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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.

              1. Speaking of Perbacco and surviving the curse, I walked by it the other night and noticed a 'notice of change of ownership' sign in the window. Hopefully this will not mean any significant change in quality.

                1. Ruth, have you been to Bocanova? I really enjoyed the food my one visit maybe a year or two ago, and it has a celebratory feel. It is bustling (though not noisier than Perbacco) and is a big enough space that they may be able to find a quiet corner for you.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: susancinsf

                    I was actually thinking of Bocanova. I've eaten there a couple of times and always enjoyed it. It's fun and lively without being too noisy, the food is "different" without being weird. I'll bump it back up my list.

                  2. I'm sure Rivoli is old hat for you, but my husband had such a nice birthday dinner there early last month. We hadn't been back in 2 years and were hoping it hadn't slipped. It hasn't. Wasn't loud, our table for 4 looking out on the garden was lovely, the room has a nice elegant glow, service was perfect...interesting cocktails, delicious, complex but not silly food, good desserts. It was pretty close to perfect..even down to the "Happy Birthday" confetti on the table.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Glencora

                      I also thought about Rivoli, but also figured it was likely a bit 'old hat' for Ruth, given how long it has been there...

                      1. re: Glencora

                        Years ago, DH & I did a birthday dinner at Rivoli (they knew). Service was nice and food offerings were comfortingly familiar to older folks, who thought the celebratory sparklely bling was fun). Enjoyed watching the garden animals (kittens? I've forgotten).

                      2. We had a very nice meal at Zare at Fly Trap a couple of months ago. Hit all the criteria you are looking for.

                        Plus, it's easy to find :).

                        Enjoy wherever you decide to go!

                        2 Replies
                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            I've been ringing their bell a lot. It can be a little noisy but not too bad. All else is good. Just don't curse it for me.

                        1. I think A Cote meets all those criteria provided you specify the back room.

                          1. My first thought after reading this was also Haven.

                            But maybe you should return to Perbacco if it's an option. Make it an every-7-years tradition!

                            10 Replies
                            1. re: Dave MP

                              I also say Haven - we went as a group of 7 and it was great. I also like the Forge a few doors down but it's way more casual. I really like Mua in Uptown but it can also get very loud. The food is solid.

                                  1. re: bbulkow

                                    I usually see a pretty mixed crowd at Mua, surprising number of older people.

                              1. re: Dave MP

                                Haven is loud. Increasingly loud.

                                It's sister restaurant, Plum is advertising what they called a "Hipster happy hour" with a beer/whiskey/slider special. Not hard to see what they're angling for, with focus at the bar.

                                Perbacco redux, or Village Pub sounded like good ideas.

                                What about Cotogna or Quince? (Volume and price might be factors with those, but thought to mention them).

                                1. re: sugartoof

                                  Cotogna is noisy, Quince is very expensive.

                                  The happy hour and hipster happy meal are at Plum Bar, not Plum.


                                    1. re: sugartoof

                                      Haven wasn't noisy when I had dinner there a year ago, but from the comments is seems as if it has gotten noisier.

                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                        I think it may depend upon the night. My last two dinners at Haven, all during the week, were easy on the ears.

                                      2. re: sugartoof

                                        Haven has been quiet the dozen times I've been there. Is the new chef playing loud music or something?

                                2. Have you tried Mockingbird in uptown Oakland? I had a very nice meal there last week except parking was madness because of Childish Gambino at Fox. Their menu isn't huge but definitely covers many options. It was very comfortable with the tables at reasonable distances from each other. We had a chickpea soup with butternut squash, a salad with smoked tuna (excellent), a very nice crusted pork loin and steak and frites. Dessert was nice too especially housemade truffles. Service was very pleasant too.
                                  Also wanted to add that Pican is good but I always find it woefully overpriced somehow.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: jhinky

                                    I've been wanting to try Mockingbird. I was hesitating because of the small menu, but it might work.

