Dinner And Dancing Have A Good Meal, Then Kick Up Your Heels. Some Lively Spots Let You Do Both. Places Where You Can Move Those Feet After Something Good To Eat

Posted: March 29, 1996

In the 1940s there were supper clubs - elegant places where you could sit and enjoy a sumptuous meal, occasionally interrupted by your dinner mate's extending his right hand to you, by way of asking for a dance. The concept was obvious: Dancing can be seductive, sexy and downright fun. Combine this with a good meal and you had the makings of a perfect Saturday night date.

Nowadays, restaurants with both good food and a dance floor are hard to find. Sure, there are dance clubs where the focus is on drinking and gyrating to highly amplified music, or restaurants with live music playing as a pleasant backdrop, but there are few spots - other than wedding banquet halls - where you can actually eat and dance.

Well, we found some. Most of the ones we tried - and there are others out there - offered decent food (some even outstanding) and music that you might not go to a concert hall to hear, but that was certainly adequate for getting people up to dance. Some places combined predictable American fare with standard dance bands doing their versions of the Top 40 hits of the last three decades. (Van Morrison's ``Brown-Eyed Girl'' is a sure bet, as is the Moody Blues' ``Nights in White Satin.'') We also got a taste of different cultures at restaurants that feature food and music from Russia, Brazil and Greece.

Celebration was everywhere, and so was romance. We witnessed the revelry of birthdays and wedding anniversaries, as well as couples locked in amorous embrace. (Heck, I even got a marriage proposal at one particularly romantic place, but more on that later.)

A cautionary note: If you're not used to the club scene, you might find yourself spending a later night out than your typical dinner date. In several places, the music doesn't begin until after 10 p.m. and it may be past midnight before the dancing really gets going.

BRASIL'S. There is something completely irrational about trying to eat a huge pot of feijoada and then expecting to dance the samba into the night. But this was my plan, to get a true sense of Brazil's cuisine and dance culture.

We began our South American journey downstairs at Brasil's, the tasteful, friendly and very Latin-seeming restaurant in Old City, where many of the patrons knew each other. The restaurant's large split-level room is bathed in a blue light, reflecting off the two giant fish tanks that divide the upper and lower levels. I opted for the feijoada ($12.95 and pronounced fay-oh-hah-da), Brazil's national stew, which is a work of art at Brasil's. Our handsome waiter presented me with a plate of rice, greens, orange slices and spices, and a large metal pot filled with a mysterious black mixture of pork, sausage, beans and bacon, which I was to combine. My friend's grilled salmon ($17.95) was also delicious, blanketed by a thick tomato and caper sauce. Dinners include the all-you-can-eat salad bar, which features a bowl of jumbo shrimp.

Thoroughly stuffed, we climbed the dark staircase to Brasil's second floor around 11 p.m. and entered an entirely different realm of Latin culture. The three-piece samba band was starting to cook, and the twentysomething, mostly Latino crowd began lining the jungle-painted scenes along the walls of the dance floor, greeting friends beneath the strobe lights. Although the band played some jazzy samba numbers and even some Latin rock and roll, the crowd didn't really start dancing until the band went on break and a DJ took over.

(If you eat in the restaurant, admission to the dance club is half the $5-to-$10 cover charge on Fridays and Saturdays, no cover other days. This was the only place we went with a separate charge for the dance club.)

Brasil's, 112 Chestnut St.; 215-413-1700. Live dance music Fridays is salsa and merengue; on Saturdays it's Brazilian Sundays Middle Eastern; and Wednesdays and Thursdays are with a DJ. All nights the music and dancing go from 10 to 2.

INTERNATIONAL RESTAURANT. If I didn't know better, I would think we had fallen into a Jewish wedding that we hadn't been invited to, but everyone was happy to share their food and dance-floor space with us anyway.

