Swanky Dublin restaurant La Gondola is offering 3 courses, Monday to Friday, for €16.9pict001015 including a half bottle of wine, a taxi home and the opportunity to snog the waitperson of your choice.

Well it would, if it existed.

It seems that fellow Herald contributor Michael O’Doherty’s observation that restaurants never seem to have January sales struck a chord with some of our significant nosheries. All of a sudden restaurants are falling over backwards to institute “value” lunches and other promos. What’s more it looks like some of these bargain basement efforts are to be continued well into February.

You can see the logic of it. It’s all about cash flow and keeping things ticking over in perilous times. It would be good if these offerings caused people who didn’t normally dine in posh restaurants to get out there and sample the creativity of our best chefs but I’m not sure that this has been the case. I’ve eaten in three of the participating restaurants while these promotions have been going on and in each one of the clientèle comprised the usual suspects, all familiar and comfortable with the high end restaurant milieu.

What are you getting for the money? Well, clearly not the likes of truffles and foie gras. Cheap cuts of meat, slow cooked, particularly the ubiquitous pork belly and commonplace fish are the stock items on the bill of fare and why not, nothing wrong in that. Soups or simple starters and homely puds top-and-tail the menu. To reassure you that you are dining out in some style, everything is given the cheffy treatment and artfully presented. Some throw in a free glass of wine but it will it would be self delusional to expect anything more than a base Chilean or South African sauvignon blanc or cabernet for the money involved.

I ate rather well for under €20 last week but it wasn’t what you’d call fine dining. The venue was a place rather lugubriously called Gruel. It’s on Dame Street near the Olympia. Gruel is owned by the same people who have next door Mermaid Cafe, restaurant that pioneered the Cal-Med vibe back in the 90s. The interior of Gruel is, to put it mildly, “a bit of a kip”. Designer chic it ain’t; eating in Gruel is rather like having an informal lunch in the kitchen of a suburban house that friends are in the throes of rebuilding. Except that you know in your heart of hearts that a rebuild or even a tarting-up of Gruel is not on the owner’s agenda.

Tables and chairs look like they’ve been looted from a skip. Glassware and plates are a mix of school canteen and holiday souvenirs. The other accoutrements are entirely functional, like fridge, espresso machine and till. I know I’m making Gruel sound depressing but, in all honesty, it’s not. The food is heroic. The staff are lovely; they’ll go through endless lengths to explain the food to you and they can stand a bit of banter. They do however like you to come to the counter to put in your order, so if you’re there for three courses and coffee this involves a certain amount of bobbing up and down. Actually it’s not a bad idea, given the gargantuan portions.

I was dining there with my friend The Dublin Geordie, whose favoured football team is currently mimicking the economy in its downward spiral. pict0009I had invited him to lunch in the hope that comfort eating might distract his thoughts from the sale of Shay Given. Gruel’s culinary style is home cooking allied to a smidgen of invention. Lovely pizzas wink at you the minute you walk through the door. Soups are tasty and nourishing. Geordie had the fish stew, a veritable aquarium in a big, big bowl; I took the beef with black bean and ginger, best broth I’ve had out in ages and perfect for the chilly January day that was in it, especially as it came served with really good brown bread.

At Gruel they have a different roast every day. Normally, I try and confine my visits to Friday when they have the salt beef. However it was Wednesday, ham day. The principal offering is always the “roast on a roll” but I had already overdosed on the brown bread. We both took what was described as a “blue plate” a generous thick cut slice of roast ham accompanied by an assortment of imaginative salads, classily anointed with a dressing that, for a change, wasn’t overly biased towards vinaigrette. Jumping out of my seat once more, I sought of the house wine and was somewhat relieved when I couldn’t see it. The plonk I had drunk on previous visits to Gruel was overly biased towards vinaigrette. I didn’t enquire too closely, my logic based on that of old-time mariners who didn’t stick knives in masts for fear of raising an unfavourable wind. Instead, we took two bottles of a particularly good golden coloured weiss beer for which, wonder of wonders, they found matching glasses.

Phew, we were stuffed. There was a sumptuous selection of cakes and flans screaming “eat me!” but we couldn’t answer the call. We did manage an espresso which surprised with its quality.

68a Dame Street, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 670 7119

The damage: 58.80, ex-service, for two soups, 2 mains, 2 coffees, 4 beers

Verdict: Honest and unpretentious, a decent contender for your recessionary readies. A refreshing alternative to the ‘Corrigan Lite’ approach to discount dining. Facilities basic but clean.