sauces found in this town, a thick, spicy balsamic vinaigrette meant for pouring but perfect for dipping the deli's chewy ciabatta. With water, it runs $5.13.

We'll end this trip around Raleigh with an expensive meal that's still a deal. After this afternoon's vegetarian trip, I go for the carnivore effect, heading to Don Murray's Barbecue & Seafood on Capital Boulevard. With tax, tip and tea, the buffet runs $9.88. There are places in town with cheaper family-style offerings and plates, but Don Murray's 20-item buffet--which includes a full salad bar, corn, collards, fish, chicken and banana pudding--is the best. It makes no matter how hungry you are on the drive over; when you leave, you'll barely be able to walk as you calculate when you'll be able to return to this Raleigh landmark.

The last night of this excursion is spent at NeuRomace, a weekly drum 'n' bass/deep house dance party at Kings Barcade. Guest DJs abound and hot dancing radiates on this perfect end to this cheap, fun and tasty week.

$17.83 -- (Food) $15.01 -- (Entertainment) $0 = $2.82

There you have it. After seven days, 14 meals, and seven nights worth of entertainment, I come out with $2.82 in my pocket. And though I only ate breakfast once, the money left should be sufficient to buy breakfast fruit from the Farmers' Market (don't forget the samples) for several days. And if you're like most college students, you'll eat your way through breakfast with your eyes closed.

More by Grayson Haver Currin

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