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Casual, low-key spot for group birthday dinner in S'ville / Cambridge?

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I'm trying to plan a spot to meet with a group of friends (maybe 8 people?) to celebrate a birthday on an upcoming Friday. Looking for suggestions of good places for a small group. Ideally this place will serve awesome food, be affordable of have affordable menu items (i.e. at least some entrees under $15), and be easy to get to. Food can be funky and interesting, no need to cater to pedestrian tastes. It would be great if they served drinks or at least beer and wine, but that's not a requirement, we could go somewhere else afterwards. It would also be nice if the spot was near a good place for ice cream. We're all 30+ and a few of us have small kids, so we will start early and go home early. Don't let the kid factor rule out bars, but we would probably like to avoid anything super-noisy.

Who's got an idea for me? Pretty much everyone will be coming from somewhere in Cambridge (mostly either Porter or Central Square) so somewhere in Cambridge or Somerville is ideal, but we'd cross the river for the right place, or go somewhere on the water or in the North End or Chinatown or whatever.

Thanks for the help!

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  1. Casa Portugal in Inman might be a good bet, even though it's on the small side. Really good food, reasonably priced for quality, plenty of wine. Bonus: Christina's is across the street for ice cream.

    2 Replies
    1. re: sidecar

      Not a bad idea, have never been before but know the place.

      Would it work for people who don't want red meat or it is pretty churrasco heavy? Also, can you tell me more about menu pricing? They have a menu posted without prices (I hate that) on their flash and music heavy site - http://www.restaurantcasaportugal.com/

      1. re: andytee

        It's Portuguese not Brazilian, so seafood is a focus. From (not very reliable) memory, entrees are in the low teens to mid 20s. Portuguese entrees tend to be huge and splitting is a good idea. For fishcentric I'd consider Portugalia further toward Lechmere. Pescatore was about to break through the back wall and add space when I was there a couple weeks ago, don't know if that's happened yet but they DO tend to be slammed on Fridays.

    2. Tupelo would probably be able to handle eight with a little notice if you don't go too late, and it fits your needs. Christina's is right up the road for great ice cream.

      4 Replies
      1. re: bear

        Tupelo must be new and looks good from the menu. Reviews are all over the place here and on Yelp, are they too new to be reliable, esp with a large party on a Friday? Looks good though, thanks!

        1. re: andytee

          How 'bout Dali? With tapas you can regulate the price fairly well. A nice pitcher of sangria for the table and...... you're off and running.

          1. re: justbeingpolite

            Thought of it, but in my experience Dali gets expensive quickly without anyone noticing. Still, could be a contender.

            1. re: andytee

              I don't think that Tupelo has been very inconsistent from the reviews I've seen. I've only been a couple of times, but it's been solid both times. The beef daube was wonderful, and a bargain at something like $15. The barbecued chicken was also great, as was the crawfish etoufee, and the lone vegetarian among us liked the smoked mozzarella crepes. It's solid comfort food, and comfortable and casual. It isn't large, though, so I'd call in advance if you decide to go.

      2. A few suggestions:
        -The Helmand in Kendall. Great Afghan food, reasonably priced (almost everything is under $20, some entrees under $15), nice atmosphere and not too noisy.
        -Elephant Walk in Porter. French/Cambodian. Have had a couple good meals there, not too pricey.
        -Sabur in Teele Square (~10 minute walk from Davis T stop). Maybe a bit pricier than you are looking for (entrees range ~$15-$25). Doesn't get mentioned a lot, but good IMO. Eastern Mediterranean -- think Greece, Balkans. The slow-roasted lamb and the mousaka are both quite good (and better than the more Italian-style dishes, I think).

        One place I haven't been, but have heard good things about that looks to be in your price range in Pescatore, in Ball Square (~10 minute walk from Davis) -- Italian with a seafood focus and very reasonable prices. The place is fairly small, though, so you'd need a reservation.

        1 Reply
        1. re: tsackton

          Thanks!

          The Helmand was on my mind, could see ending up there but its not as casual as I'd like - great food though, and great prices.

