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D.C. Dining On a Dime

Eat like a senator for intern prices at these 10 capital restaurants.

We searched Washington, D.C., for the ultimate value meal: great tasting, excellent service, unique atmosphere, and-hardest of all-close to the sites and attractions you want to see. Near the White House and want a bargain lunch? No problem. Spent a bundle on tickets to the Kennedy Center but don't have any money left over for a preshow dinner? Read on. All of the following restaurants are centrally located, and you won't need a wad of Benjamins to eat at them. A couple of Abes should do you just fine. Here are our top 10.

Cheap Eat #1 : The BreadLine You could almost hit the White House with a rock from this bright, tiny restaurant. (Editor s note: Rock throwing is not recommended in D.C.). Walls are decorated with old rationing signs that seem campy to modern politicos. One says: "Save a loaf a week, help us win the war!" But you'll definitely want to eat the bread here. It's crusty on the outside, soft inside-perfect to house sweet Italian sausage, peppers, and provolone ($6.90) or prosciutto, Gorgonzola, and fig jam ($6.90). The curried chicken salad has a fresh, spicy richness and packs a sweet aftertaste, probably accounting for why it's one of The BreadLine's most popular dishes ($5.95). Splurge for the tangy, fresh-squeezed lemonade ($2.25). 1751 Pennsylvania Avenue; (202) 822-8900.

Cheap Eat #2: Ben's Chili Bowl Okay, everyone expects hot dogs and chili to be cheap. Roger that. But excellent, dare we say "gourmet"? You bet. Ben's, a D.C. institution since the Eisenhower administration, has tempted everyone from Bill Cosby to Nat King Cole with their famous "half-smoke," a special chili dog served with chips on the side ($4.35). The soft, steamed bun soaks up Ben's mild chili. The spicy sausage is split and grilled to crusty perfection. We recommend you wash your half-smoke down with a chocolate shake ($2.49). 1213 U Street NW.; (202) 667-0909.

Cheap Eat #3: Lauriol Plaza Restaurant While it resembles an old high school gymnasium on the outside, the inside of Lauriol is richly appointed and expensive looking. Big margaritas (both frozen and on the rocks) are popular with locals ($5.50). The chips are the lightest we've tasted, and the mild salsa arrives at your table warm, which enhances its deep tomato flavor. Order the giant Burrito Gordo, a flour tortilla stuffed with chicken or beef, melted cheese, beans, and an ancho chile sauce ($8.95). Maduros, the fried plantains that are served as an appetizer, will wow any true lover of Mexican food ($2.95). 1835 18th Street NW.; (202) 387-0035.

Cheap Eat #4: Matchbox On a special date or want to feel like a Beltway insider? Come here and order the salty and savory Prosciutto White pizza, a mix of prosciutto, kalamata olives, garlic, ricotta, mozzarella, and extra-virgin olive oil ($11 for a small). For fun, get a plate of three mini burgers ($7) and a mixed drink called the Ginger Snap, a concoction of pineapple rum, ginger, lemon juice, and Sprite ($7). 713 H Street NW.; (202) 289-4441.

Cheap Eat #5: Capital Q Texas BBQ I asked how hot the sauces got at this D.C. landmark, just a few doors down from Matchbox. "We got mild and spicy," said the general manager from behind the counter, "but if that isn't hot enough for you, I'll fix something that will kill you!" Luckily, I tried the smoky beef brisket sandwich ($6.50) before I sampled a spoonful of the "kill-you" sauce (free). I used the homemade banana pudding ($2) to extinguish my tongue, so I have no idea whether it tastes good or not. Order it before taking them up on their saucy death threats. 707 H Street NW; (202) 347-8396.

Cheap Eat #6: The Burro This restaurant is obviously a favorite for The George Washington University students, and it sits in power digs behind The Mall at 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue. Try the fish taco, a masterpiece of spice, onion, corn crunch, lime-cilantro slaw, pico de gallo, and mahi mahi ($2.95). Fresh produce reigns in the Bean Basic gourmet burrito-low-fat black beans, rice, lettuce, and tomato ($3.95; add grilled spinach or vegetables for another 95 cents). 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.; (202) 293-9449.

Cheap Eat #7: Left Bank The space age and minimalist modern meet at this spare, elegant restaurant. The setting and service give such an expensive feel that you'll think the menu prices are a misprint. Sandwiches begin at $1. A buck gets you a cheese sandwich with your choice of prosciutto or applewood-smoked bacon. The most expensive sandwich is the grilled steak with sautéed onions and bitter greens on a whole wheat baguette ($10). The Black Angus sirloin burger comes topped with mushrooms, cheese, bacon, and grilled onions, making it well worth its price tag ($8). 2424 18th Street NW.; (202) 464-2100.

Cheap Eat #8: The Diner The cops love this Adams Morgan neighborhood diner, complete with red vinyl barstools, a tile floor, pressed tin ceiling, and Ella Fitzgerald crooning from the sound system. Open 24-7, the restaurant promises to serve "early birds, night owls, and everyone in between." Portions go beyond huge to gargantuan. The "Croque and Dagger," a mystery of eggs, bacon, béchamel, melted Gruyère, and toasted French bread comes with home fries ($7.99). For lunch or dinner, the succulent ginger-lime-glazed swordfish accompanied by steamed rice and a side salad is a tangy treat ($10.05). 2453 18th Street NW.; (202) 232-8800.

Cheap Eat #9: Sushi Aoi Exceptional sushi can really suck the yen out of your wallet. But not at Sushi Aoi. Take the Roll Combo. The perfect choice for newcomers to sushi, the combo features a tuna roll, a cucumber roll, and a California roll. Each delicate roll uses exceptional ingredients that seemed far more luxurious than the $9.50 price tag. Miso soup and a mixed green salad come free of charge with all entrées. Dinner prices are just $2 to $3 higher, on average, than the lunch prices. 1100 New York Avenue NW; (202) 408-7770.

Cheap Eat #10: Moby Dick House of Kabob You can stuff yourself like a Christmas goose here for less than $8. The menu is complicated, but don't be put off. Just order a kabob with your favorite meat or veggie. Take the Kabob-E Joojeh: Skinless chunks of tender, juicy chicken with a caramelized crust come with your choice of yogurt-cucumber sauce, salad, rice, or bread ($7.75). Absolutely order the Mast-o Kheyar (99 cents, small), yogurt mixed with chopped cucumber, which should be used as a dipping sauce for the fresh, warm pita bread. 1300 Connecticut Avenue; (202) 833-9788. MORGAN MURPHY

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