Dining prix fixe leads to the best deal, great meal

Discount dining: Vincent's two-course lunch of linguini with smoked salmon and "Floating Island" dessert

Discount dining: Vincent's two-course lunch of linguini with smoked salmon and "Floating Island" dessert

The ballots are still being contested and the last campaign lawn signs are freezing into the ground—how long this election hangover might last is anybody's guess. But whether the results have left you smiling or sulking, I think we can agree on one thing: We're all a little tired of deciding.

That's why it's a great time for dining prix fixe—the French term, pronounced pree feeks, for a multi-course meal served for a "fixed price." No more hemming and hawing your way through each section of the menu—just pick the prix fixe and sit back. Restaurants serve these meals for several reasons: They attract diners during slow periods, they move excess inventory, and they give chefs room to experiment. Patrons like the multi-course meals because they feel like a culinary event, not just dinner. And, of course, diners love a deal, and prix fixe meals tend to be priced at least a few dollars less than the cost of purchasing the same items à la carte. So if you'd like to plan a nice meal out but want to keep costs down, here are a few favorites that offer prix fixe menus for $40 or less.

Lounging in Luxury at La Belle Vie

There aren't enough milestone birthdays, silver anniversaries, or winning lottery tickets to order La Belle Vie's eight-course tasting menu—an $80 spread of fine French/Mediterranean fare served in the chandelier-lit dining room—very often. But it's twice as easy to find a reason for the four-course, $40 tasting menu served in the restaurant's low-key lounge. You'll find the same stellar service and fastidious food (in fact, some items overlap on both the eight- and four-course menus) in a more relaxed environment. Snag one of the big, brown leather booths if you can—you'll feel like a baseball snuggled in a catcher's mitt.

A recent meal, designed by executive chef Tim McKee, began with a soup made with tender littleneck clams, braised artichokes, and bits of spicy chorizo—then finished with chorizo foam and trout roe bubbles, which popped on the tongue to release their briny broth. Two middle courses had all the precision of the restaurant's entrées, served in a slightly smaller portion. Arctic char was steamed to a texture as creamy as butter, practically melting into a mix of porcini mushrooms, truffles, and red wine. Next, a slice of beef tenderloin served with chanterelle mushrooms, bitter broccoli rabe, and chewy pearls of farro. And finally, something from the dessert list created by top pastry chef Michelle Gayer: an elegant carrot cake with a scoop of cardamom yogurt sorbet that made me feel like a queen—without having paid a queen's ransom.

The Early Bird Special at Cosmos

Tucked into the fourth floor of the Graves Hotel, the modernist dining room at Cosmos offers welcome respite from the honking Humvees outside Bellanotte and the blinding neon of Hard Rock's hulking guitar. I felt like a bit of a cheapskate when I asked my server for the pre-theater menu (it's available daily between 5 and 7 p.m.), but my embarrassment melted away when I marveled at the meal's sheer value: $35 for three courses, plus an amuse-bouche and an intermezzo.

Chef Steven Trojahn likes to push boundaries. My meal began with a bite of steak tartare wrapped with rubbery bands of gelled Worcestershire sauce. It whet the appetite for a plate of three seared diver scallops, paired with grapefruit and salsify chips (the mild root vegetable had been fried to taste almost like hazelnut). Even humble chicken had been transformed into something haute, as tender breast meat was stuffed with spicy chicken sausage and paired with a spicy-cool combo of kimchi and cream cheese. For between the courses, Trojan created an oddly refreshing shot that reminded me of a lava lamp: a blob of jelly-encased blood orange juice floating in a sip of carrot juice. And though the crème brûlée was as good as it gets, my only disappointment was missing the chance to order something more adventurous—sage flan, perhaps?—from the full dessert list.

Heartland's Flora and Fauna

Interdietary couples sometimes struggle to please both parties at the same restaurant. The carnivore enjoys a steak-house filet mignon while the vegetarian suffices with a plate of hash browns—one party leaves happy, the other hungry. Luckily Heartland has just the solution for this fine-dining dilemma: two nightly three-course, fixed-price menus, a vegetarian "flora" and a meat-based "fauna."

For the meat eater, chef Lenny Russo recently served a menu that began with pan-fried rainbow trout and baby carrots served in a creamy roasted banana pepper sauce. That dish, though tasty, was trumped by the next: braised pork belly—rich, salty, and succulent enough to fall apart with a tap of the fork—served with cranberries and squash. I could eat that combination every Thanksgiving from now until eternity. But the vegetarian at my table was treated with equal care; those dishes were matched with a beautiful beet salad with blue cheese and toasted pecans, and a bowl of barley risotto with squash, chanterelles, and arugula. The fauna runs $40, the flora $35. The cost of avoiding an argument is, as they say, priceless.

Sunday Supper at Cafe Levain

For something a notch cheaper and more casual, I like the three-course Sunday Suppers at Cafe Levain. The din quiets, the staff is less harried, and the homey dining room takes on a serenity not seen on Friday and Saturday evenings. The $25 meals ($20 for vegetarian) have become so popular among Sunday diners that chef Adam Vickerman serves only a few additional à la carte items. And if you call ahead to find out what's on the evening's menu, there's a good chance the chef himself will tell you.

If Vickerman's menu is inspired by cleaning out the refrigerator (the restaurant is closed on Mondays), his knack at transforming leftovers is so keen that dinner is never the worse for it. A few weeks ago, Sunday Supper began with a bowl of potato-leek soup meticulously garnished with a sculpture of sliced potato, which was perfect with slices of fresh baguette from the adjoining bakery. The soup was followed by grilled hanger steak with soft white polenta and a full-flavored mix of fall vegetables—Brussels sprouts, fennel, Swiss chard—sweetened by figs spiked with cinnamon and brandy. By the meal's finale—two artisan cheeses paired with frisée, roasted grapes, candied walnuts, and poached pear—I felt well fortified for fighting off an impending case of the Mondays.

Elegant Lunching at Vincent

While chef Vincent Francoual's titular restaurant offers a pleasant enough dinnertime prix fixe, budget diners might be more interested in the two-course, $12.50 lunch. For just a few more bucks than a sandwich and bag of chips at Jimmy John's, you'll have a sophisticated seat at Vincent's—with its sun-streaked windows, crisp linens, and sidewalk views, it feels like a place to lunch with a wealthy benefactor or literary agent.

A typical two-course meal offers a choice of salad, pasta, or sandwich with a gratis dessert. That means you can have, say, a lovely nicoise salad or bowl of seafood pasta for less than its à la carte price—plus, they might throw in a wine-poached pear or homemade sorbet. How sweet is that?