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San Rafael: "Fancy" sit down restaurant

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We live in Petaluma so don't get to eat in San Rafael very often but our daughter's early birthday present is tickets at the Marin Center tomorrow night. She is turning 7. We're going to have dinner before hand and she gets to pick the place (within reason).

She wants it to be "fancy" (a place where everyone dresses up is a big plus to her) but any nice table service place that's not too noisy should do. It also needs to be a place that has some flexibility with the menu. She is very allergic to all traces of egg and can cheat some with gluten and dairy but should stay away from them. None of us eat pork and I don't eat meat or dairy or gluten. We do not have to worry about cross-contamination issues except for egg.

At first she wanted rice, beans, tortillas; to her that means Mexican, but I know she'd be open to other cuisines. I found the reviews here of Sol Food and thought that would be perfect. Lots of vegan and GF options, plenty of the foods she loves, and more. They even have two vegan gluten-free desserts! (trust me, that NEVER happens). But now she's saying it's not "fancy" enough. Sigh.

I looked at Insalta, which is further out than we want and also more expensive. I'd like to stay closer to $15 for an entree that includes sides. It also seems to be the sort of place where they prepare wonderful food and expect you to eat it as is. Maybe I'm wrong but it's not the same vibe I get from Sol Food's website where they mark what's vegan, etc, and tell you flat out what subs you can make. I wish we all could just trust the chef and eat what is put in front of us...but you can't do that with allergies. My daughter is not a picky eater but we have to be careful.

Just in case there is something else that fits the bill, I thought I'd ask. Also feel free to supply me with talking points to get her to try Sol Food, if you think that will be the right place.

Oh, we'd be open to Novato too.


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  1. Here's a recent topic on the Marin Civic Center:


    In Novato, you might want to look at Toast and Sonoma Latina Grill. They are both in the large mall right alongside 101. Neither lists menu items as vegan of gluten-free on the web site, but you may find something on the menu that fits what you are looking for.



    Both are still on the casual side, but they also meet your price point.

    Sol Food is pretty casual, you wait in line to order at the counter and then find a seat and they will bring out your dishes. The food is delicious. The main restaurant (not the take out place next door) has a very bright and lively interior that makes you think you are in the islands, that might be appealing to your daughter.

    1. The food at Insalata's is great. Nicer atmosphere than Sol Food.

      Rumi Persian restaurant in Montecito Plaza is also very good, with an upscale atmosphere and reasonable prices. I think Rumi is your best bet.

      I'm impressed that at the age of 7 your daughter has been able to correctly pick up on the atmosphere at Sol Food without actually going there.

      San Rafael is somewhat limited in the foodie department. We lived in SR for 6 years and relocated to Petaluma last October.

      1. Las Camelias (http://www.lascameliasrestaurant.com/) is a nice restaurant with rice beans and tortillas. Excellent food and pleasant atmosphere with lots of distinctive art by owner. Close to the Central San Rafael exit. More relaxing and not as informal as Sol Food right across the street.

        1. Yikes! Fancy dress in Marin means un-stretched-out yoga wear! Staying close to the MCC - the Clubhouse at McInnis Park off Smith Ranch Rd? Varied menu -- who knows, maybe it'll work for you...


          1. Thank you PamF, Chilihead, Gumbolox, and Sarah for your suggestions. All very helpful. I poked through them and thought Rumi was the best option. My daughter agreed! Hooray! What she really wants is a place where everyone "has" to dress up, but those are going to be insanely expensive (and even rich people go out to dinner in sweats). But she liked the look of the interior and was drooling over the menu.

            About 6 months ago I won two tickets (on the Marin Center Facebook page) to any of a selection of upcoming performances. My daughter adores ballet (we're talking a child who checks out books with famous ballet stories from the library and begs us to read them to her over and over) and has never seen any in person except for the Nutcracker. So we got two tickets to the Russian National Ballet doing Swan Lake (and they let us buy a child's ticket with an adjoining seat). It's just a coincidence that this performance is 2 weeks before her birthday.

            She doesn't know yet where we're going, just that it's tickets to something we have to dress up for and that all 3 of us will like it (she figured out that meant it wasn't a Hannah Montana concert <g>). I'll let you all know how it went with the restaurant.

            1. So we went to Rumi last night. It's in a large strip mall in a little corner with a patio and dry fountain. The inside of the restaurant is gorgeous. Lovely inventive art, mostly based on bird themes, and intricate metal wall lamps.

