Don't assume low-budget means low-quality. Check these out.
AUNTIES AND UNCLES (200 Bathurst, at Queen West, 416-703-9378) The folks from the identically named College lunch and brunch spot with the proto-mod decor opened a second diner-style eatery serving retro comfort food closer to Queen West. Unpretentious atmosphere, cool classic tunes. Best: thick, pink-centred pork chop sided with lumpy spuds, vibrant-green sautéed spinach and sugary caramelized apple and pear compote; dense Mom-style meatloaf with tomato gravy over buttery lumpy mash; baked macaroni with pancetta and four cheeses; perfectly tender chicken breast with leg confit with fries; mucho mussels steamed with bacon, tomato, celery and white wine; cookbook-correct rice pudding. Complete dinners for $25 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine or pint of beer. Open for dinner Tuesday to Sunday from 5 pm. Closed Monday, holidays and long weekends. Licensed. Access: four steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
ELIXIR (522 Bloor West, at Bathurst, 416-597-2915) This unique spot takes traditional Persian recipes, cuts the cholesterol and cooks them using classic French techniques. Smooth service and a former Centro cook guarantee a sophisticated night out at more than reasonable prices. Best: Elixir chicken smothered in a sensational crushed-walnut and pomegranate sauce; Indo-inspired Balty chicken with mushrooms, cashews, raisins, yogurt and aromatic spices; Elixir eggplant in a sun-dried goat cheese sauce topped with mint; slow-cooked lamb shank with apricots in saffron cream; spinach and walnut salad; focaccia-like Persian naan. Complete dinners for $30, including all taxes, tip and an imported beer. Open for dinner nightly till 11 pm. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
JULIE'S (202 Dovercourt, at Argyle, 416-532-7397) Casually cool Cuban cantina on downtown's west side. Best: grilled and then pressed marinated pork, ham and Swiss Cubano sandwiches; snacking tapas like the fried mashed-potato ball stuffed with lean ground beef, onion, tomato and green olives called Papa Rellena; purposefully bland yucca con mojo laced with lime and garlic; piquant tomato-sauced pork-sausage chorizos; tostones -- and subtly complex pork and beef hash (picadillo de mamita) with jalapeños, raisins, currants and almonds. Complete dinners for $20 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open for dinner Tuesday to Sunday 5:30 pm to midnight. Bar open to 2 am. Closed Monday. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN
MUSA (847 Dundas West, at Euclid, 416-368-8484) Low-key neighbourhood noshery offering contemporary takes on casual Greek and Turkish dishes in a funky-fresh al fresco setting. Best: Keftades -- ground beef falafel patties zapped with cumin and onion, stuffed into a spectacular spelt pita piled with cucumber, tomato and romaine, sauced with creamy Dijon and sided with first-rate hand-cut fries; seared and sliced free-range chicken in the same pita with red chilies, jalapeño, piquant kefalotiri cheese, sautéed onions and arugula; Cajun calamari with tomato-chipotle sauce; dandelion greens and rapini sautéed in olive oil and garlic and mixed with navy beans in a lemony vinaigrette; brunch-only bacon-spinach-potato frittata with designer greens. Complete meals for $20 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine or a pint. Open Tuesday to Sunday 11 am to 2 am. Closed Monday and holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNNSD