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At happy hours and discount nights, $5 fare can be fantastic

Abraham Lincoln was supposedly fairly indifferent to food. It is said that an apple and a cup of hot coffee made him about as happy as anything. So maybe it's fitting that his mug graces the five spot: Unless you're going venti, $5 will buy you one of each.

If you're looking for more than that, like a meal, say, $5 is a tricky price point. Exhibit A: A recent evening found us driving up U.S. 19 to New Port Richey and Venom's Custom Choppers and Cycle Works Bar and Grill, a biker bar that does a $5 steak dinner (sirloin steak, fries, corn on the cob and a roll for a lone Lincoln). The cocktails were strong, the clientele suitably leather-clad and the patio looks out over a lovely pond fringed with wading birds. But the steak in question? I'm hoping the staff shows greater expertise with their $39.99 oil change special.

We did find some great $5 deals out there, covering the gamut of cuisines. Here are five faves.

Most glammy

Since its opening in 2007, Malio's Prime (400 N Ashley Drive, Tampa; (813) 223-7746) has catered to Tampa's glitterati and titans of business. At the base of the 31-story Rivergate Tower, the new Malio's is swankier than Malio Iavarone's fabled spot on Dale Mabry (a hangout for mayors and major- leaguers), and recent tenants like the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and Kahwa Coffee Co. have made the setting even livelier. During dinner hours you're unlikely to get out without dropping serious green, but in the bar from 3 to 7 p.m. weeknights and 5 to 7 p.m. on Saturdays, it's $5 heaven.

The secret is clearly out, a recent evening three deep at the bar as people tipped back $4 Finlandia martinis or house wines along with a short menu of classic bar snacks (all $5). We tasted them all, top honors going to fried potato skins lush with mozzarella and cheddar, sour cream and a flurry of Nueske's applewood-smoked bacon, but the house burger with white cheddar was quite good, as was the ceramic boat of "Theresa style" jumbo shrimp, a nostalgic passel of garlicky-buttery, barely breaded crustaceans that demand an extra mopup with a hank of bread.

Nicest setting

New World Brewery (1313 Eighth Ave., Tampa; (813) 248-4969), with its indoor pub and outdoor garden, is among the most convivial places in Ybor City. Then on Wednesdays from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m., things ratchet up with live acoustic music from 7 to 9 p.m., no cover charge, and $5 gets you a plate of tender, slow-smoked chicken, Steve's baked beans and garlic bread. It's a great deal, especially when you get to enjoy it while listening to someone like the riveting multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay.

Even when the live music ends, New World is an easy place to linger with one of the many Belgian beers and a selection from the free jukebox. But be advised, if you stay too long, you may be tempted to order the cult-favorite black bean pizza, and there goes your $5 food budget.

Best calorie-to-price ratio

Nothing at Willy's Burgers & Booze (645 Corey Ave., St. Pete Beach; (727) 329-8667) is going to make a major dent in your cash reserves. It's a good-times beach bar with plastic cups and liberal use of the deep fryer. As the name indicates, cocktails and classic burgers are the first order of business, but on Tuesday nights the place is packed with people all ordering the same thing: the $4.95 chicken Parmesan, a monster breaded, fried chicken breast on spaghetti, topped with zippy marinara and molten cheese. It's an eat-half-now-take-half-home kind of quantity, so I guess technically it's a meal for $2.47.

Most mysterious

The Lodge (516 S Howard Ave., Tampa; (813) 251-5634) just launched WTF Wednesdays, with a range of dining options all priced at $5 starting at 5 p.m. A recent reconnaissance was perplexing: We sat, we perused menus, we heard nothing about the Wednesday deals until we asked. The lineup was verbally recounted, sotto voce: $5 burgers, $5 sushi rolls, $5 full pizzas, $5 dozen wings, $5 domestic pitchers of beer. We ordered a bunch while thinking, "WTF, indeed."

Order a pitcher and the pizza, a huge, rectangular, thin-crust cheese pie that comes on a metal stand, and four people can eat lightly for a total of $10. Not bad. At $5, sushi rolls reflect a range of discounts (California roll usually $6, Baja tuna roll $9), arriving carefully rolled and sauced with all of the proper accouterments (chopsticks, soy ramekins, wasabi and ginger).

Best burger deal

Fleming's misses the mark by a buck (its luscious prime burger with cheese and bacon is served for $6 until 7 p.m. nightly) and Bar Louie at International Plaza should win for sheer cheapness ($1 burgers on Tuesday evenings — including turkey, chicken and portobello versions — just the meat, bun and lettuce, all other toppings extra). But at our target $5 price point, St. Petersburg's new the Avenue (330 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg; (727) 851-9531) is offering a solid product on Wednesdays 7 to 10 p.m.

Since opening, the staff has refined its burger craft, offering any of the specialty burgers for one honest Abe, with regular or Cajun fries (other sides can be subbed for $1). A recent evening's barbecue burger topped with caramelized onions, barbecue sauce, cheddar and an onion ring showed admirably.

At happy hours and discount nights, $5 fare can be fantastic 05/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 8, 2012 1:07pm]

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