Open about a year, International Restaurant is the new kid in the neighborhood, where a handful of Russian restaurants and dance halls cater to an estimated 20,000 immigrants living in Northeast Philadelphia and Lower Bucks County. If you don't mind being among the few non-Russians (or if, like me, you have some Russian ancestry), this is one of the most fun and gastronomically adventurous places you're likely to visit. Since many of the diners here are in large parties, celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, most order the four-course prix fixe dinner for $35 a head. (Everyone brings their own wine, and the requisite bottle of vodka.)

Noticing we were first-timers, the waiter brought menus when we sat down. But I had been tipped off to ask about the ``banquet,'' and he gave a knowing smile, swept away the menus, and in a matter of minutes had our table filled with seafood salad, pierogies, roasted red peppers swimming in olive oil, cheese platters, pickled watermelon, blintzes with caviar, smoked fish, prunes in wine, eggplant salad, veal tongue, and chopped chicken liver - 18 dishes in all, and this was just the appetizer course!

The dance floor at one end of the flower-laden banquet hall offered a welcome opportunity to work off some of these dishes, and many of the large Russian women, dressed to the nines in black silks and sequins, did just that, leading their husbands through the fast and slow songs beneath the flashing strobe light. The band - a Russian guitarist and keyboard player and two female vocalists who sang in Russian, English and even Italian - had that tinny synthesized quality I associate with European pop bands from the '70s.

We made our way through at least three more courses and a dozen dances before calling it quits around 1 in the morning. But as at any good wedding, most of the other guests were staying until the last morsel was eaten and the last song played.

International Restaurant, 1139 Bustleton Pike (off Street Road), Northeast Philadelphia; 215-364-2722. Live dance music Friday and Saturday nights from 9 to 3, Sundays from 6 to midnight.BYOB.

FOUNDERS. After two heady ethnic experiences, we decided to check out a more familiar scene at the very proper, very Waspy Founders Restaurant on the 19th floor of the Bellevue Hotel.

The main dining room here is impressive, lots of intricate and trompe l'oeil paintings, plus two huge, heavily draped windows that look out on the Philadelphia skyline. The small, inlaid marble dance floor is exactly in the center of the room, just beneath the soaring dome ceiling. It is here that couples, mostly in their 40s and 50s, spin to such standards as ``Unforgettable'' and ``It Had to Be You,'' sung by a pleasant if not-too-inspiring Eileen Duffy.

Based on the elegant atmosphere and the prices on the menu, we were expecting big things here, but found that appearances took precedence over substance. Our waiter was very attentive to the little things almost to the point of obsequiousness - such as helping the woman at the next table retrieve her purse, or nodding conspiratorily over our choice of desserts - while on the big things, he missed the mark, such as not giving us a menu until a half-hour after we'd arrived.

Similarly, the food was beautifully presented, with waiters lifting silver domes off all entrees at a table simultaneously, but the food itself was not quite prepared to perfection. My Roasted Double Cut Lamb Chops ($34) was tasty and a lovely cut of meat, but overdone. My date's Loin of Pork With Sundried Cherry and Macadamia Nut ($27.95) was also dry, though the stuffing was delicious. The entire menu was revamped two weeks ago - it's now a slightly lighter version of Founders' traditional modern American cuisine - and neither of the dishes we had is still on it.

The dancing here is pleasant, and the setting can be very romantic, if you can indulge in the formality of the place (and not worry too much about the check at the end of the night).

Founders at the Bellevue Hotel, Broad Street between Walnut and Locust; 215-790-2814. Live dance music Wednesday nights from 8 to 10 and Friday and Saturdays from 8 to 11:30.

BROAD AXE TAVERN. Friendly is the word to describe this popular bar and restaurant in Broad Axe - a three-block metropolis between Ambler and Blue Bell - that from the outside looks like the kind of place where Washington would have slept. Inside, the warm, ferny surroundings welcome large groups who sit in the brightly lit, slightly elevated dining rooms that encircle the dance floor, as well as regulars who find the bar's darker, publike atmosphere inviting.

