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Saturday night b-day dinner for someone whose tastes I'm still trying to figure out

Hoping to take a friend out for his birthday in a few weeks (the Saturday of labor day weekend). I'm wondering if people have suggestions for a nice place (ideally under $100 for a dinner for two, with one being a non-drinker and one being a very light drinker). The problem is that I'm still not totally sure of all of his likes and dislikes. Things I know he likes--Southern Italian food, fish of all varieties, sushi, pub fare, etc. Things I'm unsure of--traditional steakhouse fare, Chinese/Japanese/Korean/Vietnamese/etc, trendy "American" food (i.e. most of the Stephen Starr types of places). I can be really flexible about location--I am in Chestnut Hill and he is in Bala Cynwyd, and we'll be traveling down to Helium for the 10:30pm show so have plenty of time to get dinner out of the city and then head down there, though dinner in the city is fine too. I posted a few weeks ago asking for suggestions near Helium, but that was a very different situation and I'm not sure if those suggestions would really apply here...I plan to use them in the future, though!

A few more quick notes--I don't care if the place is BYOB or not, as we really won't be drinking much; I need the place to take reservations as I'd hate to arrive and face a long wait; I am a vegetarian (ovo lacto...no meat, poultry, fish) though am completely happy with something basic and boring. Thanks in advance for all of the help. My apologies for such an ambigous post...I'm hopeful that someone will read it and have a restaurant instantly pop into his/her mind, as I've been struggling to come up with one. I've been searching the boards, but the broadness of my request is proving problematic.

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  1. The first thing that pops into my head is Horizons, a vegan restaurant which I hear is also popular with non-vegans and non-vegetarians. Also, how about Citrus in Chestnut Hill? They have both fish and vegan entrees. I guess if you go to a southern Italian restaurant you can have pasta with a sauce that doesn't contain meat.

    1. It isn't fancy, but the Royal Tavern may be good. It's a neighborhood pub, but they have a great menu, interesting daily specials as well as a decent vegetarian menu.

      15 Replies
      1. re: lawgirl3278

        Thanks lawgirl...I'll see if I can find their menu online. Any thoughts on the atmosphere--noise level, etc., and whether they take reservations?

        1. re: Laura D.

          No reservations and it's a dark and loud. Food used to be amazing with lots of veggie options but don't know how it is now. For the occassion and as a veggie I would say the city is a must. Near Helium I reccomend Tria, Branzino (great veggie pastas, wonderful fish) and Caffe Casta Diva (my fave).

          1. re: saturninus

            I'll look into Branzino and Caffe Casta Diva...a little worried that perhaps Tria is too informal. Thanks for the suggestions!

            1. re: Laura D.

              If Tria is too informal, don't even think about going to the Royal Tavern..

              1. re: Buckethead

                Gotcha...thanks for that Buckethead. And, I promise to take your advice and try Snackbar, but on a different occasion.

          2. re: Laura D.

            No reservations needed. It can get loud later in the evening (like I said, it is a bar) , but the dinner hour isn't too bad. Here's the menu


            1. re: lawgirl3278

              Royal Tavern is a sweet choice because it has very good pub food, it's vegan friendly, and it's going to be very inexpensive compared to some other options, especially if you arent drinking. They have a great burger and if he's into burgers like I am, he'll be fine. The only problem may come that it isn't all that close to Helium. You can find parking down there though and if you drive you'll probably have to pay to park at Helium unless you get lucky.

              1. re: Tonyjlive

                I'm okay with the not being close to Helium issue, as I think that we'll have plenty of time. Plus, Helium is actually a surprise, so I was planning on intentionally parking away from Helium for dinner so that he didn't know what was going on. I'll need to figure out how into burgers he is and go from there...if that is something he really enjoys (usually he is a bit of a health nut but perhaps he'd like burgers as a "vice" food...I'm just not sure) this sounds like it has the potential to be a good option. Thanks!

