A good wine list should have a varied selection of styles and price ranges, and it should complement the menu. Good wine is not cheap to begin with (especially not in Pennsylvania), and most restaurants charge a 100 percent markup. At that level of profit, I don't want to see mundane selections from the State Store shelves. Restaurants have greater access to special-order wines that are not generally available to consumers, and the opportunity to try them is the only reason to justify such highway robbery.
While it's impressive to have a vast selection of wines, a list does not have to be exhaustive to be good. Sometimes, it's a relief to have the choices narrowed down.
In addition to what you're given, many restaurants keep a private "reserve stock," or a "captain's list" of rare, allocated wines. The best strategy for accessing such a list is to first choose a wine on the regular list - in the general style and price range you desire. Then, get the attention of the person in charge of wine and try to engage him or her in conversation. Casually, ask if your selection is a good choice - or do they, perhaps, have something more interesting?
White wine is still the choice for fish (and simply prepared chicken dishes), and chardonnay (including white Burgundy) is by far the most popular white wine in restaurants, although tuna and salmon can take a soft red wine as well. Other light-white options include the spicy, food-friendly sauvignon blanc, the pungently aromatic gewurztraminer, or a dry rose.
Steak and other red meats demand a big red wine, but most cabernet sauvignons (the primary grape in most Bordeaux chateau wines) are too bitter and tannic to be enjoyed young, which is why softer merlots have become known as good "restaurant wines" - no need to age them.
My preferred restaurant red wine, for the more subtle type of contemporary cuisine that I enjoy - veal, chicken, pork and pastas - is pinot noir, from Oregon, California's Central Coast, or France's Burgundy region. It is subtle and mellow, with an earthy quality.
As American restaurants have refined their offerings, wine service unfortunately has not kept pace. An uninformed, untrained staff person who can't even say what wines are served by the glass except that they're white, red or rose is unacceptable. During 10 years of wine writing, I have had to practically beg just to see a wine list at some establishments; have had my selections sneered at (yes!) by rude and supercilious wine stewards; and have waited 20 minutes before being told they were out of my order (three times in a row at one restaurant!).
Here is a sampling of some wine-friendly restaurants - that is, fine wine, good food, attentive service - scattered throughout the region. It is not comprehensive, and readers no doubt have discovered many restaurants with superb selections. Nor is this a "best of" list, but simply some diverse places - suiting a myriad of moods and budgets - to wine and dine.
RISTORANTE PANORAMA. Our first stop isn't just a meal, it's a pilgrimage. Owned by the Sena family (which also owns La Famiglia in Old City, whose wine cellar is world-class), Panorama is the region's undisputed rendezvous of oenophiles. The behemoth wine-keeper machine behind the bar holds more than 120 wines poured by the glass (a three-ounce taste or a five-ounce glass). An impressive selection of sherries, ports, single malt scotches, brandies and grappas (more than 30 varieties of this after-dinner spirit alone!) are on hand, as well.
The recently expanded bar area has a dark, dramatic and decadent decor that contrasts sharply with the sunny and bucolic dining room.
To help diners fully appreciate its selection, Panorama offers a series of ''flights," squadrons of little tastes (1.5 ounces) of wine designed to expose one to a wide variety of wine styles. We choose the two ABC - "Anything But Chardonnay" ($12) and "Anything But Cabernet" ($14) - flights and are generally delighted with both.
The white version features a 1991 I Mesi Muller Thurgau (blunt and mineraly), a 1991 Chateau Ste. Michelle Semillon (soft, round and honeyed), a 1993 Canaletto Pinot Grigio (crisp, lean and salty), a Fay d'Homme Muscadet (crisp and fresh), and a 1993 Joseph Phelps "Vin de Mistral" Viognier (floral perfume, spicy apricot fruit).
The red wines include a 1992 Preston Barbera (spicy, with cherry fruit), a 1992/3 Nardi Rosso di Montalcino (tealike and earthy), a 1992 Phelps "Vin de Mistral" (meaty and peppery), a 1992 Quivera Zinfandel (dense and rich with berrylike fruit), and a 1990 Banfi Chianti Classico "Reserva" (mellow and deep).
