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Mar 2, 2014 03:40 PM

Ruth's annual birthday dinner dilemma -- 2014 edition

The annual saga of Ruth's birthday dinner is upon me again. For all my years reading this board religiously and making suggestions for others, I'm often perplexed by the task of finding a place that's

(1) interesting and preferably new to me,
(2) suitable for my parents (not too noisy and a decent value, i.e., not cheap, but not so expensive it shocks my raised-during-the-Depression Dad's sensibilities, which I'm going to define as no more than half the entrees over $30),
(3) has a menu that will please both more and less adventurous diners (not too limited a menu and not too seafood heavy),
(4) has delicious desserts,
(5) isn't insanely hard to get a reservation for a party of five and/or inaccessible to the East Bay (Aziza proved to be a nightmarish trek one Saturday evening).

As an example, in 2007 we went to Perbacco and it was almost perfect (too noisy, but everything was so good it made the noise tolerable). A place that I would love to go back to but that miserably fails #5 is La Ciccia, where you can get a reservation for five but you'll probably be uncomfortable, and which I got miserably lost trying to find (and I never get lost).

I should also mention that my birthday dinner is cursed. Perbacco seems to have survived, but the restaurants where we had my 2008 and 2009 birthday dinners both closed (the latter just a couple of days after we ate there!). For 2010 I picked Lalime's since I wanted to check it out under Morrone and it seemed to be curse-proof, but the curse struck again when Morrone left shortly thereafter. Other birthday dinners have been plagued with memorably bad service (my 40th at Fleur de Lys being the worst).

When I asked this question in 2011 ( http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/766590 ), we ended up doing a completely different direction. The last two years we've done Italian (Riva Cucina and Lungomare, which both seem to have survived the curse). I'd rather not do Italian again, although it's a good fall back.

Some of the new places in Oakland look good, but they mostly seem a bit more casual than I would like (especially since they tend to be very noisy). My father (who is, after all, paying the bill) would hate Commis and Plum. Also, the current trend of rather limited menus, i.e. fewer than six entrees) doesn't feel very family friendly to me.

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  1. To get around the Depression era spending habits...how about a family style meal? Camino and Haven serve family style? If nothing else, less likely to get a bum meal since you have to share and you tend to order a good variety.

    1 Reply
    1. re: ML8000

      No to Camino -- to austere and a reputation for being uncomfortable.

      Haven is a maybe -- I had a nice dinner there a couple of years ago, under the previous chef.

    2. Would Iyasare (Berkeley, the former O Chame space) be too adventurous?

      Or Comal (if you're okay with eating at 5:30, the only time they'll take a reservation)?

      I love Homestead and think it would fit most of your criteria, except for the menu perhaps being a bit shorter than you'd like.

      How about Pathos (nice Greek in downtown Berkeley)? I heard they were adding loukoumades soon; otherwise, dessert is limited to just baklava.

      5 Replies
      1. re: abstractpoet

        I forgot to mention I don't like Japanese (or "Japanese-influenced") food (so no Hopscotch, either).

        Homestead sounds intriguing. I might go for it, even with the limited menu.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          some dishes at Hopscotch (like the gumbo) have virtually no east Asian influence, or extremely slight (excellent burger with tongue), but the menu is extremely brief, and the ambience is minimalist 1930s luncheonette. the cooking at Miss Ollie's to my tastes is two notches more interesting than Pican, in the African-american diaspora vein, but Pican has a very plush, comfortable ambience (soft large chairs capable of comfortably seating 300 lb. individuals if necessary), with more foods closer to the continental U.S. mainstream.

          1. re: moto

            Second this. I had another awesome meal at Miss Ollie’s Saturday night, fried chicken, jerk chicken, bistro salad with fried oysters, great planter’s punch and bakes. I also had lunch at Pican a few weeks back for the first time and the food was hit or miss. Couple of apps with blue crab – gratin and deviled eggs if I recall, were great. Fried catfish wasn’t so good and collard greens the side were way too sweet. Burger was just OK, also had some too sweet element. But its very spacious, comfortable, quiet with high ceilings – my mom would love this space.

            1. re: sunnyside

              The food at Miss Ollie's is great and the prices are more than reasonable, but it's loud and the menu's pretty short.

      2. have you tried Duende yet ? their approach to food is pretty distinctive, but your previous choices are fairly diverse in styles too.

        5 Replies
        1. re: moto

          I like the food at Duende, but FWIW, it is really loud, and quite a "scene". And pretty expensive, too.

          1. re: abstractpoet

            is it really in a higher price range than a place like Aziza ? agree, the noise level is noticeable at Duende, but to my chagrin some popular spots with food of less distinction are even louder. and some quieter spots have duller foods and ambiences to match, like Camino.

            1. re: moto

              Aziza ten years ago wasn't as expensive, even relatively.

              I think Duende is too sceney.

            2. re: abstractpoet

              I agree that Duende is waaayyyy too loud. Uncomfortably so, on my one recent visit. Much louder than La Ciccia, just to give one example that doesn't seem to fit Ruth's bill, and La Ciccia is not a quiet place. As I mentioned in a prior post, the loudness at Duende was largely due to the live music happening that (Sunday) night, but even when the music stopped it was loud.

          2. Hard to find a quiet restaurant these days, seems like some folks can't enjoy themselves unless they are cackling loudly in ecstasy at how clever and funny they are.

            Have you tried Pican in Oakland? "California infused southern cuisine" Very down to earth non-pretentious and tasty.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Ridge

              I think Pican is going to be my fallback.