I've checked a few threads and am wondering if there are any places I've missed.
What I'm looking for is a nice atmosphere with fairly special food that is do-able as a splurge for folks otherwise on, essentially, a student budget. Looking for an excuse to put on a nice outfit, too, so holes in the wall aren't the target here.
Bess is in the lead for me so far, mostly because of what looks like a great cozy atmosphere, and the menu seems right in my price range (trying to keep entrees comfortably below $20).
The other high contender, as far as I am aware, would be Zax, but maybe it's a little casual for a birthday dinner?
I have really enjoyed Chez Nous in the past, but last I checked the menu is a little higher than I'd like, mostly over $20 (I am not disciplined enough to keep to the pris fixe menu).
I've seen many recs for La Traviata, but wonder if it might be a little too pricey (I like to cook Italian at home, and make my own pasta).
Basically, I don't get to eat out very often at any proper restaurants, and even though I still must mind the bottom line, I want the food to be worth it on this occasion. No burgers, no Tex-Mex, no pasta. Also, I'm a fairly ambitious home cook, so the bar is a little high. My main reservation about Bess is that the food might not be that ~interesting~, ie., all that much better than what I make at home.
Are there any other choices that I haven't considered? Should I stick with Bess?
I've also looked at the bar menu for the Driskill, but wonder how big are the small plates? They look to be in my range, and sound very interesting, but if it's tapas-style portions, that might add up too quickly.
Finally, what do any of you think of Ventana (at the culinary institute)? Does it feel like a place you could linger for a while? Is there a wine list? I know it's north, but it otherwise seems like a potential option.
Many thanks in advance to any responses to my admittedly fussy request.