The Appetite Stimulus Plan

If you’re in London and Paris, you can find on the Internet maps to “recession restaurants” — because as Jaunted, the pop culture travel guide so eloquently puts it, “This financial crisis thing-y is global, and everyone everywhere still has to eat (lavishly).”

So everybody’s hunting for restaurants that make us forget we don’t have money anymore. The $42 meals Jaunted featured may be bargains in the currency-trading cities, but at the Gazette we thought, for diners on the Vineyard this winter, spending more than $20 might take the comfort out of the food. So, that was the limit. And it turned out to be more than enough.

The options were surprisingly many. Even putting pizza off limits (though it’s hard to go past Edgartown Pizza’s Monday special of a second pie at half price). Even barring burgers (though the mouth-watering grills at the Wharf or at Balance still would leave plenty of change for drinks). Even without hitting a two-for-one deal (though it’s always good to have an excuse to go to Offshore Ale). And without pointing out that potlucks are the ultimate depression busters.

Below find a delicious number of ways to eat your way through a budget of 20 bucks, with several courses, desserts or drinks, or even money left for a movie.

Slice of Life

My assignment was to go out and find dinner for under $20. On a cold winter night. On the Vineyard. In the off-season. With the country in a recession and people hurting for money but needing a little levity and perhaps a little break from cooking at home.

And I found my thrill in the form of a delicious healthy dinner at Slice of Life on Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs. Chef and owner Jackson Kenworth was on duty the night I took myself out to dinner.

In fact there were many choices on the menu that fit the budget: I could have had a turkey Reuben sandwich for $9 and a vegetable and or chicken soup for $4.50. In the end I settled on a pesto chicken panini — an Italian grilled sandwich which made for a very good supper on a bitter January evening.

The sandwich came with a side order of coleslaw — a perfect, vinegary accompaniment to the basil-rich savory sandwich. So far I had spent $9.50.

My waitress Cathy Verost was quick to point out what goes into every meal and she proved to be quite knowledgeable about the menu, pointing out the things that people like best.

Now for something to drink. I chose sparkling Italian mineral water, a 16.9-ounce bottle of Fonteviva from Toscana. The water was $3.25. Conscious of my budget, I held off on ordering a beer and chose the water with an eye toward the immediate future: dessert.

It turned out to be a good trade-off. I love chocolate and Slice of Life makes the ultimate dessert for chocoholics: a small, flourless chocolate cake. Warm and soft on the inside, crusty on the outside, it is called chocolate fondant. It arrived topped with whipped cream. I took one forkful and the winter doldrums melted away.

The fondant cost $6.

Sadly, my delightful culinary experience was over in less than an hour. Happily, the final bill, including local tax of 94 cents, came to $19.69.

I may go back some day to splurge a little: an oven-roasted half organic chicken is $20. Grilled sirloin steak is $22. Both are still pretty reasonable, especially by Vineyard restaurant standards.

And everybody needs a night out once in awhile. Especially in a recession.

— Mark Alan Lovewell

Black Dog Tavern

A two-course dinner for $20 that comes with an exotic trip to a remote and windswept coast along southern Africa?

It was a virtual trip — and feast — on a recent Wednesday during the fireside winter dinner and lecture series held at the Black Dog Tavern and sponsored by Sail Martha’s Vineyard. Diners feasted on expertly prepared dishes of baked salmon and chicken cacciatore, followed by a presentation by Rob Douglas about his recent trip to Lüderitz, Namibia.

A portion of the proceeds goes toward sailing programs for Island children.

So who said you can’t have a good night out around here in January?

Using a power point presentation, Mr. Douglas, chief executive officer of the Black Dog Tavern Inc., showed the gathering of about 45 people pictures of one of the most remote coasts in Africa. Mr. Douglas visited Namibia in September to compete in the Lüderitz Speed Challenge, an annual event overseen by the World Sailing Speed Record Council.

