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Jun 23, 2012 09:40 AM

Birthday dinner advice? Great fish or duck, tasty cocktails and homey desserts...

Birthday dinner for 2 on Thursday. Looking to spend up to $150 or so for food and 2 cocktails. Any suggestions? Marin, East Bay, or SF would work. We'd generally choose cozy over formal. It doesn't need to be overly celebratory.

Not too keen on small plates or menus that have 3 entrees. Don't need a great wine list. Aziza looks perfect but we don't love Moroccan.

In the east bay, we're considering Rivoli (is there a full bar?) or Lalime's, perhaps. Camino is appealing for cocktails but the menu feels a bit small.
In the city maybe Firefly? Range?
We like Buckeye and Panama Hotel in Marin, but it would be fun to try somewhere we haven't been yet.
If we choose a place without a full bar, perhaps we'll go somewhere for a drink first and then have dinner.
Thanks so much!

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  1. Cocktails is a big restriction in the city (not many restaurants have full bars).

    For solid food: I would suggest Absinthe, Zuni Cafe, or Wayfare Tavern
    For a little more adventurous: AQ

    6 Replies
    1. re: goldangl95

      Not many restaurants have full bars??? are you crazy?
      The high end tasting menu places tend not to have cocktails (benu, saison) and focus on the wine. Which are all out of the OP's range. Maybe there's a dozen other recommendable places without full bar. _plenty_ with.

      I'm trying to think of a $150-all-in-good-food place that _doesn't_ have cocktails.

      My top rec will be foreign cinema, with Lazlo (attached) for cocktails
      You'd never go there normally
      the food is slightly older school californian - higher french influence - more with the duck etc
      Oyster menu!
      I'm going to guess you're coming from Marin, which is a pain, just do valet and be happy about it
      Do not try to street park, you'll just get frustrated on your birthday
      If you're coming from the east bay, BART it

      I'd like to recommend acquerello, but no cocktails, and none within a short walk, and probably out of your price range

      Anyway --- alternate list
      +1 on Absinthe, perfect for you - looks like average food, ends up being great food, fun not formal, punches above its weight price-wise, GREAT cocktails
      -1 on Zuni - cocktails are too highly variable there
      -1 on AQ - "too small menu"
      Skool - high in fish, nice patio, good cocktails, what's not to like
      Salt House - food as she was in 2003, but a good all-arounder - and much with the fish
      Bar Agricole - more cutting edge, likely too small menu complaint
      Serpentine - very good cocktails, straight ahead menu, not as celebratory
      Bar Tartine - haven't actually been!
      Boulevard - great classic cocktails - best fish ever - might be out of your price range
      zero zero - non-pizza is actually the highlight - can be noisy and 20-something though
      "we don't love moroccan" - everyone loves aziza, come on, this ain't your momma's belly dancing joint
      Zare at Flytrap - highly underrated, good stuff, very californian, celebratory, cozy, but you'll reject it
      +1 on A Cote - Cozy, Cocktails, although more small plate than you'd like
      wood tavern is noisy
      -1 on Rivoli - stuffy, a la chez panisse
      do not go to plum, I have trouble getting reservations there already

      The problem you might have is all these menus "seem small" because it's the style where there's one beef, one chicken, one or two fish, a couple of random things the chef likes. One page menus, changing every week or so. If you like Buckeye you might consider Boulevard more strongly.

      1. re: bbulkow

        Seriously. Considering how many restaurants are going in big for fancy cocktails I find "not many restaurants have full bars" to be mystifying. That's much more true of the East Bay.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          Oh! I forgot Nopa....and

          No. I'm not crazy, because of the following:

          1) Go on yelp, and look at all the $$$ restaurants sorted by most reviewed for SF. There are about 285. Check off "full bar" on the filter. It drops to 185. That's a 35% drop. That qualifies as "many"

          2) This doesn't account for the fact that a lot of those $$$ restaurants I wouldn't recommend or have a bar but don't do anything with it really. Plenty of the restaurants recommend on this board on a regular basis do not have full bars. These include (and off the top of my head)

          Bar Tartine listed above, despite its name, I believe does not have a full bar. EDIT: Or maybe they do now???

          Almost all the italian places (cotogna, flour + water, incanto, barbacco etc.)
          Many of the "californian" places (st. vincents, frances, baker and banker, canteen) etc.
          Seafood places I normally recommend (bar crudo, anchor + hope)

          Either way qualifies as "many." All I mean to signify with that comment is I had to really think hard, and verify through restaurant websites/yelp for places that had full bars. That requirement wasn't easy for me to fulfill off the top of my head.

          Also, and opinions may vary on this - I don't find the menu at Bar Agricole as offering a distinctively more varied menu than AQ.

          1. re: goldangl95

            Not to be overly pedantic, but you said "Cocktails is a big restriction in the city (not many restaurants have full bars). " By your own count, 2 out of 3 in this price range have a full bar. I would state that as "MOST restaurants of this type in SF have a full bar"

            Also, there's a better test, because Yelp has a "beer and wine only" button. The problem is there are some entries that don't list the alcohol state. So I did the number of $$$ in yelp (357), of which full bar is 233 and beer and wine only is 94. I would assume the 30 others have some alcohol, or aren't restaurants (yelp is not perfect!). This is again close to the 2 out of 3 have a full bar - 71% have a full bar.

