FOR the equivalent of about $80 in New York, London or Paris, you can leave home, walk a few blocks, and find at least a dozen restaurants where the food is fresh and the service amiable. Go out with the same amount in Hong Kong and you won't get nearly as far. True, you could enjoy a blow-out at Cafe de Coral but $80 won't stretch to much more than a starter and soft drink in any of the popular Lan Kwai Fong haunts. Hong Kong used to be a cheap place to eat. But that was in the days before landlords became insanely avaricious and before chronic yuppiehood set in. Choices then might have been limited but at least diners knew what they were getting for their money. Today, in what has become one of the most expensive cities in the world, there are precious few places here serving an ample meal for less than $80. Even more difficult is finding a restaurant where dinner, and perhaps an alcoholic beverage, can be had for that amount. The good news is that it can be done - perhaps not as easily as one may like, and it does mean leaving the comfort zones of Central and the interiors of almost all hotels. But tucked away behind some of the territory's busiest streets are restaurants where the quality of food is high, the service reliable and the decor more than acceptable. When dai pai dongs and fast-food outlets seem too much like roughing it, there are other options. If entertaining on a budget, or if you have overseas visitors who need to be taken out every night, you need to remember the type of cuisine you choose is almost as important as what you order. If you decide to stick to Chinese cuisine, Cantonese can often be the most expensive choice. But if you go with Chiu Chow, Shanghainese or Pekinese food, your bill will be slashed considerably. The Wu Yuen restaurant in North Point (880-0098) is an excellent choice for Shanghainese food, which is a little sweeter than Cantonese cuisine. A good-sized dish here is anything between $50 and $80 and you will only need three to fill two moderately hungry people. The service is brisk and efficient, and the place is clean. If you opt for Pekinese, try Mandarin House in Wan Chai (511-4362). Its range of dim sum is more substantial than its Cantonese counterparts (roast mutton and fried dumplings are also house specialities) and a good dinner works out to about $100 per head. For Chiu Chow, go to one of the several City Chiu Chow restaurants in Hong Kong; especially popular is the Wan Chai branch (598-4701) where a meal of four substantial dishes costs a maximum of $100 a person. Japanese cuisine is one of the most expensive and certainly not an everyday indulgence. But if you do get a craving, a good bet is the Yorohachi in Lan Kwai Fong (524-1251) where a bowl of udon (noodles) is $40 and a plate of assorted tempura costs $70. There is also an excellent if little-known sidewalk stall in Wan Chai similar to the kind you may find in the Ginza: the Kai Man Japanese Food Co (573-6625) specialises in sushi and sashimi at less than half the price charged in a hotel restaurant. The food is fresh and top quality, and if you're lucky you may be seated at one of the small tables extending on to the pavement. Illustrated postcard-sized menus make ordering especially easy. Finding reasonably priced French cuisine is not easy. The minimum for lunch at most restaurants is about $200, so dinner prices are even higher. An exception is the relaxed Au Trou Normand in Carnarvon Road, Kowloon (366-8754), where good-sized appetisers are about $50 to $60, entrees around $120, making a dinner bill of under $200 per person possible. But apart from casual dining at Delifrance, little else is available in this category for less than $100. Lovers of Italian food are far better catered for in Hong Kong, with lots of medium to upper range options. Unfortunately many can also be dismissed as mediocre. La Bella Donna in Shui On Centre (802-9907) is not a bad try: a reasonable pasta is about $75 and the atmosphere is fairly upmarket. Even better is Il Mercato in Central (868-3068) or Stanley (813-9090) where $75 to $80 buys you an excellent pasta and $150 a glass of wine and a dessert to finish off. Most types of Asian food tend to be much more reasonably priced than Western cuisines, and vegetarian restaurants are a satisfying and economical option. Kung Tak Lam Shanghainese Vegetarian Cuisine in Causeway Bay (890-3127) does a superb and varied range of rice and noodle dishes for about $50 each. And if you don't mind waiting for a table, Vegi-Kitchen, also in Causeway Bay, is top-notch. Failing that, you can't really go wrong with Indian food and you don't have to venture into the bowels of Chung King Mansions in Nathan Road to save a few bucks. Koh-I-Noor - in Central (877-9706) and Tsim Sha Tsui (369-0783) - is a good restaurant: $50 for a steaming plate of chicken makhanwalla, $14 for parathas, and a reasonable $38 for a rich sag paneer dish. Woodlands in Minden Avenue (369-3718) is good for a vegetarian thali - a series of small dishes including rice, yoghurt and a chapatti - for $40 to $60. Thai food has become popular with diners but prices are either up in the stratospheric range in ultra-fashionable places, or right down to earth in the sort of place where you wouldn't trust the hygiene. If you prefer to stick to European or continental food, it is a good idea to join the Mariner's Club in Tsim Sha Tsui: for an annual membership of $200 ($100 between now and the end of the year), you can avail yourself of high-quality food in the decent ambience of its dining room, where a three-course set dinner is $65. 'Chinglish' restaurants are usually to be avoided at all costs but from September on, the Crystal Cafe in Wan Chai (598-7252) may prove the exception. It will be serving English ale with grill-type foods - steak, roast spring chicken - for between $30 and $70. From the outside, it looks like part of a fast-food chain but the food quality is comparable to that of a good hotel coffee shop. Stopping for a bite at a pub is never a bad idea: show up during happy hour and the drinks are taken care of, while a hearty meal of fish and chips or steak and kidney pie can often be had for under $70 at one of the more popular pubs such as the Bull and Bear and Mad Dogs, or casual places like Pomeroy's. But remember that even in reasonably-priced eateries, you can end up with an over-inflated bill if you opt for the wrong order. As food critic Jimmy Woo warns, ordering fish requires caution as does placing too much faith in the maitre d'. If a menu lists the price as 'seasonal', don't be afraid to ask for it or you may find yourself paying more than $1,000 a catty for a seafood delicacy. And be aware the maitre d's recommendations may well be specials with high profit margins. 'Cantonese restaurants can cost you a bomb if you choose the shrimp or steamed fish without checking the price first. There are these new wave gimmicky restaurants which serve good Chinese food in a Western ambience. The well-trained staff are good at salesmanship and will talk you into trying anything,' Woo says.