Ask a guy about what constitutes an economical dining option for dates and you’re bound to receive some startling answers. “Camping,” was one friend’s firm assertion. “MREs?” suggested another. These romantic (and single) fellows aside, it’s easy enough to spend a lot of money taking a lady out to eat in New Orleans since the city offers an abundance of fine dining options. But things get a bit trickier when one seeks to balance relatively modest prices and a creative menu along with an engaging ambiance. Therefore, I recently set out in search of places that might satisfy this particular culinary trifecta.

CHEAP DATESJamila’s Café’s Tajime of lamb with Basmati saffron rice

A quick note on pricing: “Cheap” here is a relative term. These are moderately upscale places, chosen to convey an air of discernment and not simply to fill a belly. I kept an eye peeled for a decent selection of entrées coming in at or under $15, with a couple available for around $10. A few places rang up a little higher but that increase was mitigated by overall quality. For the truly cheap, every place mentioned has at least one entrée around the $10 range, though you might be dining vegetarian. Furthermore, for the very truly cheap, Taco Bell is open until 2 a.m.

The vibrant and lively Lola’s on Esplanade Avenue has been a favorite choice for both couples and small groups for some time. While not exactly a quiet, dimly-lit, romantic nook, the kinetic bustle and unique Andalusian-inspired menu makes this place a winner.

A dish of Grilled Calamari was tender; the bright notes of an herbaceous lime and olive oil dressing reminiscent of a ceviche. Slivered almonds provided a little texture and nuttiness. The Crabmeat Tropical – a jumble of lump crabmeat piled atop an avocado half – receives some attitude from a dollop of spicy homemade aioli. The Ajoblanco – a traditional Andalusian almond soup – featured pale green grape halves suspended within its surface, visually beautiful in its austerity. This dish makes for a cool, refreshing oasis among the spicy assertiveness of much of the rest of the menu.

While most entrées run in the $15-$20 range, medium-sized paellas can easily be split between two people and make for an economical choice. Sharing out of the double-handled paella dish contributes an air of intimacy as well. Try and go early, as the place fills up quickly and can become quite loud. The corner table to the right as you walk in is a good catch if you can manage it. Be prepared for a wait after leaving your name at the door. Lola’s offers a wine list now, but their popular BYOB policy remains in place – though a corking fee applies for both wines and beer. Also, only cash and checks are accepted.

Across the street from Lola is La Vita, a new casual Italian restaurant in the space formerly occupied by Gabrielle. The menu focuses on pizza and pastas and is distinguished by a selection of options that elevate it from casual to casually romantic. An appetizer of Tuscan White Beans is composed of red bell pepper, roasted garlic cloves and tender, transparent cooked red onions. Tossed with raspberry vinaigrette and akin to a cool salad, this works as a refreshing starter. The Flat Bread will start the meal in a more substantive way; the cornmeal-dusted bread is soft and lightly brushed with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes. Entrées include a Veal Alfredo for under $12 and lots of pasta dishes that ring in at less than $10. Service is pleasant, the setting is relaxed and if it’s a nice night, opt for a seat outside and observe the flow of life along picturesque Esplanade Avenue. (And if it’s an especially busy night, you can sup while watching people wait in the growing line for Lola’s across the street!)

While the unique Jamila’s Café skews to the higher end of the price spectrum for this column, there’s really no other place like it in the city and it’s more than worth the few extra bucks. A Tunisian enclave in the midst of the collegiate Maple Street drag, upon entering, guests are greeted warmly by personable Owner Moncef Sbaa, whose wife Jamila is both the chef and the namesake inspiration. Dark wood paneling, the cerulean ceiling and colored-glass lanterns combine to create an intimate and romantic setting, and the fragrant and serendipitous scent of orange blossom water compounds the North African ambiance.

Jamila’s is well known for a couple of dishes that make an appearance at Jazz Fest each year. The thick Crawfish Bisque is enhanced with zucchini and spinach, providing structure and depth. The Grilled Merguez, a link of lamb sausage seasoned with anise and cumin seed, is served atop a bed of chilled lentils enlivened by a dash of lemon. Both are sure winners.

A Tajime of Lamb comes in an earthenware pot, driving home the rustic nature of the dish. Clove and cinnamon add an unfamiliar complexity to the ruddy stew and a slice of lemon atop the dish provides a bright contrast. The piquant olives taste better and more honest somehow for being on the stone. The basmati saffron rice served alongside is studded with sweet, golden raisins, plumped up by cooking. Slivered almonds scattered across help keep the raisin’s sweetness in check. 

Save room for the Baklava. Scented with orange water and filled with ground almonds mixed with honey, this is a fragrant, wonderful and exotic dessert. Belly dancers perform on Saturday nights, which could be a good or bad thing depending on the disposition of your date. Limited outside seating along Maple Street is available as well, weather permitting.

The Delachaise on St. Charles Avenue has managed to turn the building’s mojo around; this formally snake-bit location has been reshaped into something new and business is booming. The focus on this upscale bar is wines and food, and it excels at both. This is not your average bar and this is not average bar-food.

You can manage a reasonably-priced meal, provided you’re not exceptionally hungry and are careful with your choices. One must-have is the Pommes Frites – French fries fried in glorious duck fat and served in a cone flanked by a duet of sauces: a roasted red pepper aioli and a spicy peanut dip. At $6 a cone, it’s steep for fries but given the novelty of it and the high-quality preparation (did I mention the duck fat?), this is one serving of fries you can’t pass up.

Also good is the Boz Sandwich. This version of a ham and cheese sandwich is rendered transcendent through the use of St. Andre cheese, prosciutto and fresh arugula. Grilled in a pan using butter and thick-cut herbed bread, then cut into nostalgia-evoking triangles, this is a nice one to share with a date. If she would prefer something neither grilled in butter nor fried in duck fat, she could go with a Crawfish Boil Salad. Local crawfish tails are served over greens with corn, artichokes and potatoes seasoned in crab boil. The aioli provides an additional dimension of flavor. The wines, beers and spirits served here are extensive and the staff is knowledgeable. It can get quite crowded and noisy, so consider visiting at non-peak hours.

Low Cost Courting
Lola’s
3312 Esplanade Ave.
488-6946

La Vita
3201 Esplanade Ave.
948-0077

Jamila’s Café
7808 Maple St.
866-4366

The Delachaise
3442 St. Charles Ave.
895-0858