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BF's birthday dinner--lots of stipulations. Help!

  • m

Looking for the perfect place to have dinner for my boyfriend and I on his birthday in a couple weeks. I feel like we've been everywhere that fits the following description so I'm hoping that you savvy Chowhounds will have some secrets up your sleeves.

Here are the specs:
-The place needs to have amazing Italian, French or American food. He likes hearty (I don't mean big portions), savory food--the sweet corn ravioli at Cafe Cluny has been a recent favorite dish, just to give an idea.
-It has to be small (smaller the better) and dimly lit. No mega-restaurants or bright places.
-It can't be stuffy or sceney. Preferably no white tablecloths & snooty service, or wall street guy/pr girl scene. Think the vibe of a cozy, casual Trattoria, not the newest "it" restaurant. But special in its own right--not everyday casual.
-Downtown suggestions only please (I'm open to Tribeca, LES, EV, WV, Soho and thereabouts, and Chelsea).
-I'm flexible on price as it's his b-day, but would prefer a place in the $20-35 entree range. (No small plates please)

Places that have the vibe I'm going for but I'm ruling out because we've already been there (plus some, like Crispo, are too big for what I'm going for):
The Place
Little Owl

I think that's it...please please help. Any suggestions much appreciated.

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    1. re: Nuray

      I've only been to Freeman's once about a year ago, and I really liked it. But it was packed even on a weeknight and hard to hear the friend I was dining with. Has the buzz (and din) died down any? If so, it could be a contender. Thanks!

      1. re: mae

        I was there two weeks ago, it is still crowded but it is better than before..

      1. re: Lucia

        I love Apizz and he's never been there...definitely a possibility. Thanks!

      2. Il Giglio has white tablecloths, but otherwise fits the bill fairly well...in Tribeca...

        1. barbone on ave. b is perfect. great food, dimly lit, priced well.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Will4Food

            I LOVE Bar-bo-ne. I have been there a twice this summer and it was great both times. You can sit outside if you prefer and it's just this unpretentious, delicious spot. If you like pasta, you could do the $35 pasta tasting. I think there's also a $40 tasting menu. I've had the duck ravioli, the black pepper pappardelle w/ short rib ragu, and the veal short ribs--all of which I really enjoyed. I have also sampled many of the appetizers, which are good. If you tell them it's a birthday, they'll probably even bring out a dessert of glass of wine for you guys.


            1. re: jrazzle

              Thanks guys! Barbone hadn't made my radar, but with that description (and after peeking at the photos & menu on its website), it's on there now. Definitely a possiblility. Quck q: What's the crowd usually like? Say, on a Wednesday at 9?

          2. Five Points, Hearth or Cookshop?

            1 Reply
            1. re: jdream

              Thanks jdream. But I know he's not into Five Points (too big and impersonal). We've been to Hearth but again with the white tablecloths! (The food is great, but I feel like it tries a bit to hard to be a "fine dining experience"). Cookshop had crossed my mind though...but it looks kind of bright, no? I'd love to be convinced wrong!

            2. Too funny-- August, The Place and Peasant were the first ones that came to mind.. but I have a few others!

              Le Gigot (tiny romantic french, WV)
              Po (tiny italian, WV)
              Gusto (dimly-lit italian, WV)
              Salt (romantic small american, SOHO)

              I hope you'll add a couple of these to your repertoire! I think they are very worthy and within your parameters....
              let me know what you think

              2 Replies
              1. re: vvvindaloo

                Okay, you people are reading my mind. I was also considering Po. (Gusto has an "uptown place transplanted downtown" feel, at least when we went there when the old chef was there. plus, it seemed every dish came with polenta, which seemed a bit slackerish to me.)

                I'd love to hear what you love about Po, Le Gigot and Salt (I've been to Salt bar...is Salt the same owners? I thought it was kind of a scene, no?)

                1. re: vvvindaloo

                  I second these--great suggestions, vvvindaloo! All are dimly lit, romantic, non-stuffy. Po and Salt, especially, have excellent food, and mellow, kind service (at least whenever I've been).

                  I'd add one more Cornelia St. option, Home, for American comfort food with a classy twist. It may be too brightly lit for your tastes, though.

