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Upscale BYO in suburbs -- need recs

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I hate bringing up a topic that has probably been done to death; but I have noted that Chowhoundies are never short of opinions, nor shy about providing them. ;-)

I am trying to stage a long-delayed dinner with my twice-a-year dining companion. (We have been dining twice a year for 15 years, but somehow 2012 became our first bye year. Getting back on track in 2013).

I had a lovely bottle of wine ready for when we were supposed to go out in Sept/Oct but scheduling got away from us, so I'd like to pick a BYO. She has specifically requested a location outside of the city this time, which lets out tons of great ones, I know.

So I am looking for a truly great BYO in Montgomery, Chester, Delaware or New Castle County. I am looking right now at Sycamore, Majolica (both Philly Top 50) and Black Lab Bistro.

Any opinions on them or recs for similar?

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  1. You should also consider Blackfish in Conshohocken. Chip Roman does great stuff there, and they also have tasting menus on Tuesdays there that have a theme that are often spectacular.

    Of the two in Phoenixville I strongly prefer Majolica even after their change in menus. Black Lab is more casual and a bit hit and miss.

    1. I'm pretty sure Sycamore's chef for the past few years left last month. I've only been to Majolica once, it was mostly very good but we split an entree (one of the "Plates") and it was totally bland (underseasoned). Other than that, I'd go back there.

      1. Another vote for Blackfish. Liked Sycamore the two times we were there but Buckethead is correct that their chef left. Majolica is pretty good. Ate there twice and was not wowed by the food. Nice atmosphere. Alba in Malvern is good, as is the Blue Pear Bistro next door to Dilworthton Inn.

        1. Oops. I just noticed you specified BYOB. I tale back the Alba suggestion, although I believe Blue Pear has a very reasonable corkage fee.

          1 Reply
          1. re: JanR

            I think Alba still allows BYO with a corkage fee, on account of their previous longtime status as a BYOB.

          2. Thanks for those comments. It's helpful to know that the Sycamore chef has decamped, it makes a difference.

            One of our rules in our 15 years of dining is that we do not repeat restaurants -- I took her to Blackfish a few years ago, and she took me to Alba (which was *wonderful*) last time. So those are great suggestions but I need to find a new place.

            I'm seriously considering the Majolica tasting menu (we have yet to do a tasting menu). But I want to investigate some more.

            I will certainly check out the Blue Pear Bistro.....

            9 Replies
            1. re: zmulls

              The departure of a chef isn't always a disaster: if his sous chef and line chefs worked with him for awhile, the transition can be rather seamless. I had a very enjoyable meal at Sycamore a few months back.

              I don't know how far you are from Bucks, but my two recent meals at Maize in Perkasie convince me that restaurant is a hidden gem and, perhaps, the best in Bucks (including the several notable restaurants in Doylestown and New Hope).

              1. re: famdoc

                The chef at Sycamore left just recently, if you were there a few months ago, he was still there. I don't know whether it's the same, better, or what since he left, but it is helpful to know that the chef who was running things during the time a restaurant got lots of good reviews has departed, if nothing else it means you should probably look for some more recent reviews before going there for a special occasion. I haven't been there since Meg Votta was the chef.

                1. re: famdoc

                  I'll agree that Maize is very good. However, the noise level is incredible. We had to almost holler across the table to be heard. I won't go back, regardless of the food quality. The experience was not pleasant.

                  1. re: bucksguy14

                    Hi, can I ask what night of the week you went?

                    We usually go midweek (Mon, Tues, Wed) and we go very early, sometimes as early as 5pm. We've had good luck getting quiet tables in small places.

                    We did Matyson in the city last time around, and it was quiet when we got there, and starting to get noisy when we left.

                    1. re: zmulls

                      My recollection is that we went on a Wed or Thurs, around 7;30. It was extremely noisy, start to finish. I've been to Matyson and found, like you, that the noise goes up as it gets later. I was at Melograno last weekend and, while it was noisy when we first arrived at 7, it got quieter after 8. We really like the meal there and will be back - after 8!!