One man at the bar said he'd been coming here for 20 years and ``everything is still pretty much the same.'' The band we heard on a recent Saturday night, the Night People, has been playing this gig for more than 10 years. And though the dance floor is tiny, squeezed in between the bar and the dining room, many couples packed the space, rocking to the band's standard covers.

We started with one of the recommended appetizers, poppers ($4.95), crusty deep-fried balls that burst with soft cheese and chili peppers. Another house favorite, the crab cakes ($14.95), also were heavily breaded, obscuring the lump crab meat. My friend's BBQ ribs ($15.95) were a generous rack of baby backs with a tasty, spicy sweet sauce.

After dinner we moved into the bar area to check out the local action. Although some people were coupled up, many were single or divorced, with kids off with the sitter or the ex. By the end of the evening, we had become part of this accepting group and were being asked when we'd be heading back this way.

Broad Axe Tavern, Route 73 and Butler Pike, Ambler; 215-646-0477. Live dance music Wednesday nights from 9:30 to 1, and Fridays and Saturdays from 10 to 1:30.

LITTLE PETE'S. The regulars who come to enjoy the lively Greek music and light Greek fare obviously know that this popular Center City dance club is a late-night spot, but my sister and I were not so well-informed. We arrived around 10 on a Saturday night and found ourselves the only diners in this huge second-story restaurant that seats close to 200. The music began about 11:15, and for the first hour-and-a-half, we had the full attention of the enthusiastic lead singer, who directed all of his seductive Greek pop tunes at us.

We just figured we'd drink a little wine, eat our dinner and be ready to dance once the crowd showed up. We started off with the pilakia ($16.95), an assorted hot appetizer plate with large pieces of roasted chicken, delicious grilled lamb, thick slabs of feta cheese, spinach pies, grape leaves, black olives and assorted vegetables, accompanied by a basket of warm pita bread. Much of the menu consists of appetizer-type dishes, which can be easily eaten between numbers on the dance floor, which is the main focus of Little Pete's. (There is a $10 minimum per person for seats at the tables, which isn't hard to reach with drinks going for $6 or $7 each.)

By 12:30 a.m., the twentysomething crowd started pouring up the stairs, a mix of young Greeks and other club aficionados. By 1 a.m., a few couples had filtered onto the dance floor, but according to our waitress, the real action started later, and continued until 4:30 or 5 a.m. ``It's like New Year's Eve every weekend here,'' she said.

Little Pete's, 1904 Chestnut St.; 215-563-2303. Live dance music Saturday and Sunday nights from 10:30 to 2; DJ dance music Friday nights from 5 to 10.

CASSANO'S. Appearances - especially from the outside - can be deceiving. Calling itself a supper club, Cassano's looks more like a place you'd go to play the slots, with the flashy neon signs filling its front windows in the small strip mall in Cherry Hill. Inside, the misimpression continues, with the restaurant's front half dominated by a bar and a large-screen TV. It is only once you get past the small dance floor and into the dining room, tastefully decorated with recessed lighting, cream-colored walls and black lacquered furniture, that you have the hope of getting a decent meal. As it turned out, the food not only was decent, it was delicious - and plentiful.

We started with calamari calabria ($5.95), a mix of calamari, prosciutto, tomatoes, olives and mushrooms in a wine sauce that I could have eaten as a main course. The veal saltimbocca ($17.95) was tender and tasty, and the cioppino ($21.95) - no longer on the menu, unfortunately - was laden with a generous sampling of clams, shrimp, mussels, scallops and a lobster tail, all in a nicely spicy sauce. Again, we found ourselves amid many large parties celebrating various special occasions in the festive surroundings of this year-old restaurant, where the wait-staff was friendly and attentive.