              2. re: lawgirl3278

                There is this small place in Bryn Mawr called Mediterranean Grill.
                It has plenty of fish dishes, killer soups, as well as vegetarian dishes (a killer vegetarian lasagna) and you can bring your own bottle (or not!)
                A reservation is helpful.
                It meets your price requirements too.

                1. re: idia

                  Thanks...I'll check into Mediterranean Grill!

                  1. re: Laura D.

                    I don't think that Mediterranean Grill is what you are looking for. In fact, although I go there occasionally because it's close, it's not a place that I recommend. Cafe Fresko, accross the street, is a great choice for a fish-lover, but I don't know how good the vegetarian offerings are.

                    1. re: vicarious

                      I'll look online and see if I can find anything about Cafe Fresko. I don't care what I have to eat (I can always find something on a menu or get the chef to make me a vegetable plate) as long as I make him happy. Thanks for the suggestion!

                      1. re: Laura D.

                        No! Please go to the city! These are good but you are going to the city anway. I think any of the reccs I gave earlier would be perfect.

                        1. re: saturninus

                          I'm 99% sure I'm going to book at Branzino...assuming they can still take us that is!

          3. Any thoughts on La Locanda del Ghiottone? I think I have heard good things on this board though the online menu I found looks kind of small. Thanks

            1 Reply
            1. re: Laura D.

              La Locanda del Ghiottone's food is good but the place gets smoky because it's small and the kitchen is right in the middle.

            2. My suggestions are: L'Angolo (1415 Porter Street in S. Phila), Mr. Martino's (E. Passyunk Avenue in S. Phila), or Savolo in Northern Liberties. All of these places are a bit off the beaten path...the type of places that are favorite special restaurants rather than trendy places.

              I've been to L'Angolo (you can find their menu on the web), and there is a vegetarian antipasta plate that includes lots of tasty bites. Very pleasant atmosphere, friendly service, and delicious food. You do feel like you've been transported to Italy!

              Mr. Martino's is another thought. The food isn't fancy, but it is solid and relatively inexpensive. If I remember correctly, the atmosphere feels more old fashioned, with a big wooden bar and a tin ceiling.

              I have never been to Savalo in Northern Liberties, but I have heard very positive reviews, especially that the chef has a nice touch with vegetables. They have a web page.


              2 Replies
              1. re: refinnej

                If you can come into the center of town, I recommend Branzino. It's a lovely place, food is delicious, and the menu is large and varied. I have enjoyed their pastas, and their fish and meat dishes are also excellent. BYOB.

                We found that L'Angolo has gone down lately; it may be because they have opened another restaurant recently and aren't giving the old one their full attention.
                Also, it's more of a family place than a special occasion place.

                Sovalo is classy - very attractive - but not as many choices as Branzino. See if their menu is online.

                1. re: sylviag

                  I meant to ask about L'Angolo so I'm glad several of you mentioned it. I've been there several times...I wasn't necessarily blown away (though I attribute that more to my "weirdness" than to the restaurant), but my family always enjoyed it and I feel like the menu is something he would like. It is good to know that perhaps it has gone downhill somewhat.

                  I've also been to Mr. Martino's Trattoria, though it was only once and several years ago. I remember it being good, and having a great atmosphere, but if I remember correctly dinner was incredibly, incredibly long. While we should have plenty of time to eat, I'm feel like I'd need to block 2+ hours to ensure we'd get out of there on time, and I'm not sure if that sounds like a god idea. Not out of the question, but perhaps other choices are better. I'll look into Sovalo...don't know much about it but I'll see what I can find. Thanks!

              2. Like the first responder to your post, the first place that popped into my head was Horizons. They have a varied, vegan menu (which you can look at online) but you would never know it, meat eaters seem to rave about it as much as vegetarians. My husband and I went there for our anniversary and loved it. I don't know if you could get a reservation this late, but maybe since it's summer it's a possibility.

