Yes, you really can eat out on the cheap in Los Angeles. Fine dining restaurants in LA may have $70 entrees and $20 cocktails, and the average mid-range restaurant offers entrees in the $20 range, with the requisite $15 hamburger. But if you're visiting Los Angeles on a budget, there are plenty of cheap eats and ways to save money on food, whether you're really broke, or just want to get the best deal on your fine dining experience.
Free food isn't really free. It's included in the price of something else, like your hotel room. But if you're a morning eater, then starting the day with the free breakfast buffet at a budget hotel is a definite advantage. Some midrange hotels like Marriott's Residence Inns and Hilton's Embassy Suites have a cooked breakfast and also have an afternoon happy hour with complimentary wine and enough food to call dinner. Some of LA's hostels also offer included or very inexpensive meals, often in a party atmosphere.
LA Fast Food Icons - There are some fast food experiences that are uniquely LA or were at least born here, so checking them out is part of a truly LA cultural experience. These include In N Out Burgers, Pink's Hot Dog's and the not-remotely-authentic Tito's Tacos.
Street Food/Food Trucks - The gourmet food truck explosion has meant that you can find some really exceptional food for a moderate price and some OK food for cheap on random street corners and at designated food truck gathering spots. It's easy to fill up on two short rib sliders for $5 from the Kogi BBQ truck, which is exceptional and cheap. In Hollywood, you'll also find numerous hot dog carts in the evening in heavy tourist areas and at nightclub exits at closing time. Check out the Top LA Food Trucks.
Taco Tuesdays - The tradition of $1 tacos on Tuesdays has spread to many Mexican restaurants from hole-in-the-wall places to chains, and also to mainstream bars. There's usually a beer or margarita special to go along with the tacos. Look for the banners everywhere.
Breweries: LA's booming brewery scene is also a boon for budget travelers. Sample locally made beers and ciders in industrial-chic warehouses or on outdoor patios, while snacking on grub from affordable food trucks parked nearby. In some cases, you can even pack your own picnic or order takeout — just do the brewery a solid and grab a pint, too.
Happy Hour - Traditional happy hour in bars is usually from 3-6 pm, but some establishments have different hours and late night happy hours. In addition to drink specials, there are usually food specials that can make a meal. The bar at McCormick's and Schmick's, which has Beverly Hills and Downtown LA locations, is one of my favorites for inexpensive large portions in a swank setting. Another favorite is the Crab Pot in Long Beach, which is a bit out of the way, but has weekday $3 dinners to go with happy hour drinks and sunset over the marina.
Here are a couple lists of "top" happy hours, but know that every sports bar and many restaurants, hotel bars and dive bars also have happy hour food and drink specials.
Ethnic Eats: $5.99-$7.99 is an average price for a stir fry with rice in Thai Town in East Hollywood or an enchilada combo with beans and rice in a wide range of Mexican family restaurants beyond the major tourist areas.
Breakfast for Dinner or Late Night: You can save a lot of money on a big dinner by ordering breakfast for dinner at some American diner staples like International House of Pancakes and Denny's. The regular dinner options are moderately priced as well, and with Denny's $2-4 items, you can feed a family of four for under $20.
It's not gourmet and it's not local flavor, but it's cheap and you get to sit down and be waited on.
Supermarket Supplies: Traveling with eight kids, my mother used to pack big jars of peanut butter and jam and buy a loaf of bread at our destination to cut down on food expenses. That still works, especially if you don't have access to a refrigerator. If you do have a fridge, you have more options for stocking up on breakfast, picnic supplies, and the all-important water. For super deals on produce and water, look for a 99 Cents Only store, but whatever supermarket or Target that's handy will work too.
You can go far on a bag of bagels and cream cheese with some fresh fruit. And 6 bottles of water for $1 sure beats $3 per bottle at theme parks and attractions.
Discounts on Fine Dining
There are now tons of programs that offer discounts at LA restaurants. These include programs like Groupon, where you prepay a dollar amount for a higher food value, like $20 for $40 worth of food; Restaurant.com where you buy a certificate for a dollar amount off a higher total; and Blackboard Eats, a free email subscription service that offers weekly discounts at select restaurants. Get more details on LA Restaurant Discounts and Coupons.
Apps for Finding Cheap Food in LA
The Yelp app is useful for finding nearby places open now with price ranges and reviews. All the discount programs above have their own apps, but the Forks app consolidates food offers from multiple discount programs like Groupon and Restaurant.com and others, so you can see them all in one place and purchase directly through the app. It links to Yelp reviews, but it doesn't show open hours in the app.