AAA Inspectors Pick Favorite Restaurants for Dining on a Budget

Does your appetite for eating out wane at the thought of a hefty bill? For many Americans, watching the wallet is as important as watching the waistline when selecting a restaurant for a night out. With more than 29,000 AAA Approved and Diamond Rated Restaurants — and 60 percent of these at the One and Two Diamond levels — AAA can help point the way to plentiful options for quality dining that won’t bust the budget.

AAA inspectors evaluate restaurants on a scale of One to Five Diamonds, from simple eateries with specialty menus to fine-dining restaurants with renowned chefs and expert service staff. Here’s a sampling of AAA inspectors’ casual dining favorites including mouthwatering barbecue, authentic ethnic specialties and abundant fresh seafood.

Craigie’s Harbourview Restaurant, Tobermory, Ontario, AAA/CAA One Diamond Restaurant, Casual Dining/American

Nestled in a quaint harbor town, this spot is a family tradition for locals and tourists. The home-style breakfasts are a stand out, and the white fish, always fresh, is served in a variety of ways. Choose casual sit-down dining or take-out orders especially for day trippers and boaters. Inspector Tip: Only cash is accepted, but there is an ATM around the corner.

The Fish Hopper, Monterey, Calif., AAA Two Diamond Restaurant, Casual Dining/Seafood

Located on Cannery Row, floor-to-ceiling windows offer incredible views of Monterey Bay. Tempting appetizers include crab cakes, coconut prawns, shrimp cocktail and award-winning clam chowder. Specialties include sanddabs, macadamia nut crusted tilapia, scampi with scallops, prawns in a puff-pastry shell and Cajun mahi mahi. Steaks and pasta are also available. Inspector Tip: The Monterey Bay Aquarium and unique shops are nearby.

Gaulart & Maliclet Cafe Restaurant, Charleston, S.C., AAA One Diamond Restaurant, Casual Dining/French

Also known as “Fast and French,” the cozy bistro consists entirely of counters and high stools. Stop in for a salad creation, soup and sandwich or a delicious afternoon snack. After 6 p.m., vegetarian entrees share menu space with classically prepared French dishes like seafood Normandy, pate and imported cheese samplers and a three-vegetable dinner. Designated evenings feature chef specials, fondue and traditional ethnic dishes. Vintage wines may be ordered by the glass or bottle. Inspector Tip: Dining is communal and seating packed, so expect to make friends.

The Grand Traverse Pie Company, Traverse City, Mich., AAA One Diamond Restaurant, Quick Serve/Deli

Like all locations in this growing Midwest chain, the flagship bakery cafe is quaint and cheerful. A large, open working bakery fills the shop with tempting aromas. Service is counter style with a menu of freshly made soups, sandwiches and salads as well as quiches and pot pies. The daily assortment of fresh fruit and cream pies from local ingredients would make Grandma proud.

Jambo Cafe, Santa Fe, N.M., AAA Two Diamond, Casual Dining/African

This chef-owned restaurant serves up intensely flavorful Afro-Caribbean cuisine using family recipes handed down for generations. Traditional menu items range from jerk chicken and beef kabobs to a popular lamb stew and coconut lentil stew. The specialty soups, which change daily, consistently win local competitions. Experience a cozy atmosphere, off the beaten path, with great background music and a delightfully friendly staff.

Les Madeleines Cafe & Patisserie, Salt Lake City, Utah, AAA Two Diamond Restaurant, Quick Serve/Bread-Pastries-Sandwiches

A Salt Lake City “must do.” Stop in for sesame chicken salad, a wild mushroom wrap served with edamame and other delicious sandwiches and croissants. Try the award winning Kouing-aman (kween a-mon), a crusty pastry made of bread dough with layers of butter and sugar folded in, slow baked until the butter puffs up the dough and the sugar caramelizes. This French creation has been featured on Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” Inspector Tip: Order two Kouing-aman (just point, they’ll know what you want) and coffee, sit down and relax. One bite and you’ll be hooked.

Nav-A-Gator Grill, Lake Suzy, Fla., AAA One Diamond Restaurant, Casual Dining/Seafood

This rustic family owned and operated fish camp on the Peace River at Old Desoto Marina is a great spot for fresh seafood. Find grouper, gator tail, shrimp, conch and even duck on the menu. Inspector Tip: The spot is popular for its fossil museum, gift shop, nature retreats, local band performance and 90-minute riverboat tours. It’s also a great spot for fishing and viewing wildlife.

Rendezvous, Memphis, Tenn., AAA Two Diamond Restaurant, Casual Dining/BBQ

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and many patrons rank this establishment among the best of Memphis’ many great BBQ restaurants. The dry-rub ribs are one-of-a-kind due to a combination of secret ingredients and cooking over charcoal versus a wood fire. The ambience and decor, with historic artifacts, memorabilia and antiques, are as interesting as the food is good.

Something Different Country Store, Urbanna, Va., AAA One Diamond Restaurant, Quick Serve/Deli

Find gourmet Southern fare in a rustic country store. Specialties include roasted and smoked succulent meats such as brisket, pork and chicken, smoked salmon served with an elegant dill sauce and great she-crab soup. Bread rolls are baked with whey for a unique flavor. Desserts include cobblers, pies and premium ice creams. Inspector Tip: The owner, a bit of a food historian, will bend your ear if you show interest, or you can read his musings from a binder.

White Heather Tea Room, Victoria, BC, AAA/CAA Two Diamond Restaurant, Casual Dining/Sandwiches & Desserts

Reservations are required at this popular spot for afternoon tea. Its signature offerings are known as “The Wee Tea,” which includes a delightful sampling of tea sandwiches, bakery goods and a scone, “The Not So Wee Tea,” which includes more sandwiches and bakery goods and “The Big Muckle Giant,” designed for two, with even more tasty items. Inspector Tip: Muckle is a word the original owner recalled from a Scottish retelling of David and Goliath.

Read the full list of 50 Inspector Picks for Budget Dining on the AAA travel blog at, and find thousands of additional options in AAA travel information products.

AAA is the only rating system that conducts on-site professional evaluations guided by member priorities. And, with more properties than any other rating entity, AAA is the only rating system that covers the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. For 76 years AAA has used professional inspectors to conduct in-person property inspections and publish the results, on a system of One to Five Diamonds, to guide member travel decisions.

AAA Approved and Diamond Rated hotel and restaurant listings can be accessed in the AAA TourBook guides, free eTourBook guides at, online at and from smartphones using AAA’s free app or mobile Web at