            That having been said --- your point about Italian is correct (a good fit for the OP) means quite a few of the tried and true recommendations don't work. Asian (chinese, korean, viet) places often have a token bar but no one ever orders a mixed drink. (example: oft recommended Yank Sing is listed as full bar, I think my father did try a margerita there, BIG mistake) (another example: Albona is listed as full bar, but _maybe_ they'd make you a spritz if you asked nicely, it's certainly not featured.)

            I suspect you just tend not to frequent the same places I do, perhaps favor italian more heavily, but there are plenty of joints for all, and plenty of great cocktail specializing places. Of your list, I've only been to Barbacco, haven't got the gumption to get a F+W res.

            OP -- Have you considered the old school SF category? A fun choice and good fit would actually be HOPR, if you haven't been. It's _fun_ and one drinks martinis and gimlets by the bucket. You can get out in your price range easily because the entree comes with a big salad and trimmings, so you spend $40 on alcohol and $80 on entrees and the rest on tax and you're good. Bring more friends than just the two of you. Just don't get the fish. I've done birthdays at Harris Ranch too, on occasion. Tadich and Sam's come in the same category, but with more fish. Some positive notes on Big Four; haven't been.

            One can argue all 4 of those places are closer to the Buckeye...

        2. re: bbulkow

          Foreign Cinema looks great...I'd live to see the June menu, since it looks like the dinner menu on the website is from November. Absinthe is a finalist, definitely. Thanks!

          1. re: MissVeg

            A place like FC, you can't fixate on any individual menu item in advance --- and you shouldn't, if you want the freshest food. What's in season this week will not be what was in season last week.

            The minus with absinthe, for me, is the menu is somewhat staid. But each time I go there's a couple of specials, and one catches my eye, and I think "I should eat here more often"

      2. What about A Cote or Wood Tavern? How do they match up with Rivoli and Lalime's?

        1. When I see "duck" and "East Bay" I think Bay Wolf. Don't know about the cocktails there, though.

          9 Replies
          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            Rivoli - has a full bar - they received their full license sometime in the past few years. I haven't found it stuffy. I've stuck to wine, so can't speak for the drinks.

            Lalime's - has a full bar. If you want cozy and fun, ask for bar seating when you make your reservation. They often have a Thursday special in addition to the regular menu. As far as what meats you might find, hard to say on any particular day. Cocktails are good. Desserts as of late have been particularly good.

            Camino - Great cocktails. While the menu is limited, between the starters and the mains, I'd be hard-pressed to not find a meal to put together (a la a few starters, a starter and a main, etc.) that wasn't delicious, even though there are a handful of meats and vegetables I don't eat. I'm a fan, although I can see how the menu keeps some folks away.

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              I am almost certain that Bay Wolf is beer and wine only...but then, I haven't been in a long time because the food (including the duck) doesn't wow me.

              1. re: susancinsf

                In the East Bay, I'd agree with the above-posted recs for Wood Tavern and BayWolf, except that the latter doesn't have a full bar (but has a changing roster of wine-based cocktails, viewable on the website). Duck and fish are always good at Wood Tavern in my experience, and they've got great cocktails.

                I had dinner at BayWolf two weeks ago, and everyone in my party had a good meal: Bay shrimp fritters with corn and remoulade; corn chowder; pancetta-wrapped chicken with a sausage; duck leg with a shatteringly crisp skin and grilled breast (both a tad more cooked than I would've preferred, but still good) with corn pancakes; chocolate-almond cake; apricot upside-down cake. All from the current menu.

                I last had dinner at Rivoli a year or so ago, and would not call it stuffy at all (though it's much less loud than Wood Tavern!). Cocktails were very good, as was seafood, but the current menu only has a smoked duck breast appetizer, no duck entree.




                1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                  I think I'm deciding among Absinthe, Wood Tavern, Rivoli and Lalime's. Each has something that appeals to me on the menus, but none of the menus/cocktails made a clear front runner. East Bay is always a bit easier parking wise, of course.
                  Thanks for all the suggestions! I'll report back...

                  1. re: MissVeg

                    Reservations at Absinthe and Rivoli...will decide in the next day! Feel free to weigh in!

                    1. re: MissVeg

                      I wish you could go to both and tell us which fitted your purpose better!

                      Absinthe has more of a paris left bank / barbary coast feel, and the cocktails are front and center. Rivoli has more space between the tables, better lighting, "cleaner" room (less stuff on the walls), and better (more interesting, better prepared) food. I mentioned before that Rivoli was "staid", which is perhaps an overstatement in general, but it is certainly calmer when comparing between the two.

                      I've been to a birthday at Absinthe with a large group (20 or so), and we had a bang-up time. Those are some rowdy friends, we were wearing our top hats and cravats, so we spent a lot of time visiting and eating each other's food and having a few cocktails. The food punches way above its weight but I don't think it's up to rivoli.

                      One thing that might sway you mind (if you have the budget) is walking from Absinthe to Jardinere for desert / nightcap. Jardinere has (or had?) great deserts, but more importantly (since you mention cocktails) these great alcohol tasting flights, so you can get a flight of 5 ports, or 5 scotches, etc. That's in their "lounge area" and no reservation is required. The atmosphere there is very pleasant, especially if you like jazz, you can find out how late the music plays - it's unobtrusive but always very good.

                      Finally, parking at Absinthe is simple. Pay the valet the $10. It's less than the price of a cocktail.

                      1. re: bbulkow

                        Perhaps my husband could be convinced to have a lunch of onion soup and cocktails at Absinthe and dinner at Rivoli...

                      2. re: MissVeg

                        Rivoli meets your need for homey desserts, from the justly famous hot fudge sundae to always having a fruit crisp or cobbler with ice cream.