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Hi there - I'm new in town and looking for a great place for a romantic birthday dinner. Price is not an issue. I fear I'm a bit spoiled with the culinary scene in San Francisco and haven't yet been able to find really great restaurants in Raleigh. My last venture was Jibarra and I was EXTREMELY disappointed. Please help!

I've heard a tapas place - Underground - is good; as well as Fins and Margauex's; any thoughts on these?

Second Empire is supposed to be the best place in town, but I wasn't crazy about their menu. Same goes for Enoteca Vin. But if they're great and have a great romantic atmosphere, I'd try them.

Any input would be greatly appreciated!!!!


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  1. Yep, coming from San Francisco is a bit of a culinary shock. I've been here two years and keep looking and hoping. But eventually you have to change your expectations to fit the best of the local scene, rather than the best of what you remember back in the Bay Area.

    So far with your requirements the best I can come up with is Second Empire. I was pleased with the service, ambience, and food quality.

    Good luck and happy birthday to whomever!

    1. Newcomer76-

      The Triangle has a great foodscene for the Southeast, it is not San Fran, New York, London, or Chicago. In time, you will come to appreciate it. I know that I have.

      On the bright side, the traffic is a breeze and real estate is cheap compared to those areas. You take the good with the bad and you realize that you can now go out to eat a lot more than before.

      Romantic dinner? I've had a couple of good meals at Fins, Enoteca Vin, Second Empire - all would be good choices. If you want to go outside Raleigh, check out Fearington House down past Chapel Hill or Nana's in Durham. If you want to do something really special for that special someone, call Jujube and ask Charlie aka Detlefchef about preparing a special menu for your special someone. I think that a good menu could be more romantic than a romantic setting.

      1. I'd second the Fins rec... i've only had dinner there once, but it was very very good. Fraziers on Hillsborough St. is another fave in Raleigh for my wife and I... Vin's food is simply prepared, but executed with a great deal of skill and very high quality ingredients.
        As far as outside Raleigh, Magnolia Grill in Durham would be another I'd add to the list, while seconding the rec for Jujube and removing the rec for Fearrington. Another to check out would be Elaine's in Chapel Hill.
        Sorry to hear you were so disappointed at Jibarra.

        1. I don't know if Magnolia Grill would suit the recs. While their food is my favorite in the Triangle and always my choice for my birthday, it is severely lacking in the romance department. It can be crowded and noisy. However, I like the food so much that I'll gladly put up the atmosphere.

          Enoteca Vin ranks well on the romance scale and the food has always been outstanding. I haven't been there since the chef reworked the menu so I can't comment on that but the quality of the meals should still be excellent.

          Fearrington ranks very high on the romance scale. Excellent service, excellent experience in general, but the last two times I was there I was somewhat disappointed with the food. Not that it's bad, it just wasn't up to the quality of the meals that I'd had in previous years. Mucho, mucho dinero, also.

          1. I've been wondering about Mo's Diner in Raleigh. It seems that it would be a romantic spot, but I've not heard about the actual food. Is Mo's any good?

            1. Mo's Diner's food is outstanding.

              I'd actually suggest Elaine's on Franklin in Chapel Hill as the best combo of food, service, and romance.

              1. THANKS for all your input! I'd like to stay in Raleigh - so I'm leaning towards Fins or Second Empire.

                I've heard good things about Underground (tapas) - anyone been there?

                thanks again!

                7 Replies
                1. re: Newcomer76

                  My wife ate there and enjoyed it very much. I typically frown on second hand commentary on this board but I think it's fair to waive than when it's your spouse;)

                  1. re: detlefchef

                    thanks! Would it be appropriate for a birthday dinner?

                  2. re: Newcomer76

                    I ate at Underground once. As you are a newcomer, you won't remember its earlier life as the Old Bar, where patrons get drunk, dance around to loud music, and dance on the bar. They still do that - but later in the evening. It's just the restaurant that's changed. (It used to be Mexican.)

