"Dear Janice: I have never paid $20 for an entree (or probably an entire dinner) in my life. But I received a sum of money and we are going to celebrate with a weekend in downtown Buffalo and for probably the only time ever, eat at a restaurant where cost is not a concern. I've heard the names and read all your reviews, but how do we decide on what may be a once in a lifetime experience? Also, this is embarrassing, but are jackets required? And how soon, or late, should I make reservations, if at all? Thanks."
-- Jeff, Chautauqua County
This is exciting Jeff. Congratulations on the cash -- I hope you won the lottery. All sorts of ideas come to mind. Buffalo does have a surprising number of fine restaurants, so you are spoiled for choice.
Which is not a bad problem to have, as I am sure you agree.
You say you know all their names, so I won't repeat them, but know this: A really fine dining experience depends as much on professional, unobtrusive service and a really luxurious ambience as it does on super food.
I am about to isolate three top-of-the-line eating places that I have mentioned in the past. They excel on all fronts. You will want to start planning here.
One is the Rue Franklin, 341 Franklin St., which is small and very European in feeling. It is not glitzy and over-the-top -- the luxury is understated, but you will feel it. Catch the art on the walls, which is uber sophisticated; catch the fresh flowers on every table. The menu concentrates on French food, but don't let that scare you. You can be as adventurous or as conservative as you want to be. Plan on ordering an appetizer -- often the most interesting part of any menu -- an entree and, since you're in the chips, do not (repeat do not) skip dessert.
Service here is just plain excellent. The servers will make you feel welcome from the start. And what is even better, they know the menu and will be happy to offer advice as to what you should order. Don't be shy. Good servers enjoy this part of their job. Listen to what they say. They know.
Or try Oliver's, 2095 Delaware Ave. A handsome restaurant, it is a little edgier than the Rue in decor, with a young vibe, beautiful lighting, deep comfortable booths (ask for one) and a big, round bar in the center of the dining room. Live music happens on weekend nights. The menu choices are many; some are contemporary, some a little more conservative. Again, ask your server for advice. He or she has been carefully trained to help you choose.
Or, for really warm service and fine food, go to San Marco, 2082 Kensington Ave., Amherst. Carefully prepared Italian food -- I am not talking about spaghetti and meatballs; the place is famous for the likes of wild boar. The ambience is a little more down home than the first two places, but you will be more than comfortable. Ask to see the awesome wine cellar and trust the server's opinion on wine.
Now to your other two questions: Dress code. No Buffalo restaurant is going to throw you out if they don't like your fashion sense, but a jacket is desirable (you don't need a tie).
But do me a favor, will you? Skip the baseball hat. Don't wear it frontward; don't wear it backward. And while we're at it, lose the sneakers, too. For a special night, you will want to dress the part.
When to make a reservation? These are popular restaurants, so a week's notice is preferable, especially on weekends. They'll ask for your phone number -- they ask everybody. That helps to prevent no-shows, you see.
So, if, after you have made the reservation you find you can't make it, please call to tell them your plans have changed.
That will put you in the company of the Good Guys, and in the company with the Good Guys is where you want to be. And, speaking of Good Guy company, the standard tip at these restaurants is 20 percent or a little more. Tip on the meal amount, not including the tax, which will be listed separately. You can add the gratuity to your credit card receipt.
No one knows food like Janice Okun. Send your dining questions and comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The conversation continues each week in this column.