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Mar 24, 2011 09:05 AM

Finer dining in Lancaster

I will be in Lancaster at the end of April for a conference, staying at the Marriott at Penn Square. I generally like to get together for dinner with colleagues at these conferences. It can be two or three people one night, maybe as many as eight or ten another night. I am usually tasked with finding the restaurants, since I have done right by the group in the past and understand the group's parameters and preferences.

What I need is something not too "ethnic" - no Indian, Thai, etc. It has to be broad enough to please a diverse crowd, but definitely tasty and can push the boundaries a little. Price is mid to upper range. The crowd will be a bunch of professionals who are paying their own expenses. Good service and a pleasant atmosphere are a must, as is an atmosphere where we can have a lively but not overly exuberant conversation.

The biggest constraint I am dealing with is that our dinner breaks are not leisurely, for those who want to return to the conference after dinner. We have about an hour and a half both Friday and Saturday, although Saturday can probably be stretched to two hours, as we have a social function to attend afterwards and not a seminar. So I am looking for places within either a ten-minute walk or drive from the Marriott.

I have already checked out John J. Jeffries, and that is probably going to be my choice for one night, if someone here can give me some assurance that my time parameters will not be a problem. I am still looking for options, though, and would welcome any and all suggestions. I hope I have been specific enough in my request to generate some helpful ideas from everyone.

(btw, I checked effie ophelia's website, and they have closed their doors, so that is not an option.)

Thanks in advance for helping me with this not-so-chowish request.

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  1. I would worry about the time for any "fine dining" experience, personally. 1.5 hrs. is not much, but can be done if the group doesn't order pre-dinner drinks, apps, dessert . . . you know what I mean. When making reservations, be sure to let them know of your constraints, where ever you choose to dine. The staff at John J. Jeffries has always been helpful and accommodating when I've been, but I've never gone with the intention of eating in an hour. However, I think it is an excellent choice and should fit all your needs.

    Other good eats downtown:
    Fenz, Gibralter, Carrs, and The Belvidere - again, making reservations and letting them know you have time constraints. Gibralter is very loved on this board but I feel I should let you know that my husband has had problems with service when dining with larger business groups in the past. I don't have personal experience with that but wanted to pass it along. Checkers Bistro might be another option, but it is a little more casual then the others listed. Very sad about Effie's, but it wouldn't have been good for your situation anyway, they couldn't take groups more than 6 and didn't do reservations.

    Good luck, I hope you find what you are looking for and have a good dining experience in Lancaster.

    Checkers Bistro
    300 W James St, Lancaster, PA 17603

    14 Replies
    1. re: centralpadiner

      Thank for the recommendations. I will check out the places you mentioned. And if I decide to choose Gibralter, I will do it for the two/three-person dinner. Much appreciated!

      1. re: lisavf

        John J. Jefferies is great. Large and small plates. Just getting a number of small plates could be quick.

        Carr's is a great choice because it is a very short walk and the food is great. The Belvedere Inn has great food but is a slightly longer walk. Also, right down the block is Annie Baileys - not bad food considering that it is first and foremost a great Irish pub. They have an upstairs room for larger groups.

        Belvedere Inn
        402 N Queen St, Lancaster, PA 17603

        1. re: shtbht

          Thanks. I may check out Annie Bailey's for Saturday, as the group is growing quickly and may reach 20, so a private room would be perfect, and maybe keep Jeffries for a smaller group on Friday.

          Someone in the group is suggesting Rosa Rosa. Anyone have any thoughts/comments about that? Frankly, it looks kind of so-so, based on the website.

          1. re: lisavf

            The homemade pasta was good but everything else was a disappointment. IMO, there are only a couple of really good Italian spots that I've found. Trattoria Fratelli in Lebanon, and Mangia Qui in Harrisburg. Otherwise, I've been disappointed every place I've been.

            I have been to Jeffries with a very large group (almost 40?) - we were split into 2 long tables but were not in a fully private space. We had a great time, but if that won't work for you check out Annie Bailey's. Honestly, when I last ate there I found the food only okay - my fish and chips was soggy, and I figured if an Irish pub can't even get that right . . . well, you know. It is a GREAT place to go out for a drink though, somehow the husband and I seem to end up there every time we are spending an evening out in Lancaster. ;)

            Checkers also has a private room, but isn't as convenient to get to from the Marriott. Not sure about Carr's and Belvedere.

            Trattoria Fratelli
            502 E Lehman St, Lebanon, PA 17046

            1. re: centralpadiner

              Thanks for the input. I wasn't thrilled with either the atmosphere or menu of Rosa Rosa. You've convinced me that's a no-go. And Irish pub is not really this crowd's thing, so I think I'd be reaching with that option.