                1 Reply
                1. re: lauracohenromano

                  For Center City Dining I too suggest Branzino.
                  There is a place in Ardmore called Felllini's which is very popular with the neighborhood crowd that serves good Southern Italian.
                  No reservations though.

                2. Okay...sort of a new idea. Has anyone been to either Chris' Jazz cafe or Ortliebs Jazz Haus? I know for certain he loves places like this (i.e. jazz cafes/places with live entertainment) but I'm not sure if we'll be able to experience much of the live entertainment given that we'll be leaving by about 9:15pm or so, so the focus really does need to be on the food. However, if these places have good food then I think they are worth considering. The menus look promising, but so did Warmdaddy's menu, where we found ourselves fairly disapointed with the actual food there. Sorry I didn't mention that he likes places like this originally...if anyone knows of any other I'd love to hear about them. Thanks!


                  2 Replies
                  1. re: Laura D.

                    If you are looking for a good culinary experience don't go to either. The focus is much more on the music.

                    1. re: Laura D.

                      i know i'm late on this... but i thought i'd weigh in on some of my favorites:

                      for your next trip back into the city ortlieb's is great! make it a later event, though; i don't think music starts til around 10pm. get there at 9:30ish for dinner, then hang out at the bar afterwards. i haven't been in since they re-did the place - has anyone? through the window it certainly looks brighter! i've only been in weekdays and for the house band - and even then it can be crowded at the bar (where i always dine. joe, the bartender on tues, is awesome - best service i've had in the city!).

                      also, two other italian (both cash-only, BYO) joints in the northern liberties area that are FABulous are il cantuccio (by the same folks as la locanda del ghiottone) and modo mio, a new place up on girard. il cantuccio is more traditional, a tiny, cute place with an open kitchen and delicious smells. modo mio is a little more modern, with an interesting twist on italian fare (portion sizes on the smaller side, but just enough for me to clean my plate and be satisfied). i love them both. i'd pick both of those over sovalo... not that i found anything wrong with sovalo, just more expensive than i was expecting for what you get.

                    2. Just wanted to report back about our experience at Branzino. First and foremost, the birthday boy loved it (frankly, he loved it as soon as we walked in, and the food just sealed the deal). We split an appetizer of buffalo mozzarella with roasted peppers and tomatoes. The bread that they served, which of course we used to eat the mozzarella, was quite honestly superb. I'm not sure where they got it from but it was absolutely wonderful. For our entrees I had a gnocchi dish which was basically in a fresh tomato sauce with some melted mozzarella on it, though it definitely wasn't a baked dish meaning covered in cheese and then baked in the oven. My only complaint was the portion was really small...the dish was a normal size but there was a ton of sauce and literally about 20, half inch gnocchi on the plate. Though I'd say I'm a big eater and might misjudge portion size, I think most people would have been surprised at how little pasta I received. The birthday boy had a farfalle sauce in a pink, brandy cream sauce, with shrimp and crab. Though I didn't taste it, he said it was absolutely wonderful...and it was a very nice portion size. We didn't get any dessert but he did get an espresso. The pre-tip bill was under $50...very, very reasonable for the quality of the food. We will definitely be going back here, as it was a great atmosphere, friendly service, and delicious food (and the birthday boy said it was one of the best dinners he'd ever had). Thanks again for everyone's help!

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: Laura D.

                        Glad Branzino was a success with you both.
                        Next? Try Casta Diva. You will be equally as happy.

                        1. re: Laura D.

                          I'm so happy you liked it! I knew you would like it.

                          Just so you know for the future though, the pasta dishes at Branzino are not meant to be entrees, but a course in between the appetizer and entree, which is usually fish, meat, etc. I myself don't eat meat so usually order an appetizer for myself plus pasta so I am full.

                          1. re: saturninus

                            Hmm...that's good to know. Thanks!