The Northern Italian fare is quite good. Every table gets an olive-oil pesto sauce for dipping bread. I begin with pasta, Orechiette Alla Panorama ($9.50), a scrumptious dish of ear-shaped pasta in a shrimp cream sauce, followed by a veal Pomodoro ($15.50), medallions in a fresh tomato and basil sauce. My friend devoured the filet mignon ($19.95).
We finish with a shared glass of Blandy's 10-year-old Malmsey Madeira ($10).
Ristorante Panorama in the Penn's View Inn, 14 N. Front St.; 215-922-7800. No nonsmoking section.
QUISSETT. Soothing jazz wafts from speakers in the high-ceilinged room of this airy cafe and bar in attic space above a shopping plaza on the Main Line. The noontime crowd is a diverse mix of business folk and locals.
A constantly changing list of nearly 40 wines is offered by the glass (and more by the bottle). I begin with a flute of Scharffenberger Brut ($6.75) sparkling wine from Mendocino County in California - cool and refreshing. I'm lunching with a woman who orders a glass of 1990 Olivier Laflaive Montagny 1er Cru ($7), a rich and powerful white Burgundy.
The onion soup gratinee ($3.95) is not as chewy and cheesy as I would like, but my friend's marinated seafood salad with black beans in a garlicky, lemon, olive oil ($6.75) is splendid. The lunch menu is designer deli, upscale salads and sandwiches. My friend opts for a roast-turkey sandwich on black bread with fruit chutney ($6.95). I order a meaty 1992 Cline Cellars Cotes d'Oakley ($4.75) Rhone-style wine to go with my roasted leg of lamb sandwich ($7.50).
At night, the dinner menu takes on a southern French/Provencal flavor. I'm already planning a meal of seafood soup with saffron and garlic rouille with a glass of Bonny Doon's Vin Gris de Cigare ($5), and the grilled red snapper Nicoise with tomato, capers, black olives and basil puree with a glass of 1991 Barbera d'Alba Pasquero ($6).
Quissett, 379 W. Lancaster Ave., Haverford; 610-896-0400.
PAMPLONA. This contemporary cafe reminds me a bit of a surrealistic Spanish toon-town. The vibrant colors of the freestyle murals are juxtaposed with the stark geometrical modern design to create an ingenious space. The noise, however, can be deafening.
For those who dislike the fuss of wine service, go to Pamplona, and ask for the most expensive wine on its list. The 1989 La Rioja Alta Reserva Vina Alberdi (a mere $22), is delivered to the table already decanted. As our lunchtime server explained, the owner (who also owns the BYOB Dmitri's in South Philadelphia), insists that this wine needs time to "breathe." He's right, and after a while, the wine opens up.
With only one other exception, all of Pamplona's wines are priced under $20. Most are Spanish, with a few Chilean and a couple of Portuguese selections thrown in. The list is a perfect match for the casual tapas-style
menu of to-be-shared appetizers, and priced right (a bottle of Rene Barbier, red or white, costs $11 here, compared to $18 and $19 across town).
My friend and I are nibbling on the Spanish antipasto ($6), a generous dish of marinated chicken, cucumbers, red onion, ham, olives, cabbage and mancheta cheese, when the wine comes around, revealing some intriguing nuances.
I order the spicy shrimp dish ($7). My friend opts for the Spanish sausage and garbanzo beans ($6). At lunch, both are garnished with a tomato and cabbage salad (a la carte at dinner). For dessert, a well-made flan oozing caramel sauce interacts nicely with the wine, and brings out its oaky sweetness.
Pamplona, 12th and Locust Streets; 215-627-9059. No smoking permitted.
JEFFERSON HOUSE. This grand old mansion is something of an eccentricity: The setting suggests a pre-Civil War Southern plantation, the menu has a decidedly Italian accent, and the wine cellar has a dazzling cache of great treasures. Tom Groff, co-owner and general manager of the house in Norristown, is one of the area's most serious and intense wine collectors.
