Gourmet chefs turn to budget bites to feed demand for casual dining

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Restaurants and chef are trading fine dining for budget meals with a gourmet twist. (KTRK)

FM Kitchen and Bar, near Shepherd and Washington serves up some of your favorite American comfort food dishes in a laid-back atmosphere.

"There's something on the menu for everyone," customer Chelsea Padon said of FM Kitchen and Bar, her favorite casual restaurant.

Customer Jarrett Karn named some of his favorite dishes at FM, "I love the hush puppies. They're great, and the chicken fried steak."

But what might surprise you is the gourmet chef turning out these casual classics.

"Jeans and t-shirt is probably about as fancy as you need to get," Chef Ryan Hildebrand said.

Chef Hildebrand trained at the exclusive Culinary Institute of America and has cooked in some of Houston and New York's finest restaurants.

"The level of execution I require at this place is the same I would at any place," Hildebrand said.

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But instead of serving $500 dinners, he's now griddling what he calls "the perfect burger" for just $5 and some change.

"Fine dining still has its place, but people are enjoying this style of dining more."

These days, some of Houston's hottest chefs are abandoning their fine dining concepts to feed the demand for cheap eats. The result? Budget dining, with a gourmet twist.

Chef Paul Friedman recently opened PPK, an order-at-the counter version of his upscale Peli Peli Restaurants.

Star chef Ronnie Killen shines just as bright with his BBQ and burger joints as he does with his steakhouses.

And upscale farm-to-table Benjy's restaurant inspired Local Foods. Its relaxed neighborhood spin-off was so successful, it now has five locations, and another casual concept, The Classic, in the works.

"Keeping things simple and fresh definitely makes the margin better. And we don't have to charge as much to the guest either," Chef Hildebrand said.

Going casual a win for the chef and the customer paying the bill.

"You're getting the food that you love cooked at a higher level than anywhere else in Houston," customer Ara Malkhassin said.

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