                    The food was wonderful. You know the chef/owner worked/trained in lots of London's finest restaurants (and one in Chapel Hill, if I'm not mistaken). His wife was very hospitable as well. She did warn us that the music would get loud at a certain time (10 maybe). And it did. And it is dark and dungeon-like.

                    But I liked it - and I liked them. And I hope that if it doesn't work out for their first big venture to be in the cellar of a comedy club, that they are able to find a more suitable place.

                    1. re: cackalackie

                      Thanks for the input! I'll definitely be trying it out - but do you think it's appropriate for a birthday dinner - or does it have too much of a bar-like atmosphere? How do they separate the restaurant from the bar-goers?

                      1. re: Newcomer76

                        There isn't a universal expectation for a "birthday dinner." If "birthday dinner" means quiet, romantic, formal, and impeccable service to you, then the DJ pictured on the Underground's web site might be an indication this is not what you're seeking in a "birthday dinner." (not to mention the $1 mystery cans and the $4 crack bombs listed as bar specials). http://www.comeunderground.com/nightl...

                        1. re: rcsimm

                          Yes - so true :-) Guess I was wondering if they have separate areas for the restaurant and bar - or if the restaurant just gets filled up with bar-goers as the night progresses...

                          1. re: Newcomer76

                            There is one room that is separate from the bar area. I'm sure if you called and asked, they'd be honest about what time it starts "hopping." Also, I don't know how much it varies by day of the week.

                  3. If you like tapas, then Tasca Brava cannot be beat for authenticity. The service can be very slow, and the prices are non-Spanish, but the flavors are there. When it comes to a romantic dinner, you may want to take 3-4 hours!

                    Fins is also high on my list. Although the wine list is not very adventurous. William, the chef, says that he has to keep the list primarily domestic and branded to satisfy his North Raleigh clientelle.

                    Second Empire is a solid romantic suggestion, although I've had meals there that didn't click or excite. When you're paying those prices, you don't want something that's not going to leave you craving more or think fondly of it later. Four Square in Durham ditto.

                    Charlie at Jujube does some very cool things and is willing to take a chance if you let him. The food there is always satisfying and his wine list is very good. Prices are very reasonable.

                    Magnolia Grill is great and incredibly consistant, but the atmosphere is not really all that romantic. It can be noisy.

                    Elaine's can be great also, but less consistant than MG. The wines list is great, if a little long, and the romance level is there.

                    I also like Talulla's in Chapel Hill. Great Turkish food. They have this romantic little private room for two that is very cool. You can eat most of the food with your fingers also, which can be very sexy.

                    Vin Rouge in Durham can make you feel like you're really in France. The food is spot on, the service is solid, and the wine list is appropriately chosen. It could be your evening in Paris in one stop.

                    1. I think Sullivan's on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh makes for a nice birthday or special occasion dinner. They have an excellent selection of wines.

                      6 Replies
                      1. re: lessnow59

                        Special occasion maybe, but not my idea of birthday. I was taken there by a vendor to celebrate the closing of a large deal and it felt appropriate for that, but not much else. I felt as if everyone were sitting in everyone else's laps. Tables were packed way too close together. Again, a pet peeve of mine, the noise level was too high. It also felt to me - just my personal vibe - that most of the other customers were overpaid "high powered" types there on expense account. It wasn't a comfortable experience at all.

                        1. re: rockycat

                          Sullivans wouldn't be on my list either. And I especially wouldn't call the wine list "great". Large, perhaps. Filled with very predictable choices at more $$ than you would expect to pay elsewhere? Absolutely. I've had lovely meals at both Fins and Vin but don't make it down to Raleigh much so I would take my opinion accordingly.

                          1. re: detlefchef

                            Yeah - from what I've heard about Sullivan's - not really on my list. Especially since we're not big steak eaters. Fins sounds like a good choice - although they don't have a website, so a convenient check of their menu is difficult. I'm still interested in Underground even though it turns into a bar later in the night...