          Never tried Elephant Walk, good suggestion - I'll have to look them up.

          Sabur i've had some very good brunches at, started there as an overflow spot when Renee's got crowded. Nice food and I've never made it for dinner. Might be worth a try, though it's more out of the way than I'd like.

          Pescatore is great, in my experience, but I'm thinking too small for a group on a Friday.

          I guess nothing will be perfect - thanks for a good list. I'll be sure to post where we end up and how we like it. Leaning towards Tupelo at this point, if only from the proximity to Christina's Ice Cream!

        2. Here's a few ideas. Be sure to make reservations. If the suggestion pushes your price limits, it's because I think the food is worth it; for those, I include the entree range in parens:

          Hungry Mother ($18-25). Superb food, melding French and Appalachian, and the drinks have gotten to be really good. Great service, super laid-back atmosphere. Toscanini's a short walk away. Not sure how kid friendly it is. Toscanini's close by.

          The Friendly Toast -- I'm glad my buddy Robert Nadeau gave this a rave http://thephoenix.com/Boston/Food/869... in The Phoenix this week; I was feeling lonely here in my generally high regard for the Cambridge location. Tosci's.

          Highland Kitchen -- only works if you go really early, as it doesn't take reservations, gets packed by 6:30pm or so, and can be loud. But it meets your criteria (despite being a bar/resto) beautifully. Not sure about ice cream nearby.

          Ten Table Cambridge ($18-25) -- fancy fine dining at bistro prices. No cocktails, just beer/wine, but really lovely food in a pretty swank setting (nicest job yet with a difficult basement space). You'll need a reservation. I've long called the JP original one of the best values for refined French/New American in town, and nothing is different at the Craigie Street location except it has twice the number of tables. Probably not great for kids. Tosci's and Herrell's in the Square.

          Green Street ($11-24) -- superb cocktails (among the best in town), very casual atmosphere, really nice food. Cheap parking next door. Tosci's.

          Ole Grill. I like this place for its slightly creative take on Mexican. It's good for a group, especially in the cooler-looking back room. Solid cocktails, too. Christina's (my favorite) nearby.

          Plenty more suggestions if you're willing to travel.

          http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

          5 Replies
          1. re: MC Slim JB

            Slim you are the man, thanks!

            Hungry Mother looks awesome, will have to run it by the group pricewise (esp because there is no way I am not ordering a few of those cocktails) but, thanks, good one.

            I've always thought of the original Friendly Toast as a place to go for breakfast or brunch, the Phoenix review didn't make the Cambridge one look any different in that regard but if you have more to say I'll listen.

            I like Highland Kitchen a lot - it's on the list. Good range, usually good food, good prices, good cocktails. Would go early for sure, after begging for a res on a table for 8. Read some reviews more recent than I've been (went a bunch when they first opened, moved across the state since and have not been back) than seemed to imply prices going up and quality not doing the same. Still, I've got a sweet spot in my heart for these guys, and they are pretty much exactly what I am looking for.

            I hadn't looked at Ten Tables Cambridge because of the name, assumed it was as small as the JP one. Will go there on a date sometime for sure, looking for a little more laid back and raucous vibe for this event though.

            Have you been to Tupelo? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts! Thanks for chiming in.

            1. re: andytee

              Happy to help! Friendly Toast is kind of breakfast/lunch-y, but seems to fit the casual/fun/cheap/drinks bill. I have not been to Tupelo, but it's high on my list; sounds like it would suit you, too.

              http://mcslimjb.blogspot.com/

              1. re: MC Slim JB

                I've been to group dinners at both Tupelo & Friendly Toast.

                Tupelo's food is better & more interesting, but it doesn't have a full bar--beer and wine only (Abita!). Lovely lovely place, great vibe, nice people. I have a lot of affection for the place. The menu is small, but they have good specials. Their menu is online and I believe they twitter the specials.

                It is laid back and will be raucous only if your group is (I don't think anyone would shush you), but the atmosphere is pretty gentle. It's not a place I would generally bring small kids, as the tables are pretty tightly packed, and the menu is not wide enough to accomodate really picky eaters. But as I said, they are nice nice in there, and if you called ahead, they might consider making some special things available for the small folk.