                    2. re: bucksguy14

                      Too bad. I was going to try and go there this weekend for a date with the missus, but that's a deal breaker.

                      Re: Sycamore, I'm a big fan of Sam Jacobson and his staff, but his food is so idiosyncratic I've always made sure he was in the kitchen when I dined there.

                      1. re: bucksguy14

                        agree the room can be noisy. it is best to be seated around 8. since the meal is paced leisurely, by the time your mains arrive, the room will be only half full and less noisy.

                        1. re: bucksguy14

                          Maize is so good. It's a shame to pass on it because of the noise. If you go on a weekend, getting there very early helps a lot. We usually go at 6pm on a Saturday.

                          1. re: JanR

                            I agree, it was very good. Maybe we'll go again and try famdoc's suggestion of getting there around 8 and see if that works. Except for dinners involving grandchildren, I very rarely make a reservation before 7 and prefer 8.

                    3. I'd suggest Brasserie 73 in Skippack and, depending on how far you're willing to go in Bucks, Francisco's on the River in Washington's Crossing

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: bucksguy14

                        I liked Francisco's very much. Haven't been to Brasserie73 in years but always thought it was overpriced.

                      2. I'd drop Black Lab from the list... OK as a lunch spot, perhaps, but nothing really special. We like Majolica, but I've been wanting to get to Birchrunville Cafe. Haven't been yet, but hear nothing but excellent things - http://www.birchrunvillestorecafe.com.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: bsims76

                          I'd also drop Black Lab from the running. The food is good, but I wouldn't consider it a "special occasion" spot. I'd give Birchrunville Inn a top recommendation, but reservations, particularly for a Friday or Saturday, are difficult to come by.

                        2. Here's another vote for Birchrunville Cafe but it's a long, long drive and only open Wed-Sat with, for at least, a 2 month wait for Saturday

                          Sola in Bryn Mawr for small, intimate

                          Stella Sera for really creative Italian food in Chestnut Hill

                          Majolica is another fine choice

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: arepo

                            Third Birchrunville if you can get a reservation.

                          2. I thought I had typed an update last night but I guess the internets ate it.

                            She took me to Birchrunville in 2003 and it was AMAZING. One of my favorite meals from our 15-year odyssey. I'd love to go again but it violates our no-repeat rule.

                            I'm encouraged about Majolica and will keep looking at Sycamore. Maize looks very interesting as well. I will take another look at Sola and Stella Sera. (Anything as good as Alba is right up our alley).

                            We both live to the West so while we are willing to go North of the city (I work in Lansdale, so Perkasie isn't too much of a stretch), the further East we go the more difficult it is. Bucks County may be a little too far out (and Washington's Crossing is definitely too far).

                            I appreciate all the responses....it's very helpful.

                            9 Replies
                            1. re: zmulls

                              FYI.. Perkasie is IN bucks county... . I strongly second the suggestion of Maize if you are willing to drive that far. I am not a fan of Franciscos on the Delaware. Food is good, but its not a good value. If I were going up that far I would go to Brian's in Lambertville. He used to run Rouget in Newtown, PA which was fantastic. He has moved to a small space in Lambertville. Bistro cooking, wood fire, and pizzas. Very nice relaxed atmosphere.

                              1. re: cwdonald

                                Agree with this suggestion, although Brian's also suffers from the noise problem others have noted at Maize. I've really enjoyed eating at Brian's, but have had to book based upon the crowds (and the fact that parking in Lambertville on weekends has become nearly impossible. Also, ask not to be seated by the front door at Brian's: it gets cold and you'll have diners waiting to be seated breathing down your neck).

                                1. re: cwdonald

                                  Yes, you're correct that Perkasie is in Bucks county but it's in Western Bucks. I work in Lansdale, so a 20-minute drive up to Perkasie isn't out of the question. Going all the way to Lambertville (and then driving home to Swarthmore, or for her, even further west) isn't practical, I'm afraid.