                                  2. Another vote for Rivoli--the room, service, decibel level and consistently well-executed menu (but I don't know their desserts) would make for a pleasant dinner with parents, and no rude surprises. On the new-and-trendy end of the spectrum, perhaps Penrose (Charlie Hallowell's new place)? Given high ceiling and hard surfaces, best to request a table next to the wall.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: dordogne

                                      Penrose reportedly is one of the loudest restaurants in the area.

                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        Loud and scene-y, with some pretty uncomfortable seating and no reservations taken at all -- probably the exact opposite of what Ruth wants, though much of the food is quite good.

                                        1. re: abstractpoet

                                          Thanks for decibel and comfort level report. Not that I'd ever recommend going back to red velveteen tufted chairs and flocked wallpaper, but I'm hoping the hard-edged/hard-surfaced/stone floor look in restaurant decor passes soon.

                                    2. Ruth,

                                      If you are willing to traverse the Carquinez bridge there is a small hidden gem in Vallejo that might be perfect. It's a small restaurant and is quiet with warm service by the chef 's wife who makes you feel at home. The vibe is laid back and relax-full. The menu is price fixed with several courses and is an amazing deal at around. $60 per person. The chef is super talented, creative and adventurous but the food is simple and homey enough for picky eaters. Desserts are stellar.

                                      Check out Michael Warring:



                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: Ridge

                                        Great idea. I don't think it's suitable for my family, but perhaps for an "alternate" birthday dinner (one year I had three).

                                      2. Has Village Pub, down the peninsula, ever made the list?

                                        Minuses - expensive, short menu
                                        Pluses - new to you (?), straightforward menu, not loud, celebratory

                                        Easy to get to (right off 280), reservations aren't that tough, nice space between tables

                                        My only other peninsula shot might be Flea Street.

                                        7 Replies
                                        1. re: bbulkow

                                          I would suggest its sibling, Spruce, in SF as closer to Alameda and the East Bay.

                                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                                            I didn't like Spruce much, seemed more unexceptional, and depending on where you're coming from San Mateo Br -> 92 -> 280 -> Woodside can be reasonable on a saturday; I wouldn't try it on a friday

                                            1. re: Melanie Wong

                                              Ah yes, but half the family is coming from Palo Alto. I'll put it on the list.

                                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                If the Peninsula's OK, maybe Martins West.

                                            2. re: bbulkow

                                              Second Village Pub, Station One or Flea Street

                                              1. re: goldangl95

                                                Station One closed quite a few months ago ---

                                                1. re: bbulkow

                                                  Ah good catch! It closed 12/21/13.

                                            3. I am tempted to recommend a place I wish would close (Montclair Bistro?)! I have had good luck with A Cote and Bocanova with mixed-type groups, as well as Nizza la Bella. Maybe American Oak in Alameda? If I had to choose, I would go with Haven.

                                              1. Though Italian isn't the first choice, what do you think of Bellanico on Park Blvd.? It otherwise meets the criteria.

                                                Or, in your 'hood, the newish Trabocco? I was not really a fan back when it was about 2 months old and haven't been back, but there was a really fine tiramisu so there's a check for the dessert....

                                                Also in Alameda would you consider Pappo, or is the menu too limited?

                                                3 Replies
                                                1. re: foodeye

                                                  I've been to Pappo several times (although not recently) and it's kind of boring (IMHO). I've read that Bellanico can be quite loud. Not true?

                                                  I probably read your report on Trabocco and dismissed it.

                                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                    Pappo hasn't changed at all in years, so, yes a bit boring.

                                                    Bellanico is not normally really loud, though you can't count out the chance of a nearby table enjoying too much wine. It is like a casual Rivoli in atmosphere. The menus http://www.bellanico.net/menus.html look really good right now and the execution has always been consistently well done. Their signature malfatti (like gnudi - or a ravioli without a wrapper) are great but very rich, so plan to share an order of those...

                                                    Not sure I've seen much on the board on Trabocco, though have heard polar views on it. The space, like most, does nothing to temper noise, so an earlier seating would be advised for that issue. Expectations here shouldn't be too high; convenience is one of its pluses.

                                                    Have you considered Cafe Rouge or Zut! on 4th St.?