The three-piece band played its versions of the standard Top 40 hits, turning up the volume as the evening wore on. This trick, while it didn't improve the somewhat tinny quality of the music, did get plenty of people up on the dance floor, where blown-up photos of the New York City skyline could (with a little imagination) make you think you're in the Rainbow Room.

Cassano's, 1334 Brace Rd. (off Route 561), Cherry Hill; 609-354-1199. Live dance music Friday and Saturday nights from 10 to 2.

SEPTEMBER'S PLACE. Bathed in a pink glow, this sparkling white-tiered restaurant looks like an upside-down wedding cake from the outside. Inside, stripes of pink and blue neon on the wall stretch the length of Character's Lounge, the large bar where the band plays, creating a purple glow. One of Delaware County's more popular restaurants, September's Place is home to many catered events (George Bush visited here as president), and on weekends, Character's Lounge draws lots of locals who want to dance.

The lively, five-piece band plays a wide repertoire of oldies and Top 40 hits from the '70s, '80s and '90s, which, along with the spacious dance floor, probably accounts for the large span in age of those dancing, from just out of college to senior citizens. It was nice to see couples in their 60s still snuggling in each other's arms to Natalie Cole knockoffs.

A full dinner menu is available, but we found the best bet was to stick to pizzas and salads: The clams casino ($4.95) was tasty but greasy, and my veal oscar ($12.95) was stone cold. (When I asked the waitress to reheat it, the entire plate, orange garnishes and all, came back hot from the microwave.) The grilled chicken ($8.99) was a good choice, a tasty chicken breast in a Parmesan-peppercorn sauce.

September's Place, 642 Baltimore Pike (at Saxer Avenue), Springfield; 610-544-1230. Live dance music in Character's Lounge Saturday nights from 9:30 to 2; DJ dance music Wednesdays and Fridays from 9 to 2.

FREDERICK'S. With a full eight-piece, tuxedo-clad band, elegant white dining room and elaborate haute Italian cuisine, this was the one place that really felt like a '40s supper club. My only regret in looking around the room of well-heeled South Philadelphia clientele was that I didn't dress more for the occasion.

Our table was situated right at the edge of the long, narrow wooden dance floor, where several couples were already swaying to the big-band sound of the City Rhythm Orchestra. About halfway into the first set, the band's singer took over, and spent much of the rest of the night doing a very believable imitation of Frank Sinatra.

The romantic melodies were matched by the white-and-gold fairy castle-like atmosphere, complete with an all-white piano where Elijah Johnson plays between band sets. But this wasn't the end of our musical entertainment. Soon after our waiter, John, had served us our artistically presented salad of mixed greens (which come with every entree, as do soup, tomato-garlic bread and vegetables,) he broke into a Neapolitan opera tune, sung a capella.

The restaurant, a block up from the Delaware River in Queen Village, was opened about a year ago by chef Frederick Vidi, who operated another Frederick's down the Shore in Wildwood for 11 years. Although he claims no formal training, his cooking skills are superb. Our appetizer serving of farfalle with salmon ($8) was perfect in a light mascarpone cheese sauce. For our main course, we tried the Veal alla Frederick ($20.95), a rich combination of veal, mushrooms and prosciutto, and the Pesce del Frate e Funghi ($23.95), a sweet, lightly battered monkfish with shiitake mushrooms in a marsala sauce.

It was midway through this course, not long after we danced cheek-to-cheek to ``Fly Me to the Moon,'' that my boyfriend asked if I'd marry him. I don't know if it was because we were just a few days shy of Valentine's Day, or because the lighting here is particularly flattering, but I have to give Frederick's some credit for setting the proper mood. My answer was postponed when the band struck up ``The Way You Look Tonight,'' and we just had to have one more dance.

Frederick's, 757 S. Front St. (at Fitzwater Street), Queen Village; 215-271-1684. Live dance music Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday nights from 8 to 1, Fridays from 9:30 to 2; live music without dancing all other nights.

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