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Friday night with some San Francisco foodies...where would you book?

So, I have two very good friends visiting at the end of June whom I haven't seen in a while, and we may only get the chance for one dinner in Philly the Friday night they first arrive in town. (Originally I wanted to pick them up and make dinner for them in South Jersey at my house, but they would rather stick close to their hotel in Philly that night. Not a problem but I know I have to plan in advance to get a reservation anywhere notable on a Friday.)

They are both pretty serious foodies with a lot of world travel experience. I'm trying to decide what would be the best place in Philly to take them, given also that I haven't lived in the city for 4 years and there are a lot of new places I've wanted to try but haven't had the chance.

I was thinking possibly Ela (one of the party is a Top Chef fan), Vedge (they are both into healthy cooking but not vegetarians), Zahav (if I could get the lamb special), Serpico, or even maybe Volver. If you had a choice between those, which would you pick? Or would you choose something else? I do want to stick more or less to Center City/South Philly area for their convenience, otherwise I'd be booking at Mica no question since I love that place.

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  1. If one likes Top Chef, how about Sbraga?

    1. Sockii.. see my post about the lamb special. Its now a daily special, early reservation have a better shot at it. If you are dining later, I probably would go somewhere else. I would either do Serpico, Laurel (hard reservation to score) or either of Sbragas restaurants over Ela. Fat Ham is more casual and if they like southern style food would enjoy it, especially the hot chicken. If they want more upscale, do Sbraga.

      1 Reply
      1. re: cwdonald

        I probably wouldn't be booking a reservation until about 8pm, since their flight isn't scheduled to arrive until 6 (originally I was going to book us for Shola's Studio Kitchen dinner that night but with the 7:30 start time, I was paranoid about losing the $'s if for some reason their flight was delayed in arrival.)

        Sbarga could be a good possibility. I figured I wouldn't be able to get Laurel just a few weeks out otherwise that would have been topping out my list. Thanks!

      2. I'd avoid Ela. Of the places you listed, I haven't been to Volver but I would and have happily take out of town foodie friends to Vedge, Zahav, and Serpico, I don't think you can go wrong at any of the three. Maybe offer them all as options and let your friends decide which menu appeals to them more?

        Personally I don't think the lamb at Zahav is a necessity or even desirable if they've never been there before, I like a lot of the small plates more and the sheer quantity of lamb you're served makes it harder to taste everything else on offer.

        Sbraga is excellent, for me it's just shy of being in the same league as those other three places, but if your friend really wants to go to a Top Chef's place that's the only one I'd recommend.

        5 Replies
        1. re: Buckethead

          Thanks for the input...I'm probably leaning toward Vedge as I've been wanting to try it for some time. But I'll put Sbarga into contention as well.

          The main reason I haven't been to Zahav yet is I tend to have major garlic intolerance issues with Middle Eastern food (I generally can't do restaurant-prepared hummus and other ME dishes without getting seriously ill), yet I have wanted to try the lamb dish.

          1. re: sockii

            You really should try the turkish hummus sometime. It is made with butter. Outstanding (not heavily garlic, though if you are allergic to garlic, I wouldnt risk it.).

            Vedge is well worth the visit. Lovely old space that used to be Deux Cheminee. Great drink menu, and you will be there when there is tons of great vegetables. I personally think Vedge is great six months of the year, and ok the other six.

            1. re: cwdonald

              Sounds great - I am probably going to try for Vedge.

              (FWIW I am intolerant, not allergic to garlic. I can handle it fine when well cooked but not at all in its raw state--allicin is what I react to, which doesn't get broken down except under high heat cooking, which doesn't seem to be the norm in some cuisines.)

            2. re: sockii

              I love Zahav, but if you want to show them something different, go with Vedge. Especially since you note that they have an appreciation for "healthy cooking" - Vedge is definitely not 100% healthy, but it is real, fresh food.

              1. re: sockii

                Just ate at Zahav this weekend and nothing had garlic that I noticed...

            3. Don't overlook Vernick.
              They might get a kick out of Ela though with a Top Chef winner.
              However, of your list, I'd vote for Serpico. A San Francisco foodie will appreciate the sophisticated menu.

              1 Reply
              1. re: arepo

                "They might get a kick out of Ela though with a Top Chef winner."