                Friendly Toast has a full bar and good drinks, and of course encourages the raucous. If you can keep control over your drinks, it will be inexpensive. The staff was challenged by our group, keeping organized and getting the food out in a timely way, but I think we have to take the blame for at least half of that, as people were coming and going, switching seats, drinking a lot and being well... raucous. My kids love it there--there is a LOT to look at and explore there, and there's something to eat for everyone, small/big, meat eater/veg, etc.

                I love Hungry Mother, too, but I wouldn't take small kids there, unless they're in an unusually cooperative groove. It's really cramped, and there is absolutely nowhere for them to go to get their ya-yas out if need be. The food is great, but there's nothing cheap, and it's not that fun to pay $20 for something a toddler won't eat.

                Highland Kitchen has a wider ranging menu wrt prices and tastes, and is friendly and suited to kids. Great drinks, too. It's not easy to get to unless you have a car or can bike there, and there's no close ice cream.

                Another idea is Miracle of Science. Not a wide menu but good food and good for kids and right near Toscanini's.

            2. re: MC Slim JB

              Sad but true - there is no longer a Toscanini's in Harvard Square. But there is Herrell's, JP Licks, B&J, Lizzy's, Berryline and probably others I'm forgetting. I think kids especially love Herrell's. It's fun to sit in the old bank vault.

              1. re: MC Slim JB

                Highland Kitchen is a good idea - although it can get a tad noisy (especially with the juke box cranking). They do, however, accept reservations for parties of 6 or larger. We have been there with big parties 5 or times, and it always works out well... which is why it is usually my go-to place for a crowd - the food is pretty good, inexpensive, and the vibe is fun. There are regularly tables with kids, also... though I can't tell specifically from your post if they are accompanying you for dinner.

              2. EVOO is in Somerville (across from Dali) and they are one of those restaurants that really focus on fresh local ingredients. I believe they have a $35 prix fixe menu with a lot of options, but my favorite entree is their Chinese Box (a cute and maybe cheesy presentation of jasmine rice and shrimp, beef and vegetables served upside down in a Chinese takeout box). The entrees might be a little pricey for you but with the $35 prix fixe option, I think everyone could find something they liked.

                1. I attended a group birthday dinner at Desfina last year and it was very good...the Baked Spring Lamb was one of the best dishes i've had last year.
                  Also worth checking out is Muqueca, a terrific Brazilian joint.
                  I wouldn't recommend Elephant Walk...the French part of the menu is quite mediocre.

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: nasilemak

                    I would not recommend Elephant walk, either. Found it to be bland and overpriced for what it was. Also, I would not call it raucous.

                    1. re: nasilemak

                      I love Muqueca, thanks for the reminder. Probably will skip them this trip as I think of them as more cold weather food. Thanks though.

                      1. re: nasilemak

                        In defense of the Elephant Walk, I will say I think the Cambodian side of the menu is substantially better than the French side (except for the tuna with the pear and scallion ravoli, which I ordered once years ago and loved, but haven't had recently). The avocado and citrus soup in particular is really good IMO, as is the Amok Royal. It is also a convenient place if you have vegetarians in the group, as it has an unusually large number of vegetarian and vegan options.

                      2. Promised I'd be back with a report so here goes:

                        We went to Tupelo, got there at 6 and were seated immediately - the place really filled up over the next hour so we were glad we arrived when we did.

                        It's was pretty much the perfect place, not too huge but comfortable and relaxed. Food was good across the board, two of us had catfish and loved it, jambalaya was also a hit. A vegetarian friend ordered the crepes - only veggie option - and did not rave but did not seem unhappy either. Service was good, attentive but not overbearing. Only off noted was a special appetizer of fried clams - strips, too salty and on the rubbery side. Don't get me wrong, we happily finished them but I would not order them again unless I had reason to think they improved.

                        Anyhow, thanks to all of you for the ideas and help!