                            1. re: Newcomer76

                              While my wife did enjoy her meal there, she didn't give me the impression it was "Special B-day dinner" material. First date, perhaps. Fins, as the name implies is largely seafood and has a bit of a fusion thread woven through it. Once again, I enjoyed my one meal there very much.

                              1. re: detlefchef

                                Maybe your wife can give some input on what WOULD be a special b-day dinner? I know you mentioned she liked Underground, but this may not qualify either? I don't care if the place is the most upscale restaurant in town - just romantic, intimate, great food, great atmosphere. Thanks!

                                1. re: Newcomer76

                                  She really doesn't make it down there anymore often than I do. It just happens that she had a nice time at Underground but didn't give me the impression that it was "event dining", rather a nice place to stop in and have a tasty bite with a friend. Once again, I don't really want to overstep my bounds because neither she or I make it down that way nearly as often as others here, so I'll just leave it at that.

                      2. Maybe Frazier's would be a good choice? http://www.fraziersbistro.com/

                        I've never been, so maybe someone who has could comment. Chef is from Gramercy Tavern...

                        Zely and Ritz?

                        Bloomsbury Bistro?

                        I'm a chapel hill girl, so I don't get to Raleigh that much; sorry to not be more help.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: rcsimm

                          Frazier's is consistantly good. I've never had a sub-par meal there. The prices are amazing considering the quality.

                          I can't say the same about Zely & Ritz. My last meal there, Sarig must have been having a terrible night. It was an embarrassment and he didn't seem to acknowledge it when I talked to him after. Each time prior was outstanding and dynamic.

                          Bloomsbury is a solid choice, but rarely memorable. Of the dozen or so times I've eaten there, I only remember thinking once that it was worth the hype (and the price). I've always wished that John would do a down-home restaurant that focused on game meats and local seafood without the pretense. That would really fly here! Think Q-Shack meets Carolina Outdoor Journal.

                        2. Also check out Vivace up in North Hills. It is run by the same folks who run Frazier's.

                          I've been for dinner twice and was impressed by the food each time -- dessert excepted. The desserts did not measure up to the standard set by the appetizers and entrees.

                          The homemade pasta was particularly good, and ranges from simple, comfort food (spaghetti and meatballs) to more interesting (mezzaluna pasta filled with butternut squash).

                          1. We ate at Underground for the first time (since it was this restaurant) last week before going to see "Movin Out". It was one of the most perfect meals I've had in awhile food-wise. I'm still dreaming about the salad I started with...arugula, beets, touch of horseradish, topped with a perfectly poached egg. The combination worked so well. My husband loved his goat cheese on bruschetta appetizer with olive tapenade and roasted garlic. I believe they were $5 each. We then shared hangar steak with mustard & horseradish ($9), and scallops with lobster & corn ($13), along with a gratinee of cauliflower.($4) Perfect, perfect, perfect! Along with French Roast pressed coffee, we shared a vanilla-ginger creme brulee. Again, perfect. The only slight criticism of the place is the atmosphere. It's still underground. But as soon as the food starts coming, none of that matters. If you go to Restaurant.com by the way, they have coupons you can purchase for the Underground.
                            Soooo...to answer your question about whether it would be suitable for a birthday celebration, that depends on what's important to you and your wife.
                            Vivace is a wonderful suggestion. Food is excellent, atmosphere is great, although it will get loud in there.
                            I've personally never been a fan of Second Empire. It's okay, but I've never had anything that felt like it was worth the sky high prices. As for Sullivan's, the one time I ate there with a gift certificate was one of the worst dining experiences I've ever ever ever had, and it was my birthday. Glad you ruled that one out.
                            I too am sorry you had a bad Jibarra experience. I tried it once and absolutely loved it.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: raleighchow

                              Currently - Second Empire is at the top of my list (along with Fins); I've heard nothing but great things about Underground, and we'll definitely try it --- just not sure yet if it's romantic dinner material. Wondering if you could give me more info on your Second Empire experiences - have you gone there often? when's the last time? how's the food? atmosphere? THANKS!!!

                              1. re: Newcomer76

                                I would start in their basement bar for a drink before going upstairs for dinner. It's one of their best features down there.