We ordered a Gosset Grand Reserve ($70). The soup du jour, a shrimp and lobster bisque ($3 at lunch, $3.50 at dinner), was thick and dense with tasty morsels of shellfish.
The house red wine, an excellent blend of premium California zinfandel and mourvedre named Target, was created by Groff, who painstakingly supervised its making via telephone and cross-country commuter flights. At $5 a glass, it's a ''must try" as long as the supply lasts. It went exceedingly well with my petite filet mignon ($16.95 lunch, $25.50 dinner), covered with slivers of prosciutto and drenched in a green peppercorn sauce. My friend had the nut- crusted loin steak of pork ($12.95/19.50), a great cut of tender meat.
Groff buys wines with an eye to the future. His long-range strategy is to cellar the wines until they come of age, but true wine aficionados can ask to see the computerized inventory for a peek at some of the family jewels. Savvy sippers can find some amazing bargains on his list.
Jefferson House, 2519 DeKalb Pike, Norristown; 610-275-3407.
CHANTERELLES. Sitting under the swirls of grapevines with dangling silk rose-colored grape bunches and twinkling white Christmas lights, I feel as if I'm in some ethereal, heavenly version of a vineyard. It's an intimate, romantic setting, and as the couples seated around the room attest, this is a place for friends and lovers. Sipping on Comte de Bucques ($7.50) sparkling wine, the chef sends out a bite-size taste of sashimi-grade raw tuna and some caviar with a wasabi vinaigrette.
The wine list is simple and straightforward, with one or two thoughtful selections in each category. (People who think perusing a lengthy wine list is half the fun of dining out may prefer Ciboulette in Center City.) We decide to splurge on a red Burgundy, a 1986 Aloxe-Corton from Tollot-Beaut ($85). It's a lovely wine and goes down nicely with the grilled prawns ($9 appetizer, $27 entree). It is also a decent foil for the simple, perfectly grilled rack of lamb ($28) that arrives with a side dish that will haunt me for the rest of my days, a flan of butternut squash.
I order another one for dessert.
Chanterelles, 1312 Spruce St.; 215-735-7551. Closed Sundays. No smoking permitted.
CAFE ZESTY. This lively, bustling Greek tavern in downtown Manayunk is expanding to accommodate the rapidly growing clientele discovering its lusty charms. On a recent Sunday evening, the keyboard player and flutist could hardly be heard above the din. The service is friendly - almost familial. Warm bread and a tasty garlicky olive-oil dip are placed on our table soon after we're seated.
The small wine list is devoted exclusively to Greek wines, including a few Retsinas and some premium Greek table wines from Chateau Carras and Boutari. We choose a bottle of 1991 Domaine Carras ($22), made from the native Limnio grape. It's a pleasant dry wine, light and fruity with an earthy character.
The menu has some Italian pasta dishes and pizza as well as traditional Greek favorites. We share an appetizer sampler, Pikelia ($6.95), which includes dolmades - "stuffed grape leaves" - as well as olives, feta cheese, Taramasalata (fish-roe dip), spinach pie, and a garlic-mashed potato spread. I order Arni Souvlaki ($16.95), a kebob of grilled lamb served with rice pilaf, while my date - unable to decide among several Greek dishes, moussaka, pastitsio or spanakopita - chooses Liga Apo Olla ($14.95), a combo platter of all three.
Desserts include Greek sweets such as baklava, galatobouriko and fig cheesecake (all $4.95). We recommend ending the meal with a shot of Metaxa brandy ($6).
Cafe Zesty, 4382 Main St., Manayunk; 215-483-6226. Closed Mondays. No smoking permitted.
MAGNOLIA CAFE. Do they drink wine in New Orleans? The fiery Cajun sizzle may be better doused with beer, but at the Magnolia Cafe, wine is a good choice as well. Its fine selection and the reasonable pricing policy make it probably the best restaurant for wine values in town.
There are more than 50 American wines available by the bottle. The list is printed right on the menu flap (no having to ask for a wine list), and is priced to sell. A 1992 Sanford Pinot Noir is $29 here, as opposed to $48 at one trendy and pretentious restaurant across town.
