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Cheap Dates 

Good times on a thin dime

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Mark Larson

Listen, it can't all be Netflix and chill. Yes, your charming company should be enough and your wallet is making that whooshing wind-through-the-Dustbowl sound, but come on. Whether wooing a crush or spending time with someone with whom you share a legally binding commitment, you're going to have to leave the house sometime. Frankly, not even your platonic bestie wants to hang around on your couch forever because that's actually just Netflix. For one thing, cabin fever will turn you against each other — even the sweetest romance can morph into the final scenes of John Carpenter's The Thing after a month of cloistering yourselves to save cash. Trust me, you can't afford not to go out.

There are levels of broke-ness. Some of us are cursed with a taste for the finer things and a tragic sense of fiscal responsibility. For others of us, recession belt-tightening feels more like full-body Spanx. And some of us are online reading about DIY dentistry. Nonetheless, prepare to sweep someone off his or her feet (or at least off that couch) with spendthrift entertainment for every budget, including no budget.


Like Cinderella, you can still go someplace fancy if you keep an eye on the clock. Happy hour, like a buzzy fairy godmother, brings swanky cocktail ambiance to the commoners. Dinner at Moonstone Grill (100 Moonstone Beach, Trinidad) is spendy but the bar is within reach. It's $1 off well cocktails ($9-$12) from 5 to 6:30 p.m., just in time to watch the sunset over the beach. The real deal is the handful of bar nibbles, including a pair of filet mignon skewers with mushroom cream sauce and a little dome of mashed potatoes for $8. If you blew all your money on a ring, toast here and propose at Karen's Rock just a cocktail onion's throw away overlooking Moonstone Beach.

Still a little rich for your blood? Slip into the Carter House Inn's Restaurant 301 (301 L St., Eureka) between 4 and 6 p.m. for $3.50 Humboldt Vodka or Bombay gin Martinis by the fireplace or upstairs at the bar. Would you like truffle fries with that? A plate of steak fries sprinkled with Parmesan and white truffle oil is $4.50, or spring for the fries doused in American Kobe beef Bolognese for $7. While I may have witnessed a shady bar patron snagging a deviled egg meant for hotel guests (listen, discount Martinis affect your decisions), this is frowned upon. (Heads up: Happy hour prices are not in effect on Valentine's Day.)

Then again, if your Champagne tastes extend to Cook's on tap, romance awaits at Ernie's (608 A St., Eureka), where "every hour is happy hour." Seriously, it opens at 8 a.m. Who needs the pop of a cork when there's the soft shush of the nozzle dispensing bubbly mimosas over ice for $4.50? You might try the secret pink "special sauce," which has the woozy sweetness of a quickie wedding. On a recent afternoon, bartender Suzy Ortiz had put out a homemade batch of stewed pork in a crockpot with taco fixings for customers to enjoy, gratis. The bartenders change up the offerings daily; vegetarians should check when Miles is on the schedule. Don't try to tell me Ernie's isn't romantic — my own happy marriage began in a bar with a steam table-adjacent courtship with the same Patsy Cline songs echoing overhead.


You do not have to wait for that slip-and-fall court settlement to come through to dine out. Like Mexican cuisine, Southeast Asian food is cheaper than it should be and our local joints are stocked with entrees under $10. (Seriously, a quick trip along the coast of China and you're forking out rent money on Japanese — what gives?) Take advantage before somebody figures this out. Pho Thien Long (307 Fourth St., Eureka) has small but ample bowls of piping hot pho for $8.25, pumpkin curry for $9.95 and beer or sweet milk teas for $3.50. (Pro tip: It's pronounced "fuh" — don't let that turn into your first fight.)

Are you still paying off that slip-and-fall settlement? Toni's 24-Hour Restaurant (1901 Heindon Road, Arcata) is kind of a gimme. The genuinely satisfying bacon cheeseburger is only $5.89 and has enough of a cult following that you won't look like you chose the place solely based on price — ask the legion of fans who flame grilled me for leaving it out of the "Burger Quest" (July 2, 2015). Also, splitting a milkshake ($3.50-$5.75) is both Norman Rockwell-level cute and a good test of compatibility since flavors run from French fry-friendly vanilla to lavender to cherry chocolate chip.

Did you just boost a roll of toilet paper from work? You can still dine in style. Fish tacos at Raliberto's Taco Shop (1039 Fourth St., Eureka) are only $1. Recycle some cans and order up as many of the soft tacos with fried white fish as you can afford (maybe a beverage, too, if you're flush) to go. Walk the five blocks down to Waterfront Drive, where you can dine al fresco atop the Sacco Amphitheater with a view of the boats in the marina. Time it for sunset and none can call themselves richer than you.


The going rate for an evening ticket to a first-run movie is $9.50 with $3 extra for 3D showings. A tub of popcorn and 32 ounces of high-fructose regret will cost you a pound of flesh. Mind you, the concessions offerings are decidedly swankier at the Minor (1001 H St., Arcata), so if you're good tacking on a $7 wrap or Chicago dog, plus a couple of $4 Pabst Blue Ribbons, you've got dinner and a movie covered for $20 plus tax per person. Look at you, Rockefeller.