              What's your take on The Pressroom? It looks like they have a private room upstairs, and we're getting near to 25. Plus with our time restrictions we can walk there and back quickly. These may be the deciding factors IF the food and service are decent. I'd really appreciate your thoughts on this one.

              I still really want to go to Jeffries, but I think it will be better on Friday with one or two friends rather than the larger Saturday group.

              1. re: lisavf

                Good choice. I don't know why I always forget the Pressroom. Must say it has been years since I've been there, so I hate to say for sure what the food will be like, but they have maintained a good reputation over the years. If I remember correctly they have something for every one. Friends had their rehearsal dinner there a little over a year ago in the private room and they were very happy with it.

            2. re: lisavf

              I am glad to hear someone say ok to the Pressroom. My wife and I do stop there when in downtown Lancaster for lunch. Of course, lunch is different than dinner and the Pressroom doesn't get the play that Gibralter and Jeffries get on CH. Jeffries should probably be your first choice but the Pressroom makes a good choice for the other night.

              1. re: lisavf

                I would get down on my knees and beg you NOT to go to Rosa Rosa. Don't do it,don't do it.

                1. re: lancastermike

                  Oh, and if it were my choice, I would heed your advice... alas, I've been outvoted. The Pressroom's private room was booked, and I couldn't find anyplace else that suited the crowd. Everyone said, Italian, Italian. I really didn't want to, but I have to keep in mind, this one's about getting together with friends and enjoying their company, not the food. It will be fine (I hope). Not great, but fine.

                  On a happier note, I just realized that I get to have lunch/brunch in town or on my way home on Sunday, so I've started scoping out places. Carr's is looking good, as is Rachel's. Not many options for Sunday because so many places are closed, but I'm sure I'll find something yummy. So between Friday and Jeffries and Sunday's lunch, and hitting up Central Market Saturday morning, and Carmen and David's for a snack, I have some things to look forward to!

                  1. re: lisavf

                    The only advice I can give you about Rosa Rosa is that your best option is probably one of the homemade pastas. This was the only item on the menu my husband and I considered half decent.

                    Rachel's and Carr's will be at opposite ends of the breakfast spectrum. I've never done the Carr's brunch, but I love Rachel's. Have fun!

                    Rosa Rosa Cafe & Bar
                    1040 Harrisburg Ave, Lancaster, PA 17603

          2. re: centralpadiner

            We enjoyed a "special occasion" dinner last night at John J. Jeffries. We chose that location because we wanted to be in Lancaster and we were intrigued by the recommendations here on Chowhound. It was our first time there and we could not have been more pleased. I started my meal with Linden Dale Farm's Fresh Mozzarella and my husband had the Jim Bim Bop -- both were delicious. For our entrees we both had the Copper River salmon and we shared the pumpkin spice creme brulee for dessert. We enjoyed everything we had, and the service was warm and accommodating without being overbearing .

            We used to like the Belvedere but we were disappointed last time we were there -- everything, including the service, seemed mediocre, and we don't feel a need to return there any time soon. Gibraltar has generally been our go-to Lancaster spot for "finer" dining, but as of last night, John J. Jeffries will take its place.

            1. re: CindyJ

              Wow, I'm impressed. I couldn't get out of my town last night thanks to the flooding! I guess things were still okay downtown last night. Hope none of my favorite eateries have any damage today.

              And I totally agree with you, John J. Jeffries is my favorite special occasion place in Lancaster right now.

              1. re: centralpadiner

                Travel last night was beyond awful, and we never would have gone out if we'd known how bad it was going to be. For reasons too lengthy (and boring) to get into here, my husband and I were coming from different directions -- he from York and me from Chester County, so we drove separately to Lancaster. On the way back, driving through town, he hit a pothole that was hidden under water and blew TWO tires. Dinner was wonderful; what followed was not. And now you know the REST of the story!

                1. re: CindyJ

                  I have heard so many unbelievable stories. I can't believe your husband came from York, which was essentially under water last night! So glad you made it home safe and sound, despite the damage, which is the most "special occasion" of all.

          3. Many thanks, everyone. I've decided on Jeffries for Friday, and I'm going to call The Pressroom to see if they can accommodate us on Saturday. I think that makes the most sense, given my parameters. I'm still open to other suggestions in case The Pressroom doesn't work out.

