That very special occasion is here. You know – an anniversary or milestone birthday. You look to the food critics for advice. That means that on your way to the candlelit dinner, you stop at the bank for a home equity loan to finance some kale salad while a celebrity chef creates a handsome plate of pork cheeks and sculpted carrots. You whisper to that special someone, “What the hell are we doing here?”
Well, how about this: A time-tested restaurant with a comfortable setting, serving food you recognize at a price that’s on the higher side, but short of Tiffany-diamond expensive. Here are some of my favorites for suburban dining, and one shore stop. By the way, check totals include a drink before dinner and wine with. – Jay Lloyd
WILLIAM PENN INN
1017 DeKalb Pike (route 202)
Ambler, PA 19002
When was the last time you saw a harpist plucking the strings in a cocktail lounge? There’s more than a touch of special occasion class to the historic William Penn Inn. The dining room is elegant, most guests are dressed for an “occasion” and the service is meticulous, but not overbearing. The menu is a familiar mix of well-prepared favorite American dishes. We’ve been sharing birthday and anniversary dinners here with friends for nearly 40 years, and little has changed. I lean toward the calf’s liver or prime rib. Mary usually taps the salmon or Chilean sea bass. A $32 fixed price, three-course dinner tamps down the tab and yields some of the inn’s most popular items paired with soup or salad and dessert. Don’t pass up the onion soup; it’s rich. Our tab here usually runs about $125 a couple, including tip.
BAY PONY INN
Route 113 & Salfordville Rd.
Lederach, PA 19450
The Bay Pony Inn, set against a rural background, evokes an image of dusty riders dismounting at the public door and breaking up their travels with a pint and a hearty meal. The Inn does trace its roots back to 18th-century America. Today, there’s period paintings on the walls, a lot of mahogany at the bar and a comfortably rustic main dining room that keep the history alive. The menu, which wanders between traditional country fare and international flavors, remains constant, too. If you enjoy a dish, it’ll be the same when you return. Here, I tuck into the Guinness stew or scallops. Mary tags the tuna. A fixed price three-courser here also holds down the tally. A well-mixed Manhattan and a martini at the bar before dinner is a chance to chat with hosts Eduard and Florence Knechtl about their global travels. Our bill here for two generally runs about $115 including tip.
WHITE DOG CAFE
200 W. Lancaster Avenue
Wayne, PA 19087
A whole wall is hung with portraits of various breeds of dogs and a warming fire takes the chill off a winter day. In spring, it serves as a reminder of country comfort. The bar is often alive with Main Line-dwellers and business people. The dining rooms fill fast, and that’s a reminder to make a reservation. You’ll need it. The service is attentive without being intrusive. The staff instinctively knows when a glass is about to go dry. The experience here is cocoon-style relaxation. As for the food, the lamb Bolognese and rigatoni hits my spot, while Mary is tuned to the well-garnished rainbow trout. If you can’t resist a chilled plate of raw oysters for an appetizer and then a bit of red meat, a dinner bill for two here rings up between $120 and $150.
51 Town Center Drive
Collegeville, PA 19426
Firebirds bucks the flow of “old and familiar.” It’s in a major shopping center, it’s new and attracts a young crowd from the nearby pharmaceuticals. But I have selected it for several special occasions – my own birthdays. Why? The prime rib is one of the best I’ve experienced in the Philly suburbs. (Oy! Now my cardiologist knows.) Firebirds is a bit brash and brassy with a lively bar and young servers who are eager and competent. The drinks are well made and most of the menu items are scooped from a wood-fired grill. It’s the wood smoke aroma that just draws you in. Okay. You know I’m all-in for a rare rib. Mary prefers the fin food, especially a pecan crusted trout. For noshes with a before-dinner drink, the onion rings ring the bell. With rib and trout, try the sweet potato fries. Our dinner bill here with tip is usually about $105.
106 Decatur Street
Cape May, NJ 08204
It was 63 years ago when I first discovered Cape May as a Seaman Recruit going through Coast Guard basic training here. Earning $64 a month, the most I could do was press my nose against the Merion Inn’s window to get a glimpse of what was going on inside. For the past 40 years, I’ve been going through the door for one of the best manhattans at the Jersey Shore and a meal that’s never disappointed me.
Last year, we celebrated three birthdays there. Favorite evenings for a Merion Inn dinner are Fridays and Saturdays — that’s when Dean Schneider, a top-notch jazz pianist, holds down the lounge. If you like a bit of easy jazz riffs on the standards, ask for a lounge table. The menu here offers a wonderful shore variety of fin, fur and feather dishes. My favorite is a traditional roast chicken with stuffing and natural juices to remember. Mary casts for the soy-glazed salmon. For modest appetites, the Merion Express Dinners include salad and dessert for an equally modest price. Our tab here usually runs about $110, depending how long we linger over an after-dinner toddy and the music.
Just one note: The total bills mentioned here dip dramatically for non-drinkers. But hey, it’s a special occasion we’re talking about!
Have a happy!