                                  Maize does look quite exceptional, and I am less worried about the noise factor because of the timeframe we usually eat.

                                  1. re: zmulls

                                    If you go to Maize, I'd recommend the chef's tasting menu. It's only $50 and you get not only lots of food, but a special meal consisting of market-fresh ingredients not necessarily on the regular menu. As I said before, it's a leisurely-paced meal, so allow enough time...and you might think about bringing more than one bottle of wine (drive home safely, though).

                                    1. re: famdoc

                                      Thank you for pointing that out. One thing we have not done in our 15 years of dining is do a tasting menu, and I may suggest that to her. I was looking at Majolica for that (they have a 6- and 8-course). I didn't notice the tasting menu at Maize on first glance.

                                      And we do one bottle of wine...we're not as young as we used to be, nor as foolish. ;-)

                                      1. re: zmulls

                                        We enjoy Maize too. Had the duck leg w/ tagliatelle and mushroom sauce w/ a local Pinot Noir. Sauce was forest floor.

                                        1. re: Chinon00

                                          "Local" Pinot Noir? Pennsylvania is not exactly Burgundy, nor is it the Willamette Valley or Sonoma. Hope you enjoyed it, but I'd be wary.

                                          1. re: famdoc

                                            The Pinot was from Sandcastle Winery. It was an adequate wine and there are surely better examples of Pinot in the world. But Maize prides itself on using local ingredients. So the idea of maybe everything on the table including the wine being from the surrounding area was very charming to me. It was a nice evening.

                                      2. re: famdoc

                                        The tasting menu will be chef's choice and, more often than not, spotlight something seasonal/local. Allow at least 3 hours for the 5 for $50 tasting. Excellent bargain!

                                2. +1 for Birchrunville if you can get a reservation.

                                  Also consider Marley's just down the street from Majolica, been there a few times and each time has been fantastic.

                                  EDIT: Too bad you've been to Birchrunville already (it may be worth violating your rule just this once!)

                                  3 Replies
                                  1. re: katsak

                                    Trust me, it's very tempting sometimes to violate our rule. I'd happily go back to Vetri, Savona, Sovana Bistro, Alba, Amada, Blackfish, Matyson, Bistro La Minette and several more!

                                    The discovery is part of our fun. Either discovering a place together or introducing each other to favorites. The theory is that if we love a place, we can go back with our spouses or other people in the future.

                                    I'll look at Marley's...is it new?

                                    1. re: zmulls

                                      Friends took me to Marley's after they heard about it about a year or so ago. Last time I was there we shared the Bento Box appetizer which was a fun assortment of items not on the regular menu.

                                      1. re: katsak

                                        A huge +1 for Marley's. Their shrimp and grits is one of the best dishes I had the entire year! Friends are holding their rehearsal dinner there in the summer, so we did a tour of the menu and almost everything ordered received raves from our group of 8.

                                        I can also opine on Sola, which is a real gem. Top notch execution, the roasted duck breast being a particular highlight. Sola does have a $2/bottle corkage fee, so not a true BYO, but nominal.

                                  2. I live in DC but the wife's family is from Philadelphia. I took several of them to Sola in Bryn Mawr last year and we all enjoyed it greatly. Wonderful food and service, nice small and intimate restaurant.

                                    1. Heard good things about Ann's Kitchen in Glenside and Catherine's in Unionville. Think both are byob.

                                      3 Replies
                                      1. re: Chinon00

                                        Catherine's food can be enjoyable although there's not a lot of creativity in their food prep and presentation. What I don't particularly like at Catherine's is the seating. A party of 4, for example, is likely to be seated at two small round tables that have been pushed together.

                                        1. re: CindyJ

                                          She took me to Catherine's a few years ago. It's definitely the sort of place we seek out. But I thought it was just pretty good. I enjoyed the meal but it's not on my list of restaurants I long to go back to.