            5 Replies
            1. re: lisavf

              Though not an easy walk, both The Belvedere and Iron Hill Brewery have private rooms available. Iron Hill is a nice brew pub. It is next to Franklin and Marshall College, so you'd need to drive. Belvedere is walkable, but would take a big chunk out of the brief time you have allotted for meals. Did you look into having a dinner at the hotel in one of their smaller meeting rooms? That my be a good option for the large group. Another choice is not fine dining, but very close. Isaac's Deli is just up Queen St. It is a local chain and the downtown location has a liquor license. Most of their locations have space that can be closed off, but I don't know for certainty that the downtown spot does. As the name suggests, it is a deli - soups, salads, and more sandwich choices than you can imagine. It would be relaxed, fun, and probably quick. I think that a lot of the sandwiches are creative and tasty. I support them because they are a strong local business that does a lot of charity work in the area.


              1. re: centralpadiner

                Forgot to say that the aforementioned Checkers Bistro also has a private room - but also not a walkable restaurant.

                Good luck, I hope your stay in Lancaster works out.

                1. re: centralpadiner

                  About five years ago, we stopped for lunch at an Isaac's Deli. If members of your group are used to real NY delis, they may not like Isaac's. My wife enjoyed her sandwich. I had either pastrami or corned beef on rye. Let me put it this way, we have never stopped at another Isaac's Deli again. When driving in the area, my wife might say, "Oh, look, an Isaac's Deli." From me, complete silence. Apparently, the soups are generally good but I think your group is looking for something a little more than Isaac's.

                  1. re: jfr

                    Just trying to offer it up as a casual alternative within easy walking distance. Perhaps my sentence should have said "a very close walk", I guess it could have been construed as "very close to fine dining" which is most certainly is not - Deli in the name of the restaurant probably gave that away though.

                    I don't think anything in my recommendation implied that they had corned beef that would knock the socks off a New Yorker. BTW, their strength is in their own sandwich creations not in attempting to create something that is a favorite somewhere else. I still stand by the fact that it can be a fun, casual dining experience where lots of locals and visitors have found food they enjoy, including vegetarian options which is increasingly important to many diners. Yes, if your expectations are Katz's you won't find it here . . . or anywhere but Katz's, I would think.

                2. re: lisavf

                  You could easily walk to the Loft on Orange St. Maybe it is not fine dining but La Cocina just up King Street is real good food.

                3. Not sure how I stumbled into this post from months ago, but I did. After all this amazing advice and extensive back and forth from the good people of CHPA ;was there any feedback? Where did lisavf end up and what was her final Lancaster dining experience? Or is this a "Where is Waldo question"?

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Bacchus101

                    Yeah, sorry, I'm really bad at follow-up!

                    I went to Jeffries with a co-worker who has never had a "fine dining" experience. She really wanted steak tartare - she was really hoping it would be on the menu - and it was. I don't remember what else we had, but I do remember that dinner was outstanding. I know I had wine pairings with my courses, which I thoroughly enjoyed. And we decided to skip the evening activities at our conference so that we could enjoy a leisurely dinner. It was a smart decision.

                    For my large group meal, we ended up at Rosa Rosa. It was a tough decision - it always is for a group. But it worked out well. They seated us in a private room, so we did not have to worry about the sound level of our group (we ended up with 17 diners, which eliminated a lot of other restaurant options). The food was fine, which is all I was expecting, the wine was reasonably priced, and the staff were fabulous. They really worked hard for us and actually did give us separate checks and got us out by 7:45, only slightly off my target time, not an easy feat for anyone. I wouldn't go back to Rosa Rosa just for myself, but for the group it was a good choice.

                    Brunch on Sunday at Carr's was, well, brunch. Good food, good service, but in the end, just brunch. I did enjoy the food and I would go back, but it wasn't particularly adventurous. But then again, brunch rarely is, right?

                    I did get a refrigerator in my hotel room, so we spent Friday afternoon and early Saturday morning shopping at the central market, where I loaded up with lots of spring produce and some mighty fine Lancaster bacon. Made the whole trip worthwhile! My room was permeated by the fragrance of spring garlic all weekend, but I just didn't care! It was all so good.

                    Input from everyone here was much appreciated and helped me to make my decisions. I know I made the right decisions, given the parameters that I had to work with.

                    That's my report, better late than never, I hope!

                    Rosa Rosa Cafe & Bar
                    1040 Harrisburg Ave, Lancaster, PA 17603

                      1. re: lisavf

                        Fantastic write up! Glad you had such a good experience!

                        1. re: lisavf

                          Should be noted that Rosa Rosa is now closed. Out of business. Never happy to see anyone close but this place deserved it.

                          Rosa Rosa Cafe & Bar
                          1040 Harrisburg Ave, Lancaster, PA 17603