                Did you mean Laurel (Nick Elmi's place)? Ela's chef was booted in the second episode of the season.

              2. I've been to all of these except Ela, so I can provide some insights that may be helpful.

                Vedge -- may be most unique, in that you're getting all-out vegan cooking. Some of my favorite items are the beet salad and cheese cake dessert. There is a very good vibe here. If your friends have a tattoo but had it redone or cover it in fine dress shirts, they'd love Vedge. I'd recommend asking them to go light on the oil, as sometimes the dishes can be a little soppy if you know what I mean. The one drawback is let's face it, vegan cuisine is not as tasty as...

                Zahav -- the most flavorful of all your choices. By far the lamb is the highlight here, but most of the other items can be healthy if you don't overdue it. I'll belie that statement by saying the crispy halloumi is the best I've ever had and I'm married to a French person so know cheese. Very cool young professional crowd, and nice cobblestone-street area. If you're friends are world-travelers, they'll love Zahav.

                Serpico -- edgiest menu, most Philly vibe since you're right on South Street. If your friends are into the Mission in SF they'll love Serpico. I think the menu is extraordinary, and I've liked every thing I've had here.

                Volver -- most sophisticated by a mile. Every dish is a little work of art, and the whole experience is wow-worthy. I had the pre-theatre menu, and that was a great time. Best service, a lot of talking/explanation of the dishes. Cool, intellectual vibe since you're in the Kimmel Center. If your friends are into bespoke suits they'll love Volver. That said, can be a little too much focus on the food and less on your spending time with your friends, since everything is so big here

                3 Replies
                1. re: dndicicco

                  I agree with most points. Can't comment on Volver or Ela as I haven't been. One thing I would consider is if entertaining friends from SF, I imagine there are likely good vegan/vegetarian options for them at home and something like Zahav may be harder to come by. But I think all three are good options.

                  My only meal at Serpico was the tasting menu and I regret not ordering off the board after reading raves about certain dishes and hearing comments of other diners near by. Nothing on the tasting menu really blew me away. Some very good dishes, but nothing made me say Wow.

                  I'd put Zahav and Vedge above Serpico based on my experiences at each. But, again, I think you really can't go wrong.

                  1. re: ahab

                    My one comment is Vedge is probably the preeminent vegetarian restuarant in the US right now. SF has plenty of vegetarian, but not the way Vedge elevates the food to another level. SF is more stuck in teh Molly Katzen Moosewood era (Molly has lived in the bay area for 30 years... ). Vedge is just different.

                    1. re: cwdonald

                      Vedge is, with out doubt, different that Moosewood. It has been a while since I live in the Bay area and/or visited the vegetarian restaurants there. Many excellent veggie choice even at non-veggie establishments in SF. As the visitors are not vegetarians I would select one of the many other fine restaurants recommended here.

                2. Thanks everyone for the comments. I'm going to see where I can actually manage a Friday night reservation for 4, I know it can be tough with some places. (And, it turns out they are staying at the Four Seasons so there is always the Fountain to consider...?)

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: sockii

                    Zahav does have the chef's table but that's probably booked.

                    1. re: bluehensfan

                      Chef's table is only Wednesdays now.

                      1. re: bumble

                        Ah well, so much for that! Thanks for the update.

                        Alas, Vedge didn't have anything on OpenTable for that evening until 9:15, so I have booked Sbarga for now at 8. Of course, I am also kicking myself so bad for not jumping on the StudioKitchen event that evening when I could have... I just had an amazing dinner there last night, it's been too long since I went to one of Shola's dinners and his new space in South Philly is terrific.

                  2. I just wanted to post a follow-up and thank folks for the Sbraga recommendation. We ended up there and all four of us really had a great meal, my out-of-town guests loved it.

                    I'll be doing a full write up for my blog but I can say the absolute standout dishes on the menu currently were:

                    - the beef tartar (my friend declared it the best he's ever had, anywhere)
                    - the saffron bucatini with blue crab, crushed tomatoes and fresno chiles (wonderfully rich and flavorsome)
                    - the game hen fried chicken-style with vandouvan spice (so glad I ordered this, my friends were looking on in envy...)

                    Cocktails were excellent at the bar before we sat down for the meal and the wine pairings were interesting as well.

                    I'd definitely return again.