                                1. re: Newcomer76

                                  i sure hope that dan has gotten better than he was a couple of years ago... in general, it seemed as though he tried to execute food that was simply beyond his reach when he was at the ill fated grill at glenn lennox. *shrug* it's been a few years, though...

                              2. The last time we went to Second Empire was after a show at Memorial Auditorium. We wanted a glass of wine and a little something to eat. We went to the bar downstairs and were the only ones in the place. They said we still had time though. We each selected a glass of wine. I HATED mine. Didn't know how a chardonnay could be that hideously awful. We ordered a crab dip of some type. It was okay. Nothing memorable. The bartender didn't seem to care that I hated my wine. After I choked it down he told me he didn't like it either. We split one other glass of wine, that was less expensive and was great. The total bill for three glasses of wine and a small dip was over $50. And again, none of it was particularly memorable.
                                I've been there several times after work for a drink and appetizers, and I can't remember a single thing that I had. It's been years since I had a meal in the main dining room, and again, I remember nothing about the meal other than it was okay, and I was really glad I wasn't paying for it.
                                However, many many people like the place, and I've heard of some really nice meals there. Perhaps you could get them to fax you a current menu to see if you like the sound of it?
                                It's been years since I've been to Fins, but I did have a couple very nice meals there. Again, I think a lot depends on current menus and what your wife likes. I think it's wonderful that you're taking time to consider your options and do something nice for her!

                                1. Second Empire's menu is posts a sample menu at their website (http://www.second-empire.com/secondem...).

                                  I have eaten there once recently for business; it was a recruiting dinner. We ate in the tavern area because it is supposed to be more relaxed. The tavern area is not like any tavern I have ever seen. We were seated in the atrium part of the tavern, which had lots of windows looking out to Hillsborough street and white linen tablecloths. It was quite nice.

                                  In the tavern portion, you are able to order off both the tavern menu and the upstairs menu. I believe my party mostly ordered from the tavern menu. We started with a hummus that was rich and creamy and so divine that we asked for more pita chips to go with it so we could finish it. After that, the meal got less memorable. The service was indifferent, and the waitress confused my filet with the filet of the person sitting across from me-- so my steak was overcooked. Dessert was incredibly rich. I had a chocolate souffle with creme angelaise that was melt-in-your-mouth divine for the first few bites but was so rich I couldn't finish it. Some members of my party ordered ice cream for dessert -- they had some unique ice cream flavors that you could mix and match and they went over well with the people we were recruiting.

                                  I did not go upstairs, so I cannot speak to the upstairs atmosphere. It is kind of neat going to the restaurant, just because it is on Hillsborough in a big old house. I would hope the service is better upstairs than downstairs. It is quite a pricy place, though.

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: limona

                                    The thing that occurs to me about the Second Empire is that it is so expensive, you expect everything to be perfect. So if one aspect is any sort of a let-down (average or indifferent service, average or non-memorable food), you feel ripped off. The atmosphere in the main restaurant is indeed what most people would consider romantic. But the last time I went, I just felt that I did not get value for my money. (I don't even remember what I ate or how it tasted, just the feeling I had when I left.)

                                    1. re: cackalackie

                                      I agree with cackalackie on this. When you can almost guarantee a great meal at Fins or Mag Grill, your chance of feeling that way after a meal at Second Empire is far less likely. I think most people go there for the atmosphere and the exclusivity of it more than for exquisite cuisine.

                                  2. One restaurant that I think is excellent for a birthday dinner (quiet, romantic, formal, and impeccable service) is Il Palio, in the Siena Hotel in Chapel Hill.

                                    The service is what you might expect at a four diamond hotel; attentive but not invasive. The tables are spaced properly, the lighting dim but not dark, and the atmosphere is Italian-romantic (=not stuffy).

