1. Get happy

The ritual known as Happy Hour isn't all about cocktails. Tejas marks down 10 popular menu items (smoked chicken nachos, crab-chèvre tamales) to just $3.95. Downtowners know that Vincent Francoual's whopper of a burger -- stuffed with short ribs and gouda -- gets marked down from $13.50 to $8; seriously, what are you waiting for? Tops in the late-night happy hour category include Solera, which boasts 10 meticulously prepared tapas in the $2 to $6 range (don't miss the divine shrimp croquettas) and Saffron, where chef/co-owner Sameh Wadi prepares a half-dozen superb noshes (love that lamb bacon BLT) for just $3.50 a pop.

2. Dine in twos

When the clock strikes 8 p.m. on most weeknights, Broders' Pasta Bar offers couples a small appetizer, a salad, a choice of six pasta dishes and a half-bottle of Italian wine for $26. Monday night's "Cheap Date Night" at the Bryant-Lake Bowl starts at 6 p.m., when $28 buys a pair of entrees (meat or vegetarian, the options change weekly), a bottle of wine (or two tap beers for each diner) and a round of bowling.

3. Splurge sensibly

"Bargain" is a relative term, but several tasting menu options make it possible to wallow in Perrier-Jouet luxury while paying Andre prices. The $40 four-course tasting menu in the La Belle Vie lounge is $25 less than the dining room's five-course counterpart, but still embodies chef Tim McKee's highly finessed cooking. Chef Patrick Atanalian makes weeknights (minus Friday) shine at Sanctuary with his ever-changing five-course ($35) spread. NorthCoast chef Ryan Aberle boldly strides into innovative culinary territory, charging just $35 for the five-course joyride.

4. Noon instead of night

While lunch menus routinely carry dinner items at lower prices, several restaurants also offer value-minded midday meals. At the always elegant Vincent, $12.50 buys a choice of three ever-changing entrees chased by a no-fuss dessert. For $20.21, 20.21 chef Asher Miller gives lunch guests the restaurant's full-court press, with a three-course spread that reads -- and tastes -- like a whirl through the menu's greatest Cal-Asian hits.

5. Never pay more than half price

Several dozen Twin Cities restaurants slash their wine prices in half on certain evenings. Tuesday is the night for three of the best, at the Modern Cafe, Mission American Kitchen and First Course.

6. Choose an off night

On Sundays at Cafe Levain, chef Adam Vickerman offers a comfort-oriented three-course meal ($25 for meat-eaters, $20 for vegetarians) that changes weekly. Sushi lovers with gigantic appetites should circle Sundays on their calenders, because that's when the sushi bar at Zahtar by Fhima goes into all-you-can-eat mode, for $29.95. Wednesday evenings are when the downtown institution that is Peter's Grill charges just $4.55 for its baked chicken dinner, a quarter-pound bird served with dressing, whipped potatoes, cranberry sauce, a cabbage salad and a softball-size dinner roll.

7. Take a seat in the bar

In the chic little lounge at Sapor Cafe and Bar, chef/co-owner Tanya Siebenaler offers quicker, looser versions of the energetic global cuisine she showcases in her dining room, including a pair of excellent potato croquettes ($4), a colorful fish taco ($6) and a pita-size pizza topped with grilled portobellos and a zesty red sauce ($7.50). Entrees in Cafe Lurcat dining room range from $20 to $36, but when chef Adam King puts his New American imprint on Lurcat's bar menu -- including what might be the city's most irresistible burgers -- the results average a more recession-friendly $9.

8. Check out a lower-priced sibling

At first glance, Restaurant Alma and Brasa have almost nothing in common. Look closer. Owner Alex Roberts brings his exacting culinary vigor to both formats, but the price-per-person is considerably lower at Brasa. The same can be said for Lucia Watson's Lucia's Restaurant vs. Lucia's Bakery & Take Home and Tim McKee's and Josh Thoma's La Belle Vie vs. Barrio and Smalley's Caribbean Barbeque.

9. Become a frequent diner

With a "Rewards Card" from Twin Cities Originals, every time you dine at any of the 28 member restaurants (including Biella, Broders Pasta Bar, Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, Murray's and Thistles) you earn a point for every dollar spent; for every accumulated $150, you earn $10 that can be spent at any member restaurant. Parasole Restaurant Holdings (including Manny's Steakhouse, Chino Latino, Pittsburgh Blue, the Good Earth) has a similar program. Oh yeah, in the Every Little Bit Helps Department, don't leave home without a buy-six-pizzas-get-a-seventh-one-free punch card at Punch Neapolitan Pizza, home of the Twin Cities' best pizza and best quick-service food, period. Or the punch card at Be'wiched (buy 10, get one free), maker of the Twin Cities' most artfully crafted sandwiches. I may forget my driver's license, but my wallet always contains both.

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757