Don't want to fork over your proletariat wages to the first-run entertainment industrial complex? See what's playing at the Arcata Theatre Lounge (1036 G St.), where a flick will run you a fiver or a $5 purchase of food or drink (so basically free). Belly up to the full bar for $5.25 sparkling wine or $3 PBRs (depending on what kind of night you're looking for) and order $5 personal pizzas. ATL regularly runs quirky sci-fi B-movies and nostalgic throwbacks — conversation starters for even the most game impaired. Seriously, if you can't chat somebody up over a stop-motion monster movie, we can't help you.

The Eureka Theater (612 F St., Eureka) is full of art deco charm, too, and nobody will hiss at you for a little flirtatious whispering during the show. Most showings, including Fourth Friday Flicks, are $5 and the modest paper bags of hot popcorn are only $2. Cocktails at the schmancy bar vary depending on the show and the cash goes to restoring the place to its 1939 glory. The classics screening here are also a reliable litmus test: If your date doesn't think the extra footage in the director's cut of Blade Runner is universe altering, ghost him or her immediately.


We are fortunate indeed to live in a county that abounds with free music. One need only drag a finger down our Music & More Grid to find a bevy of bars and clubs featuring performances by musicians and DJs with no cover charge at all. Pick your genre or venue, grab a seat and enjoy the good times gratis. Use this as an opportunity to display your generosity — always an attractive trait — when tipping the bartender/server and/or the band. And be warned: Those skinflints who don't tip are doomed to Dante's Fourth Circle of Hell, where for all eternity they will push boulders to the center of a ring only to see them pushed back by over-spenders in a pointless cycle of suffering. Your call.


Let's clarify: You don't have to be a good dancer to be charming on the dance floor. You just have to be game and able to laugh when you get tripped up, which costs you nothing. Holes in the bottoms of your two left shoes? For a five-spot, you can twirl into the Burgundy Blues dance at the Arcata Core Pilates Studio (901 Eight St., Arcata) on Tuesdays at 8 p.m. — the evening starts with a lesson on the first and third week of the month. Likewise, Redwood Raks has a number of weeknight drop-in classes, including swing, blues and salsa for $5.

Your love is real but so is the struggle. Bueno. Follow DJ Pachanguero's roving salsa and cumbia dance party around town — it's free but for the hydration you'll surely need. Hips swivel at the Miniplex (401 I St., Arcata) on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. (psst: this is also $2 taco night), at the Griffin (937 10th St., Arcata) on Wednesdays at 8:30 p.m., and at the Riverwood Inn (2828 Avenue of the Giants, Phillipsville) on the first Friday of the month at 8 p.m. You're only a YouTube video away from the most basic Cumbia steps anyway.


Hate to break it to you, but things don't look too good for that NEA grant. Luckily for you, an afternoon at one of our local museums is pretty cheap. Both the Morris Graves Museum of Art and the Clarke Historical Museum are only $5 to get in and packed with all the conversation pieces you could want, while Humboldt State University's Natural History Museum is $6. What better way to get to know someone than looking at paintings or pondering fossils?

Starving artists aren't the only ones nibbling free crackers at the community art nights in Eureka, Arcata and Trinidad. It's a no-brainer but we'd be remiss to leave it off the list. Between the buskers and the crowds in the streets and the folks mingling in the shops and galleries, it's like a low-pressure party with ramped-up people watching.

Fresh Air

Do you have $20 and a handle on your public bathing phobia? Then Finnish Country Saunas and Hot Tubs (495 J St., Arcata) is a fine place for even the sedentary to enjoy some fresh air. A mere $9.75 per person buys you 30 minutes of relaxing soaking time in an enclosed area with a private changing room. To those among you who are thinking of sneaking booze in there, a word of warning: I have passed out emerging from a hot spring and can attest that it was both scary and impossible to maintain a flattering posture while dropping like a wet sack of flour. For those who prefer to remain fully dressed, a big whipped cream-topped hot chocolate by the attached Café Mokka pond is a mere $2.75.

Even if you can afford name-brand condiments and previously unworn clothing, the no-cost beauty of the great outdoors makes for a memorable day. If this is a first date, however, keep in mind that the more remote trails through our forests can seem a little long if you don't click and a little murder-y if you drive a white van. Maybe hold off on that picnic in the woods until you've built up level of trust/comfort and stick to less secluded options like any of our local beaches, the Arcata Community Forest (bring your bikes), Trinidad Head Loop (with its swoonworthy views and benches) or, for the hill-averse, the mellow path at Freshwater Farms Reserve.

Warming up over that burning trash can just isn't as romantic as a beach bonfire, no matter how you sell it. Just do your research before you light up by the water. Fire is a non-starter on many of our beaches, including those run by the city of Trinidad (all around Trinidad Head) and the state. Check which entity (county, city, state and land trust) oversees the beach you're headed to and whether it allows campfires. Nothing douses the flames of passion like a Maglight coming over the dunes and a fine.

If you've got a champion cheap date idea — or a tale of a discount date gone wrong — don't keep it a secret, player. Share it in the comments at or email [email protected]. Hey, it's free.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor for the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @JFumikoCahill.

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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