They also serve 15 wines by the glass. We order four (a white, a rose and two reds) right off the bat to mix and match with our two meals. The 1993 Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay ($6.50) is fresh and fruity. The 1993 Cline Cellars Vin Gris de Mourvedre ($4.50), a full-bodied wine made from Rhone Varietals, holds up well with my spicy gumbo ($2.95 cup, $4.95 bowl). My partner's flavorful red beans and rice with andouille sausage appetizer ($3.95) cries for the rougher and redder 1991 Cline Cellars Cotes d'Oakley ($5.50). A 1991 River Break Cabernet Franc ($5.75) from Santa Barbara County is herbal, and doesn't go well with either of our entrees - the catfish Po-Boy Sandwich ($5.95), served with freshly cut fries and slaw, and the Creole Shrimp dish ($7.95 small, $9.95 large), teeny shrimpettes in a mild tomato sauce - but we sip it anyway.
Finally, we order coffee and the dessert sampler ($4.95), which consists of three very generous portions of the luscious French Silk Pie, the unusual sweet potato pecan pie, and (by special request) bananas Foster.
Magnolia Cafe, 1602 Locust St.; 215-546-4180.
TUTTO MISTO. The name means "all mixed up" in Italian, and that could describe a number of elements in this quirky and charming eatery just off South Street, from the theatrical interior that's a kaleidoscope of regional styles to a menu that's a hodgepodge of dishes from various cultures: Spanish tapas, Italian pastas, Middle Eastern dips and North African couscous. The constantly changing wine list reflects this amalgam as well, with selections available by the glass from Italy, France, Spain, Greece and Israel.
On a recent evening, a friend and I were seated downstairs under a ceiling fan adjacent to a large palm plant in the front lounge and felt like extras in a remake of Casablanca. The 1993 Les Jamelles Merlot ($5) from France was drinkable, but our next try hit the mark: The mellow 1990 Marques de Murrieta Rioja Reserva ($6.50) best suited our taste.
For dinner, we choose a selection of tapas - a roasted head of garlic, a plate of shrimp in a lemon garlic sauce, and a Spanish egg tortilla - and a sweet and spicy Moroccan lamb stew with couscous (prices range from $3 to $7). For dessert, the special - a Cassis Chocolate Mousse cake - was irresistible.
Upstairs is the El Morocco Bar and the Venetian dining room, with a more elaborate menu, wine list and decor.
Tutto Misto, 603 S. Third St.; 215-923-7220.
BEAU RIVAGE. This French country inn in Medford is an eno-oasis in the wine barrens of Jersey. Wine lovers can be assured that there is a serious cellar here - guests are greeted at the front door with a stained-glass picture of ripe grapes hanging on a vine. Inside, a classical Spanish guitarist was skillfully strumming concerti by the composer Rodrigo.
The wine list is an exhaustive compilation of some of the world's greatest vintages, but limited by budget and inspired by the music, we chose a Spanish Rioja, a 1985 Reserva Marques de Caceras ($26), which is as soft and soulful as the music.
The menu is traditional French cuisine. The classic escargots ($7.75) are plump and juicy, served in a garlicky sauce and topped with a puff pastry shell. The freshwater prawns appetizer ($12.50) is a large langoustine, split down the middle, broiled and served with crabmeat, garlic and lemon.
My date had the sole meuniere ($15), a delicately flavored flounder in a garlic butter sauce. I ordered a rich and concentrated rabbit casserole ($16.50). The wine was a compromise of sorts, not too strong for the fish and not too light for the rabbit.
Beau Rivage, 128 Taunton Blvd., Medford; 609-983-1999.
DILULLO CENTRO. A decade after its opening, I still find the extravagant decor of this sophisticated Italian spot delightfully disorienting and exhilarating. Of particular interest to oenophiles is the wine cellar, a private dining room that can be reserved for groups of 8 to 14.