Mr. Douglas used a kite surfer to travel an astounding speed of 49.84 knots (approximately 58 miles per hour) to establish a speed sailing world record — held until that date only by sailboats or windsurfers. Although French sailor Alex Caizergues eventually captured the world record at 50.57 knots later during the event, Mr. Douglas briefly claimed the title of being the fastest person on water powered by sail.

His chronicles of sailing and water sports under sunny skies were a perfect grace note to the dinner during one of the coldest nights of the winter. Diners had to carefully negotiate icy sidewalks and roadways before entering the cozy confines of the Black Dog tavern, where Brock Callen, program director for Sail MV, greeted them with a warm smile.

And the food was great. The first course was thick New England clam chowder served buffet-style. Some people had brought their own beer and wine.

The main course from Black Dog chef Jim Williston was superb at any price, but a steal at $20. Patrons had a choice of herb-roasted salmon with a tarragon leek sauce or a traditional chicken cacciatore. Both were excellent.

The chicken was topped with tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, herbs, bell peppers and what tasted like white wine. On an evening when the temperatures hovered around 20 degrees, the hearty Italian favorite was especially warm and inviting. My dinner companion had the salmon, which was finished with a perfect combination of herbs and what appeared to be a light coating of bread crumbs.

Side dishes of gorgonzola mashed potatoes and maple glazed baby carrots were equally delicious.

The food was so good, in fact, that I returned to the buffet line for seconds. The person tending the buffet at first appeared apprehensive — only out of concern that there may not be enough to go around. But I was ready to plead starving, underpaid reporter, and after some tense negotiations, we struck a compromise. She diplomatically dished out a half-piece of chicken and a small portion of baby carrots.

My third voyage to the buffet line netted a full piece of chicken and second portion of salmon, and since the mashed potatoes and baby carrots seemed destined for the kitchen at that point, I was able to get some of those with only minimal prodding.

I stopped at three, full and happy and with my Gazette expense account still intact.

— Jim Hickey

The fireside winter dinner and lecture series at the Black Dog Tavern resumes Feb. 11 and concludes March 11. The cost is $20 for adults and $12 for children. For reservations call Brock Callen at Sail MV at 696-7644.


O-Sun Hibachi and Asian Kitchen, located on Oak Bluffs avenue beside the Surfside hotel, specializes in fresh pan-Asian Cuisine. The ambiance is cozy and the restaurant is rarely crowded. Service is extremely friendly and the kitchen is very flexible in adapting to patrons’ dietary preferences.

I went in expecting standard Americanized Chinese food but found the selection to be much more sophisticated than one typically . There were a lot of Pacific Rim influences on the menu, with an overt emphasis on seafood.

I decided on a seaweed salad appetizer to start. It was a toss-up against the freshly steamed, lightly salted unshelled edamame, but the seaweed was ultimately selected as it would provide a better gauge of the restaurant’s quality, since steamed soybeans, while delicious, are not difficult to make. The wakame seaweed was delicately flavored to mild garlicky sweetness with a tang of vinegar. Sesame seeds added texture, and the overall effect was that, even though this was one of the less expensive items in the appetizer list, the chef had put care and attention to detail into not just the seaweed itself but the overall presentation as well.

For an entree, I went for golden crispy scallops, lightly battered with panko bread flakes, deep fried and then drizzled with a thin hot pepper sauce. The scallops were served with walnuts and perfectly steamed baby bok choi, radially arranged around the plate. The presentation was so fine I was hesitant to ruin it with my first bite, but the scent was tempting enough that I couldn’t hold out for long. The scallops were big and moist, their batter extremely crunchy but not at all heavy or greasy. The baby bok choi was the show stealer, however; the dense, delicate, almost floral flavor the perfect answer to the spice and subtle fishiness of the scallops.

The portions were large and the prices were low, considering the caliber of the service and presentation, and the quality and freshness of the food. The total cost for my meal was just over $18, including tax. O-Sun also accepts Island Club cards for 15 per cent discounts. Open seven days a week, this restaurant is a hidden gem.

— Cooper Davis

Sharky’s Cantina

Here in the land of the free and the home of the fat, a little recession-induced belt tightening might be no bad thing. But gee, it’s hard to do.