                                    The menu is comparable to Second Empire and Fearrington, with the wonderful addition of many handmade pasta dishes (a favorite of women, I have found). My descriptions won't do it justice, so check it out for yourself: http://www.ilpalio.com/

                                    Remember that you said price is not an issue. I took my wife there I think three years ago, and we spent $250, with only one medium--priced bottle of wine. Apps run from $7-$12, entrees from $19-$35, and there are also two five-course tasting menus to choose from.

                                    This is a special occasion restaurant. Good luck in your quest!

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: ediblerock

                                      This place looks fabulous! Wish it was closer to Raleigh....

                                    2. I have been a bit disappointed with Il Palio. The food is good (but not great, IMO) and the service is solid. However, the ambience is not that great to me. Basically, you are sitting in the lobby of a hotel.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: jsb23nc

                                        It is terribly inconsistant depending on who is chef, sommelier, servers, etc. I've had incredible experiences there, terrible ones, and everything in between.

                                      2. Tablewines, you may be right, depending on how often you've been there. I have only been there a few times, but have had consistently wonderful experiences. My last visit was perhaps a year ago.

                                        As for the atmosphere, it is NOT in the lobby. It is a beautiful open area (separate from the lobby) with exquisite decor, next to the bar. The finest restaurants in New York are usually part of a hotel (reduces overhead, increases foot traffic).

                                        1 Reply
                                        1. re: ediblerock

                                          Is the hostess stand and bar not 20 feet from the lobby entrance to the hotel? Sure, I'm exaggerating a bit about the restaurant being "in the lobby." However, you do enter the restaurant from the lobby just as if you were walking into the hotel for check-in. In addition, the restaurant did not have a "separate" feel to me. Again, the restaurant was not bad but it was nowhere close to being as good as advertised.

                                        2. Anyone have any thoughts regarding Bloomsbury Bistro?

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: Newcomer76

                                            I've eaten there 4 or 5 times, and as much as I want to like the place, I just don't. It's as if the chef just doesn't know what he wants to do, so he usually does too much at once. In the end, the food has never worked for me, which is pretty strange as I love the complexity of flavors at Magnolia Grill or Fins.

                                          2. I've had a couple very nice meals at Bloomsbury Bistro. It's been awhile though. Restaurant.com has coupons for that restaurant also. Did you, by any chance, see the Weekend section of the N&O Friday? The food critic has lists of his all-time favorites. That might be helpful to you.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: raleighchow

                                              No, I heard about it, but didn't see it. I'll see if I can still check that out - thanks!

                                            2. I'm a huge fan of Enoteca Vin. The food, wine and atmosphere makes you feel, if only for a moment, like your in a city again and not in a culinary wasteland.

                                              Second Empire is good, but not as good as Vin. The food is good but not thrilling. Both these restaurants run a shuttle to the Raleigh Symphony, which can make for a special evening.

                                              The Fearington is romantic, especially if you get one of their romantic packages that includes dinner and a room.

                                              I've been to Margauex's once and the food was terrible. Everything was greasy and way over-salted. It was as if a chef designed the menu and then a dishwasher prepared the food.

                                              Vivace is fun. Like Vin it has a sophisticated, city feel. The food has been mixed - sometimes great and sometimes missing on execution.

                                              1. Enoteca Vin seems to be a great choice - my only concern is that according to the menu it seems to have a southern flair in the food which sorry to say doesn't agree with my pallate all too well. But I may try it nonetheless. I like the idea of being able to have a drink in the tavern at Second Empire before dinner - but at Vin, there's the Glenwood South area to entertain! Still undecided between Second Empire, Vin, and Fins......

                                                4 Replies
                                                1. re: Newcomer76

                                                  A bit of advice. You may be overthinking this and setting yourself up for dissapointment. Plenty listed here can offer you a fine dining experience but none is a 100% assured of completely delivering. If you continue scrutinizing, you're going to build yourself up to a point that anything short of complete rapture will be somewhat of a letdown. You may just want to relax, let it go, and just pick one. There will always be another occasion for a nice meal and then you can try one of the others. FWIW, of the three you list, I'd say Vin with Fins an extremely close second and then Second Empire.