A nearby couple toast their anniversary, and it feels so celebratory that we order a 1977 Taurasi Riserva from Mastroberardino ($92). It is mellow with age and goes very well with my appetizer of portobello mushrooms and confit of duck ($8.50), my friend's homemade sausage and polenta apple and escarole ($7), and a pasta appetizer, angel hair with pesto sauce ($7.50). I can barely finish the huge veal chop ($27).
Interestingly, the maitre d' stops by the table - he recognized me as the newspaper's wine critic - to complain about a customer who has just sent back a 1978 Gaja Barbaresco, a $120 bottle of wine. We are offered a taste of the ''bad" wine and find it is fine and good. In a situation like this, the customer was not right to refuse the wine.
DiLullo Centro, 1407 Locust St.; 215-546-2000. Dinner only.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST . . . Among the region's world-class (read: very expensive) wine lists is that at Le Bec Fin (1523 Walnut St., 215-567-1000), with a treasure trove of rare and precious jewels and impeccable service. At La Famiglia (8 S. Front St., 215-922-2803), the all-Italian wine list is a virtual unabridged encyclopedia of rarified wines (and multiple vintages of many) stored in its magnificent wine cellar. The Dilworthtown Inn (Old Wilmington Pike and Brinton Bridge Road, West Chester, 610-399-1390) has its own privately labeled chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon (produced by Napa Valley's Raymond Vineyards), but also lists a world-class international selection. And Joe's Restaurant (450 S. Seventh St., Reading, 610-373-6794) features an all-American wine list with many well-aged California cabernet sauvignons (from the 1960s and '70s).
Fine wines can be had at many restaurants with less lengthy lists. In Center City, Ciboulette (200 S. Broad St., 215-790-1210) offers a superbly balanced list; Striped Bass (1500 Walnut St., 215-732-4444) has just revamped its list and is simply sublime; and the carte des vins at The Garden (1617 Spruce St; 217-546-4455) is a classic, listing many wines available by the glass.
In the suburbs, the Blue Bell Inn (601 Skippack Pike, Blue Bell, 215-646-2010), Tacquet (Wayne Hotel 139 E. Lancaster Ave., Wayne, 610-687-5005), Toscana Cucina Rustica (24 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr; 610-527-7700), and Yellow Springs Inn (Art School and Yellow Springs Roads, Chester Springs, 610-827-7477) all have lists worth checking out. The Frenchtown Inn (7 Bridge St. at Route 29, Frenchtown, N.J., 908-996-3300) offers a short wine list with moderate prices, and monthly wine dinners.
The region's top hotel restaurants - Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel (17th and Chestnut Streets, 215-563-1600) and The Fountain at the Four Seasons Hotel (One Logan Square, 215-963-1500) and all the dining rooms at the Hotel du Pont (11th and Market Streets, Wilmington, 302-594-3154) - have excellent sommeliers and feature wine events and classes.
Jack's Firehouse (2130 Fairmount Ave., 215-232-9000) has regular wine tastings and a list that is on the cutting edge; Jake's (4365 Main St., Manayunk, 215-483-0444) has a precious list, but pricey, and the list at the Knave of Hearts (230 South St., 215-922-3956) is sweet and simple. The London Grill (2301 Fairmount Ave., 215-978-4545) provides poetic descriptions for each category of wine. ("Like a soft, sweet face with good bone structure.") The Palladium (3601 Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania campus, 215-387-3463) recommends wines according to astrological signs.
Steak houses should have a good cabernet sauvignon selection. Morton's of Chicago (19th and Cherry Streets, 215-557-0724) and Ruth's Chris (260 S. Broad St., 215-790-1515) both have exceptional lists.
Many Italian restaurants have fine selections of vinos, including La Buca (711 Locust St., 215-928-0556), Felicia's (1148 S. 11th St., 215-755-9656), La Grolla (782 S. Second St., 215-627-7701), and Michael's (824 S. Eighth St., 215-922-3986).
Some other ethnic restaurants that have unusual selections include Berlenga's Island (Portuguese, 4926 N. Fifth St., 215-324-3240), Cedar's (Lebanese, 616 S. Second St., 215-925-4950), and Zocalo (Mexican/Spanish, 3600 Lancaster Ave; 215-895-0139).