              When it came to the food though, my fantasy is better than reality. Imagine it is the height of summer. The chefs take fresh local fish and shrimp and local pastured meats and charbroil them on a grill. Their juices are so intense just a small amount flavors the mild basmati rice, yet you can taste a hint of saffron. An charbroiled heirloom tomato adds to the sauce but is amazing just on its own. The salad of local greens, more heirloom tomatoes, and fresh cucumber in a vinaigrette complements the Persian details of pickled vegetables, fresh herbs, and walnut pomegranate pate.

              Reality: Summer vegetables in the middle of February. I don't understand the point of a charbroiled tomato when the tomato comes from hundreds or thousands of miles away and is a lovely red but otherwise bears no resembalance at all to a real tomato. Even warm and sunny Iran has seasonal foods. Surely they could have found something local to grill. An onion, cauliflower, chard, anything but a tomato.

              The salad was commodity romaine lettuce (good crunch, no flavor) and more tasteless tomatoes paired with tasteless cucumbers. What law is there in restaurant world that salads are only for summer so you eat them year round with summer vegetables?

              My husband said his lamb was well cooked with good flavor, but he agreed with me my trout was completely tasteless. Our daughter had shrimp and they were okay (she was happy). All three proteins were very well prepared, but the quality of the raw seafood was lacking.

              Except for a lemon (and a sprig of parsley in my daughter's rice), that was it for the plates. The rice had yellow stuff all over it that we were told was saffron, but it had no flavor at all (and the color didn't bleed even a little). It's possible we missed out on sauces because we told them no dairy, no butter.

              I wanted to order the walnut and pomegranate olive plate but the waiter said it was a spread for bread, so not to bother. So I asked for the pickled vegetables to be brought with the meal. He brought them about 20 minutes before the meal came. I didn't know at first if this was a pre-meal nibbler or our purchased appetizer. The pickled vegetables were cooked eggplant (another summer vegetable done an injustice) with some carrot and so much red wine vinegar that it almost hurt to swallow it, though it tasted good. I wanted to use it on my food but the flavors clashed. It came with a side of sliced raw radish, a quarter of a raw red onion, and a big pile of herbs (mint, basil, tarragon, and several others). I don't know if it was supposed to come with that or if it came with bread and this was a substitute. He also brought a hunk of what looked like feta cheese and asked if anyone would eat it. We said we didn't want it but he left it anyway (though my husband ate it). The herbs at least made my salad worth eating.

              We asked if they had any vegan desserts and were told no. A few minutes later the waiter returned to suggest baklava, which we reminded him was filled with wheat and butter.

              I couldn't bring myself to look at the bill, so I let my husband do it. Normally they charge an extra $2 to change the rice side dish to half rice and half salad and both my husband and I had all salad instead. Given that we missed out on the bread and spread that the other tables got (I'm guessing as part of the meal, not an add-on, but I am not sure), I would hope they wouldn't charge us $8 for the salads.

              The bottom line though was that we all ate decent food (not anything junky) and our daughter was happy. She pronounced it "fancy enough" and enjoyed her food. The other people in the restaurant weren't dressed up (and nearly everyone wore jackets because it was too cold inside, even long after I informed the staff) but the tables and room were beautiful and we all got cloth napkins and real tableware (pet peeve of mine is when adults get real glasses and children get disposable cups with straws; they didn't do that here).

              Maybe it would be worth going back in the summertime, if they don't just order the same distant produce from the same supplier. Or maybe I ordered the wrong dishes. It's a restaurant with such potential. The cooks are clearly skilled and the cuisine could be so good.

              P.S. The bathrooms at Rumi were unusable (too much air freshener) but the Marin Center ones are unscented. And most important to the evening, the ballet was lovely. Our daughter pronounced it "the best birthday present ever." Even better than the year we took her to Disneyland :-)

              Rumi By Famous Kabob
              227 3rd St, San Rafael, CA 94901

              2 Replies
              1. re: CyndiN

                It is looking like a restaurant that opened to great reviews and started resting on its reputation or something changed recently. Thanks for the update.

                How did your daughter like the ballet?


                1. re: rworange

                  "Best birthday present ever." It was really nice and the seats weren't bad (row 17, up a foot from the handicapped section, close to the center). Such a joy to watch professional dancers. Of course the last ballet I saw was two performances of the Nutcracker over two days (my daughter was in it).