Restaurants: Frugal Gourmet

There's still no such thing as a free lunch. But thanks to the soft economy and the hard line many companies are taking on expense accounts, fancy restaurants nationwide are offering (very) early-bird specials. Chefs say they're not making money on the deals--they just hope you'll come back for dinner.

SAN FRANCISO: At Redwood Park, the new blue-plate special goes for $24, including a soup en croute, a salad, a meat or fish entree and a chip-and-dip combo (potato gaufrette with onion mascarpone). A recent offering: corn and jalapeno soup en croute, a salad of warm squab and spinach with bacon, and skirt steak with paprika butter.

LOS ANGELES: Known for chef Makoto Tanaka's modern Japanese cuisine, the Mako in Beverly Hills serves a $35 daily bento box, filled with treats like tuna carpaccio with grilled onions in saffron-soy vinaigrette and sauteed sea bass in a spicy sun-dried tomato sauce.

MINNEAPOLIS: The three-course lunch at Aquavit is only $10; choose the shrimp beef-brisket sandwich with sweet-and-sour mustard sauce.

NEW YORK: Charlie Palmer has long offered a $20.02 lunch special at Aureole--but only after 2 p.m. Palmer's newest Manhattan spot, Kitchen 22, always serves a $25, three-course lunch, with progressive American offerings like beef carpaccio with tapenade crouton or mustard-crusted salmon.

WASHINGTON, D.C.: Chef Todd --English's Olives restaurant serves a daily "school lunch" for $22. Think tweaked-up comfort food on a yellow tray: Tuscan-style meat loaf with portobello gravy with leek-infused potato croquettes.

l ATLANTA: Power lunchers head for Canoe, on the Chattahoochee River bank, where the new "rapid lunch" (three courses for $15) is served in under 30 minutes. On the menu: African squash soup with lime cream and grilled chicken with artichoke ravioli.