                                        2. re: Chinon00

                                          Thanks to your post, Chinon00, we tried Anne's last night. Very nice, although not upscale. They only serve dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. No reservations.

                                        3. Another vote for Majolica. We've eaten there three times and always had wonderful meals. Seafood is perfectly cooked, foie gras, sweetbreads...all simply but interestingly prepared. Very attentive service, good glassware and nice atmosphere, also.

                                          1. I don't know how you define 'outside of the City', but you may consider Heriloom in Chestnut Hill. I haven't been yet (it's a bit above our standards price point), but i've heard vey nice things.

                                            1. I don't know if you like sushi, but 2 excellent suburban BYOBs are Umai in Lansdale (I've had 2 excellent Omakase dinners there recently) and the well-known Bluefin in East Norriton (again, I've only had Omakase there, so I can't speak to a la carte dining).

                                              Grab some Gew├╝rztraminers and Rieslings!

                                              1. You should break the rule on Blackfish, my absolute favorite!
                                                But if it is new you are seeking, Marly's has my vote. We live in Phoenixville and have never had a meal there that wasn't amazing. The chef knows flavors and the menu is really different from other places.
                                                Majolica is also a great choice. I'm not huge into french food, but my husband is and he adores it. I've done a tasting menu there and it was fabulous.

                                                1. Add La Maison for consideration in Ardmore .Been there twice
                                                  Not quite up to Alba or Birchrunville but in the class of Sola (2 or 3 times) and Majolica (4 times)
                                                  Mark

                                                  1. I've heard some not-so-great things about Black Lab Bistro lately. I go to Phoenixville all the time and from what I understand, it USED to be really good but now is underwhelming and pricey. I hear nothing but praise for Majolica.

                                                    You may want to think about Craft Ale House in Limerick (I've seen them allow BYOB wine I think) or Funky Lil' Kitchen in Pottstown.

                                                    1. I should put a flag in the sand now or else the discussion will rage on indefinitely.

                                                      You guys had me convinced about Maize and I was very close to going there, but a geographic discussion with my dining partner told me she preferred not to go "20 minutes north of Lansdale" in rush hour, if possible.

                                                      But I was definitely sold on a tasting menu and I'm going back to the idea of Majolica. We have a reservation for early February, and I am going for the full-bore 8-course menu. Caution to the wind.

                                                      (I get the impression from the discussion that BYOB allows more than just wine? We are only going to drink one bottle of wine, but it's a long dinner....I might bring an after-dinner licqeur if it's allowed).

                                                      If people want to keep discussing recs for its own sake, carry on. I've made my 2012 decision, but you can keep talking. (It's going to be some time before I have to think about where to take her in 2013).

                                                      4 Replies
                                                      1. re: zmulls

                                                        BYOB = Bring anything you want. I've been at Bibou and seen people mixing their own vodka drinks at the next table.

                                                        1. re: zmulls

                                                          How was your meal at Majolica? I haven't been there in years--since before they closed and re-opened--but am pondering trying to make a reservation there for a late Valentine's Day celebration tomorrow night. I'm a vegetarian and haven't had trouble with their menu in the past, but I'd love to hear what you thought of the meal and what you had, as they only put a smattering of their menu online. Thanks!

                                                          1. re: Laura D.

                                                            Laura, I hate to say how much trouble we've had scheduling. My dining partner has just been put on a major work project which includes many evenings, and we've had to reschedule twice (we were supposed to go tonight).
                                                            It looks like we won't be going until early April at this point. I will try to report back when we finally go. (We will be doing the 8-course tasting menu)

                                                            1. re: zmulls

                                                              Sorry to hear of your scheduling difficulties. I wound up going ahead and making a reservation for tomorrow evening as other places I was considering were booked. I'll let you know how it is!

                                                        2. My favorite place for years is "Spring Mill Cafe" in Conchy.