Somewhere I have one of those VIP discount cards Sharky’s Cantina offers to year-round Islanders, but without even finding it I tottered out of the Edgartown restaurant Monday having easily fulfilled my instructions to enjoy dinner out for under $20.

Between us, my dinner partner and I had eaten our fill — actually rather more than our fill — and left drinks on the table for a total of $35.90, not including tips. That’s $17.95 a head.

And we could comfortably have dined for a great deal less.

Truth be told, we were far from starving when we went in. It was Martin Luther King Day, which for us began with pancakes and sausage at brunch. It was also our daughter’s birthday, which had necessitated a certain amount of cake and chips during the afternoon. Had we not been required to engage in this act of investigative journalism, we might well have stayed in and had a restorative salad or something.

So, when we got to Sharky’s, we went for what looked like a light starter, some corn chips with salsa and guacamole ($7.95), to be followed by one entree-sized paella ($19.95), which we would share.

We also decided to take up the regular Monday night special: order a pitcher of margaritas, and get $20 off your meal. Given that the jug would normally have cost $28, that means in effect, four or five “sharkaritas” for $8 — a bargain best shared with a few friends. (This larger Sharky’s location has several long tables for big groups, myriad televisions offering multiple diversions, and coloring books, shark toys and a plain-foods kids’ menu for smaller diners.)

Well, the starter was daunting enough; it seemed there were at least two whole avocados in the gaucamole, and at least a cup of very good salsa. The corn chips, like all bar snacks, were too salty, but we found the coating was easily brushed off.

Then came the paella, a substantial cast-iron pan of it, topped with shrimp and lobster, on a heaping pile of rice with tortillas on the side. Never mind the Spanish name of the meal, this was food in the American culinary tradition: smiling service, fast delivery, large quantity.

And we plowed happily through almost all of it. But it took the two of us finishing what was supposed to have been a serving for one. Next time, we’ll skip the starters and just share a main. For far from tightening my belt, I found myself wanting to loosen it.

— Mike Seccombe


Walk into Tropical intending to spend 20 bucks and you might hurt yourself.

At the Brazilian buffet restaurant at Five Corners in Vineyard Haven that kind of dough is a king’s ransom and, even for the hardiest eater, to consume over two and a half pounds — at $6.99 a pound — of starch and protein, is to flirt with a food-induced coma.

Thankfully as a regular at the best bulk-eating venue on the Island I knew not to attempt it.

Whenever I get hungry enough these days, visions of Tropical’s stewed meats, deep fried sardines and piles of rice start to glide past my eyes. I had a full-on slide show of the buffet going by the time I swung open the back door for a late lunch earlier this week.

I grabbed a plate from the hot tray and began piling battered fish on top of mounds of rice, doused in homemade chili sauce, next to bean salads and cole slaw.

Cook Rose Hagdon makes all this from scratch every day. She starts at 8:30 a.m. and lunch is ready from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. A bakery attached to the restaurant is open even earlier, at 6 a.m.

Rice, various meats and pudding are mainstays in the buffet car, but Ms. Hagdon isn’t afraid to experiment. On offer today is a huge amount of broccoli done tempura style, something Ms. Hagdon says she just decided to try.

I followed suit, ladling a dozen on top of some black beans and approached the register to weigh in.

The scales read $8.28, a little over a pound. And my plate already looked like a prize-winning cairn on an Aquinnah beach.

In a bold attempt to bump up my total I called for a Succo brand passionfruit soda from the cooler and grabbed a fistful of candy from below the cash register.

That brought me up to $10.26. Pathetic. Still, settling into a corner table with a good view of the Brazilian soaps on one of the several flat screen televisions, I felt I had my work cut out.

True enough, a dozen mouthfuls of chili-laden rice later, my soda was ancient history and I was pleasantly full. Unfortunately so was my plate.

I sat through an entire episode of something called Vai Pra Onde attempting to finish what I started. Staggering out victorious some 40 minutes later, I vowed to split up the remainder of my $20 over two visits. I just hope my eyes fall into line with my stomach.

— Sam Bungey