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Birthday dinner with friends in Triangle

Hi there,
I am totally new here. Here's the situation in a nutshell: I enter a new decade, 40, the day after Valentine's, and since my birthday falls on a Friday I am making a weekend of the festivities. Dinner with husband on my birthday and a dinner with my friends on Saturday. All the friends who will be joining fit into the category of stay-at-home moms who are pretty serious about food. I would definitely put most of the group, including me, in the category of discerning when it comes to dining out. We have high standards and derive great pleasure from dining out. Oh, and of course we rarely get to go out because we have kids, no money, no time, etc.

I am treating and want to take them, and me, somewhere great. I have lived in the Chapel Hill/Durham area for a decade and have been to all the biggies mentioned here: Lantern, ACME, Mag Grill, Nana's, Four Square. Not so many of the new ones like Rue Cler, Piedmont, Vin Rouge, to name a few.

There will be about 10 of us. I want a good meal. I sort of dreamed there'd be some wonderful little place with excellent atmosphere, an attentive but discrete wait staff, where a big group of moms wouldn't feel like we weren't hip enough to be there, where we could sit for several hours on a Saturday night and not feel nudged to get on with it already. Where we could have very tasty food and no one would think: "Gee, I'd be pretty disappointed if I turned forty and I got these chewy pork chops." Oh, and nice drinks that don't consume around the kids.

So, my question is: Is there such a place that is new, or should I stick with the old favorites [I really love Nana's]. I also used to really love ACME, but haven't been there in several years. Is it still all that? How about the new ones in Durham [where I live]: Rue Cler and Piedmont? I've been checking the reviews and they seem mixed enough that I wouldn't find them a totally safe bet if this were my first time. Nana's and Magnolia Grill are great, but though we are treating and I feel generous, part of me seizes up a little when I think what the bill for 10 people will look like. But will it be THAT much higher at a great place than an okay place, and shouldn't it just be great for a big celebration? I mean, if we are doing this, should we just go with a sure thing and figure we won't remember a higher bill, but will definitely remember a less-than-stellar dinner?
Many humble thanks,

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  1. My vote would be for Piedmont, and although I can't promise that it will be flawless (seems that consistency is a problem in this area) I do think that you will likely have a wonderful meal in a place with a laid back but still nice atmosphere. Rue Cler is also usually very good, but since they don't take reservations, I think it would be iffy to try to get that big a group in there on a Saturday night. I love Vin Rouge, but the menu is hit and miss; once you know what you like, you can always have a great meal, but if you're new there, it sometimes fails.

    As far as ACME goes, I haven't been in a little over a year, mostly because the food quality had dropped so much (we were regulars for a while before that). But I've heard some on this board rave, so maybe things have improved.

    Hope you have a great birthday.

    6 Replies
    1. re: LulusMom

      Thanks lulusmom! I need to actually step foot in Piedmont and see what it looks like. I know there's been a lot of Piedmont discussion here and some pretty different POVs on it. I'm going to look further...

      1. re: mashenka

        Piedmont is a bit iffy on the service front, though I do like the food. Still, you're not going to end up spending that much less money than at Nana's when it comes right down to it. They are very reasonable for lunch though. I think Rue Cler might take reservations for larger parties. I think they still have a $25 prix fixe - you should definitely check it out. Also talk to them about planning on being there all evening. They're a small place, so you'd probably feel better if that were settled off the bat. Good luck and happy birthday!

        1. re: suse

          Southern Rail ;
          the head chef used to cook at Acme. I love Southern Rail for the great food and the cannot -be- beat atmosphere. Definitely a birthday place I think.

          1. re: suse

            Agree that Piedmont has some work to do on the service front, and also that the food is pretty damn good. I have to say that I've come away much happier from Piedmont than from Nana's recently--and I have to respectfully disagree with suse in that we haven't spent nearly as much money. My vote for a party of this nature would go with them. We had a party of 8 there, with some vegetarians in the mix, and had a blast.
            To the point on Acme-- my wife and I ventured in for dinner about a month ago for the first time in awhile and were pleasantly surprised to say the least. One might even say blown away. While I wouldn't put Acme back in the pantheon of the creme de la creme of Triangle restaurants, it was a marked improvement over 18 months ago (the last time we were in).
            Gotta go negative on S. Rail. Not impressed at all the times I've been.

            1. re: tacostacoseverywhere

              That is really good to hear about Acme. We thought about having dinner there a couple of months ago; went in for a drink and the welcome we got was so tepid that we went elsewhere. But I'm more than happy to give them another chance (but certainly won't sit at the bar!). We liked them a lot for a while there, and then it just got ... bad.

              1. re: tacostacoseverywhere

                On tacostacoseverywhere's recommendation (and earlier ones from Rory) we went back to Acme last night. I agree with both of you - it has definitely improved. still not perfect (seriously - what is UP with that bread they serve??). I wouldnt' rate it in the top notch, but we had a nice meal, and pretty flawless service. Thanks to both of you for nudging us back.

        2. Re: reservations, you're talking about Valentine's Day weekend. Many restos that don't normally take reservations may be doing so due to demand that night, so it never hurts to ask.

          1. Have you thought about Chamas at Brightleaf Square? They definitely have enough space for a large crowd and the service there has always been wonderful. It costs about 25-30 per person for food, but it's all you can eat. The meat and salads are very simple, yet tasty. Plus, if you let them know it's your birthday, they will decorate the table (when I went, there were rose petals on the table and special centerpieces).

            http://www.chamas.us/

            10 Replies
            1. re: sarahUNC

              Chamas does not strike me as the kind of place moms would want to go.