                                                    1. re: foodeye

                                                      Went to cafe Rouge this evening after a long hiatus. It was great: seasonal food, impeccable preparation . On a Tuesday nite, it was almost full - and quiet enough for a conversation.

                                                      Faro salad was the base for watercress, with mint,grapes and Turkish peppers. The clean flavors sparkled.

                                                      My local pan seared snapper was served in a bit of stew consisting of fennel and leeks -- very very fresh fish. I loved it.

                                                      Unfortunately I was too full for dessert, or I would have snagged the lemon verbena crème brulée.

                                                      Did I mention -- they prepared one of the best margharitas ever?

                                                2. I like Perbacco. Nothing wrong with visiting an old friend.

                                                  La Folie is another old favorite suitable for a special occasion. It's easy to overlook but there's no denying the quality (and quantity) of the food.

                                                  Edited to add: Happy Birthday!

                                                  1. Another vote for A Cote- had a great meal there recently- solid cocktails, lots of variety in the menu, more interesting things and homey classics. Didn't have dessert this last time but in the past it has been good.

                                                    Maybe Sidebar? Their co-owner is the pastry chef, so the desserts should be good.

                                                    I also recently went to the House of Prime Rib for the very first time. I was a little skeptical (I'm a chef/foodie...), but the experience was awesome. Delicious meat and sides, and great value. Fun atmosphere. Had a decent creme brulee! The only thing on the menu is prime rib, though.

                                                    1. I appreciate your dilemma. With all the fabulous restaurants, I still find myself searching for the best spot.

                                                      After reading through the posts and your criteria, I'd suggest Haven but I'll throw out a couple others:
                                                      Marica on College in Oakland - fab reviews on yelp and varied menu. The dark chocolate souffle gets rave reviews. I love their lobster dish.
                                                      Garcon in the city - Went there recently and realized how much I love good French food. It might be too loud though.

                                                      4 Replies
                                                      1. re: Cheesy Oysters

                                                        We love Pican, but it is really much better for weekend brunch than any lunch or dinner. Less crowded, less frantic, and Chef Uong still presides in the kitchen. Fabulous French-inspired sauces on the brunch items.

                                                        1. re: jaiko

                                                          That's a good tip! So, for example, the Creole mustard hollandaise sauce which is on the Fried Chicken Benedict?

                                                          1. re: Dave MP

                                                            Man, that sounds like a damn good benedict haha

                                                            1. re: Dave MP

                                                              Pican is also much, much more affordable for brunch. The benedict is great. I'm also fond of the salty-sweet "sexy bacon."

                                                        2. Where did you end up going? Am having a bit of birthday dinner dilemma myself :)

                                                          4 Replies
                                                          1. re: indigirl

                                                            BocaNova. Family enjoyed it very much.

                                                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                              I'll add, though, that the best meal I had this spring was at AQ (I took my mom). Everything was delicious, but the desserts there are amazing. The citrus dessert had these little pieces I thought were white chocolate chips (silly me) but turned out to be intensely lemon-flavored meringues. The "carrot" dessert, with carrot cake soup and celery sorbet was also killer.

                                                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                That sounds amazing!
                                                                Happy belated birthday, & thanks for doing all the legwork.

                                                              2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                I had a birthday dinner at Bocanova last month with a few family members, too, where everyone enjoyed the food a lot (though there was one service glitch, wherein a glass of wine ordered with the food wasn't brought until we were well into our second course).

                                                                Also had a terrific dinner at Perbacco, but it's indeed, anything but quiet.

                                                            2. I helped organize a great 50th birthday dinner for a friend at Bay Wolf. We were on the porch, so it felt upscale rustic. We also had more space/privacy. The food and service were, as always, very good.

                                                              As much as I'd love to send you to La Folie, I could see that raising a Depression-era eyebrow, price-wise.

                                                              I was just at Rivoli and it was not slouching in any way. (Unlike Lalime.) But Rivoli is so small it might not be as group-friendly as Bay Wolf.

                                                              ETA: Oops! You've already had dinner!