                  [If you were willing to consider something out of those geographic parameters, Spiga on the UWS may be exactly what you're looking for. The new summer menu is really fresh / refreshing / inventive.]

                  1. the Aurora in Williamsburg is lovely and cozy and delicious. I can only imagine that the new one in Soho is similar.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: bladerobbins

                      You're definitely thinking along the right lines. We love the Wburg Aurora, but the Soho one is still too new (and overrun by people) for me to venture to. But thanks!

                      1. re: mae

                        Didn't seem that overrun when I was there, and definitely not Wall Street guy/PR girl type of crowd. And the gnocchi were to die for!

                      1. re: jno

                        Just went there last week! I really liked it, but to be honest, the food was great but not blow-me-away memorable. And the vibe was slightly cheapened (at least in my opinion) by all the starstruck TC fans trying to catch a glimpse of Harold (which was easy...he walked back and forth from the kitchen to the bar about half a dozen times, then ended the night flirting with a couple girls at the bar!).

                      2. Completely unassuming and cozy and delicious, and on top of it all...it's byob. Tartine in the WV at 11th Ave & 4th Ave. French inspired, the service is great. A little romantic and a little funky. Not sceney at all, very neigborhood, actually. Now, they don't take reservations, but at 9 on a Wednesday, I think you should be good.

                        4 Replies
                        1. re: geg5150

                          I'm not sure about white table cloths, but what about Blue Hill?

                          1. re: zoeterry

                            I always want to go to Blue Hill, but what stops me is their setup. I should've put this in my list of stipulations, but when resaurants seat couples at little tables along the wall, I can't enjoy myself. It just feels so cramped, like I'm in the next person's lap. It just seems like a lazy, impersonal way for restaurants to save space, and I try to avoid restaurants that do that.

                            1. re: mae

                              Many restaurants, including upscale ones, have banquette seating. So, if you are going to avoid restaurants that have that style of seating, you will be missing out on some mighty fine dining.

                              I think it depends entirely on exactly how close tables are to one another. (And that goes as well for restaurants that have free-standing tables.) For example, At Eleven Madison Park, where it's all banquette seating -- long and short -- there is quite a bit of distance between table. And the tables themselves are quite spacious.

                              However, in the case of Blue Hill, the tables are packed very tightly together along the banquettes. We got lucky the one time we had dinner there because we were seated at a table at the far corner of the banquette, which was a bit roomier, and the table next to us remained unoccupied. There are some free-standing tables for parties of 4+.

                          2. re: geg5150

                            Love Tartine and go there all the time. But it's too casual for a birthday I think. Plus, they don't take reservations and the lines (yes, even Wednesdays at 9) are often out of control!

                            1. La Lucheonette for French might fit the bill.

                              1. Been to Little Giant? Very small and cute with hearty seasonal food (very clean flavors). It's crowded since it is so small but worth it.

                                1. Sorry, two more stipulations:
                                  -must take reservations for parties of 2
                                  -must not have communal seating, or "suckers" seating: a line of two-seater tables against a wall right next to each other. (if they do, they must also have the option of separated tables for parties of 2)
                                  Picky, I know!

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: mae

                                    Goblin Market - don't think it's been mentioned... the food is excellent, new American with seasonal ingredients... definitely hearty recipes. Lighting is pretty dark, but DOES have "suckers" seating... (I hate it too, btw), however they can seat 2 apart from that wall and do take reservations. It's in soho on Prince (I think) just east of 6th ave. and I'm pretty sure it's wooden tables without table cloths. Waiters have all be great, however the host isn't super warm and fuzzy.

                                    It's definitely one of our favorites... the food is creative and has always been excellent on our visits. If they still have it, the warm goat cheese onion tart was to die for!

                                    good luck!

                                    1. re: mae

                                      of all the recommendations, my vote goes for Apizz! cozy, dimly lit, hearty for sure, and just plain good! i was taken there for my b-day and loved it.

                                      p.s. - i agree about the setup at blue hill. it looks downright awkward to dine there and maybe even intimidating.

                                    2. Looks like no one mentioned il buco.

                                      1. the orchard? perbacco? supper? lupa?

                                        1. Degustation, small plates and only 16 seats, all bar seating and the chef is right in front of you.