              Piedmont is a good bet.

              1. re: BryanZ

                Because of the amount of meat?

                No doubt that Piedmont is a good bet, but I was merely offering the suggestion in case the group of women were interested in trying new concepts in the area. I've gone there (and other Brazilian steakhouses) with groups of women who have thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The environment there is very welcoming, as is the service.

                1. re: sarahUNC

                  I think Bryan meant that a Brazilian steakhouse, while a fun experience, might not be the best option with the OP paying for a group of female diners. Most women (not all, obviously) don't tend to eat a lot when they go out. Also, Brazilian steakhouses are usually very pricey and somewhat limited in selection and method of preparation, i.e. if you don't like grilled meat, you're out of luck.

                  To the OP: Have you considered coming to Raleigh, or are you planning to stay in Durham?

                  1. re: Suzy Q

                    Indeed.

                    Raleigh has the whole big box eatery thing going on which could be fitting for a group like this. There's that big box Asian place (An, I believe) and the Prime Only steakhouse that, for some reason, has sushi or something. Kind of cool for that Sex and City fantasy vibe.

                    1. re: BryanZ

                      Oooh, I didn't even think about Prime Only. Great downtown Raleigh location if there's a little clubbing on the agenda after dinner.

                      An might be a good choice for a group of women if they're light eaters, or heading elsewhere for dessert. The only criticism I've heard of the place is that the food is good, but they don't give you a whole lot of it - several of my male friends have left still hungry.

                      1. re: BryanZ

                        BryanZ-
                        What do you mean by "big box eatery"? You mentioned this in another thread too. I've seen some gargantuan places in NYC referred to in that way, but I'm curious as to your usage. :)

                        1. re: BryanZ

                          Then just go for a drink to check out the vibe. If you go to the restrooms you can do a circle through the dining area & get a good look! The location was a little hard to find (for me), but Cary seems to make me lose all sense of direction.

                          1. re: meatn3

                            And here I thought the place was in Raleigh. Clearly, I know nothing.

                            1. re: BryanZ

                              Bryan, I'm not sure which place meat is referencing. Prime Only is in Raleigh - Glenwood South area. An is in Cary, just off of the I-40/Harrison Ave exit.

                      2. re: Suzy Q

                        also, it's constant interruption - if you're looking for discretion in service, it's the wrong atmosphere.

                2. If you head to Piedmont maybe you could request to eat upstairs on the balcony, i think it would be a fun place to have a semi private dinner far enough removed to not feel rushed. That said the last time i ate up there the waitress seems to have forgotten us a bit, but i don't think this would be a problem with a larger group.

                  I love Magnolia Grill and have had some very nice dinners at Nana's as well. Because of the number of people, and your love of good food, it seems like the bill will be pretty high anywhere you choose, so I would go with where you really, really want to go.

                  With 10 people, esp. ten who don't get together or out as often as they may like, the conversation and friendship will be remembered long after the food, and none of the places you have mentioned will you likely have a bad meal.

                  Maybe hit the more expensive place with your hubby and do something more casual but still chowhound worthy with friends... On my last birthday we ate at Blu and then after a concert went to Magnolia Grill for dessert.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: jean9

                    I would not go to Prime Only. I was there on New Year's Eve and I was not impressed. You could make a better steak at your house.
                    If you are looking to go somewhere downtown and then hit a couple of clubs, maybe try Sullivan's. I think Magnolia Grill and Nana's are much better than Sullivans, but the location of Sullivans is a good one because you will be closer to nightlife.
                    I've never been to Bistro 607 (www.bistro607.com), but that is on Glenwood South.
                    Frazier's on Hillsborough Street might be a nice place for your dinner. You would have to drive after to find some better after dinner spots, but it is an enjoyable place and the price point might be a little less.

                    1. re: ncdeb

                      does Frazier's set up that middle room between them and Porter's for larger parties? I have always thought that would be a great space for a group dinner. I have been to a couple of group dinners at Porter's and have enjoyed it though it is a little loud.

                    2. re: jean9

                      Jean9 beat me to it. I second the Piedmont with a request for upstairs seating. More intimate space where you can laugh and have fun without worrying about making people around you uncomfortable. The food has been mostly good and I've never had any problem with their service. Most importantly IMO, the prices are very fair, which is imporant since you're picking up the tab (or did I read that wrong?)

                      1. re: bbqme

                        Figured I'd go ahead and add a link to Piedmont to help OP get an idea of the prices and menu: http://www.piedmontrestaurant.com/

                    3. I suggest Vin Rouge; my wife and I go there about once a month. Go to the site ghgrestaurants.com to see the menu. Some recommendations. The frites are excellent. If you like sweetbreads (and I do), they're on the menu every night. I also like the liver and onions, and my wife is very fond of the cassoulet when it is available.
                      Seafood dishes are consistently good.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: karrlink

                        I was meh on VR a couple years ago but now I really, really like it. I think they overseason their food a bit, but I do too, so I can't complain too much. The menu is classic, the cooking solid, and the prices fair. It won't send anyone into fits of culinary ecstasy but it's a very solid neighborhood spot. The front bar room is perfect for a quick meal and they MAY be able to fit lots of people into the back room along the windows. The Saturday of Valentine's day weekend, however, could be challenging for a "romantic" spot like that.