                                                  1. re: detlefchef

                                                    I agree with this sentiment. And I agree - just go to Vin. And let us all know how you like it!

                                                    (I don't think it's too "Southern" to disagree with any palate, but again, I wouldn't want to over-analyse it.)

                                                    1. re: cackalackie

                                                      While I certainly understand the sentiments expressed by Detlefchef and cackalackie, I would submit that for some folks the process of "shopping" for a restaurant is a pleasure in itself. I am that way with car shoppingf. I research extensively and then buy decisively.

                                                      That being said, my stance on dining has been to try as many places as possible and return to those places that are truly special.

                                                      1. re: Tom from Raleigh

                                                        Thanks Tom! So true - the process of shopping for restaurants is fun in itself :-) Thanks again for everyone's input - I'll let you know how it goes!

                                                2. I can't believe no one has mentioned Prime Only - we love it and have always had excellent service and great food there. The downtown location is great, but Leesville Road is also very comfortable.

                                                  1. Maxmillians in Cary is one of the best.... great flavor and presentation. My favorite place hands down.


                                                    1. DINNER REPORT - just thought I'd give everyone a report considering the time you all gave giving recommendations - they were much appreciated!

                                                      I decided on Second Empire - partially because they have the most seafood options (second to Fins) and also because it seems to have the best ambiance I was looking for. The service was actually perfect - the waiter was extremely knowledgeable, friendly, and professional. We had the ahi tuna and goat cheese salad as appetizers - both were great. As main courses, we had the sea bass and the filet. The steak was the perfect piece of meat - served with a wonderful lasagna-type layered sweet potato and cheese side. The fish was very good - wonderful flavors. We had the chocolate souffle for dessert and loved it. Overall, the food was wonderful - although it didn't quite rise to the level of SF restaurants of similar caliber. As far as cost - we had two appetizers, two entrees (1 being one of the priciest on the menu), 1 dessert, 3 glasses of wine, coffee and tea - total bill was only around $140. We thought this was very reasonable for this type of restaurant and food quality. Although in all fairness, we are used to SF prices. In SF, we would have paid more for a meal at this quality of a restaurant. We also checked out the tavern downstairs (where we found the majority of the restaurant patrons!) and are looking forward to trying that in the future.

                                                      SECOND REPORT - UNDERGROUND

                                                      We also recently tried Underground (tapas - though think small plates rather than Spanish style tapas). This was honestly the overall best meal I've had in Raleigh - the food here easily competes with the SF culinary scene. Each dish was wonderful - and we couldn't get over at how cheap it is!!!! From what I understand, the low overhead at their current location allows them to have such reasonable prices. Also, the owners are so friendly and invested in this place - they take pride in the food, service, and getting to know their patrons. This is easily my favorite restaurant in Raleigh. I was very impressed. It would be great if the place had a restaurant space (to improve the atmosphere), rather than located in a college bar environment (with accompanying bar smell), but I suppose that's what makes the place unassuming, reasonably priced, and not too crowded - so I guess the location does have its benefits! The one serious flaw in this restaurant is the poor wine list - that was disappointing. Their food deserves some better quality wines.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: Newcomer76

                                                        Glad you enjoyed your evenings out Newcomer. Hopefully, you now have enough other recommendations to last you a couple of weeks. ;)

                                                        I hear that the reason that Underground's wine list is so poor is that one of the owners is still loyal to her previous employer, a wine distributor that caters primarily to the chain grocery stores. That would explain the Ravenswood, Rex Goliath, Murphy-Goode, Hahn, etc. For a restaurant that excells with food, these are hardly adventurous.

                                                      2. I like Second Empire, but don't think it's that romantic. It's nice, but not the place I'd pick for romance, in my opinion... it just feels so formal and open. I love Margaux's. I also like Mo's Diner, though it's been years since I've eaten there. Lately I've been enjoying 115 Midtown- it's small and good. Same with Cafe Tiramisu. I've heard excellent things about Fins, Nana's, and Magnolia Grill though haven't had a chance to try them out. Hope this helps.