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Eating Out in the Lehigh Valley

More than 5 but less than 10 of my favorite restaurants in the Lehigh Valley:

So life is not all about architecture, you have to eat too! Although I grew up with my Italian parents in the restaurant business, I probably didn’t really fall in love with food until after I was married and had to figure out how to cook for myself! Figuring stuff out for yourself is a great way to make you appreciate something. It took time for me to really understand the effort it takes to make a great dish: the planning, the fresh ingredients and right spices, the timing of all the dishes coming together at once and the presentation of the food.

A perfect winter Saturday for me is flipping through a cookbook in the morning and planning out a great meal to share with my family. I learned about planning dinner while eating breakfast from visiting my Zio Georgio and Zia Maria in the summer in Sicily. For them, food is the center of life.  After we had our grocery list, we would make our way on foot to all the specialty shops around town: the baker’s, the butcher’s, farmer’s stand and spend the day in the tiny kitchen, cooking, drinking wine, eating and laughing. What a sweet life! I try and replicate that now by heading to the Allentown Farmers Market with Thom and the girls in tow, (they need to stop at the candy or cupcake stand of course!) We fill up on all kinds of fresh goodies and go home to spend the afternoon cooking a great meal for everyone to enjoy. (But that is a different blog…)

So next to cooking for my family and seeing their smiles of happiness when I have hit the mark with a new dish, my other favorite thing is to have someone cook for me! We are so lucky to have the great selection of restaurants that we do it the Lehigh Valley. So for those times when I just don’t feel like putting in the effort or I crave something I can’t make, here is a list that I compiled of my favorite places where you may find me on a Saturday night (in no particular order because my favorite always changes depending on what I am in the mood for), maybe I will find you there too!

Nonna Lia’s (Bethlehem Township): Ok, so it’s not just because I get to eat here for FREE, or that my parents would be REALLY MAD if I didn’t include them on the list, but really, their Italian dishes and gourmet pizzas are amazing! For 25 years, My Dad has made gourmet pizzas when most people in the Lehigh Valley still thought the only options for toppings were pepperoni and mushrooms.  The seafood dishes are especially great and two of them are named for my daughters, Julia and Ava. It’s also BYOB which helps when the bill comes at the end of the night. But if you forgot your wine, my dad is usually willing to share some of his ‘home made’. And if you are really sweet to my mom, she may show up at the end of dinner with mini cannoli!

grille 3501 filet

Grille 3501 (Cetronia): From the moment I walk in, Tom or Charlie make me feel welcome, even making my favorite drink (Eve’s Apple) which is no longer even on the drink menu. I can never decide what to select, but whatever I get, I can only assure it will be delicious. The menu is progressive and sophisticated without being too ‘inaccessible’. This is the business lunch spot on the west side with a great selection of sandwiches and salads, too. 3501 is also the best place for ‘after work’ or ‘girls night out’ happy hour, which always consist of lots of pulling some high top tables together, sharing of appetizers, great martini’s and laughter.

henrys salt of sea

Henry’s Salt of the Sea (Allentown): Tucked on a little corner near 19th and Allen Street is this tiny little gem of French inspired seafood heaven that has been there forever. Be warned, if you don’t make reservations, even on a weeknight, you’re not getting in. Oh, the Lobster Francaise! My mouth is watering just thinking about it! This place was on the cutting edge of kitchen theater dining even before there was a cutting edge. Yes, the kitchen in part of the dining room, or vice- versa. You will feel like you have your own personal chef. And if you know me, you know I have a crippling sweet tooth. This is the only place in the Lehigh Valley that seems to have the sense to serve a good pecan pie. The first bite always takes me right back to my grad school days in the south, now if only someone would serve sweet tea.

billys breakfast

Billy’s Downtown Diner (Allentown) Thank you, Billy, for bringing your mouth watering breakfast and lunch creations to my neck of the woods! It’s an amazing sight to see people FLOCKING to downtown Allentown for anything, much less a diner. This place has made us revive the ‘Hoffman Family Saturday Morning Breakfasts’, where you can easily find a dozen or more Hoffmans drinking coffee, catching up on the week, laughing and planning the next family get together. Let me tell you about Paz’a French Toast: thick egg battered sourdough bread, layered and drizzled with Nutella and strawberries (hold the bananas), you will keep saying “I will only eat one more bite” only to notice you have consumed THE WHOLE THING. This place is not only affordable and innovative, food wise, it also brings back the concept of food bringing people together in the best way.

apollo grill crab

Apollo Grill (Bethlehem): The unending, deliciously creative appetizer menu lives here. There is no way to just pick one. Although I don’t make it here for dinner as much as I like, this is the place for business lunch on the east side of the Valley and you will always hear me say “the crab and avocado cocktail, please.” So it comes, sailing in on a tray across the room in a curved stem martini glass. Giant sweet chunks of crab and savory avocado all lusciously blended with some butter concoction and a crisp plantain perched on top like a feather. Now I KNOW they have lots of other good food here, but I just can’t stop myself from ordering this simple and beautiful dish over and over and over and over…..

Shula’s (Center Valley): Once or twice a year we make it to Shula’s for a special occasion. By far the best steak I have ever had. The attention to detail and service here is pretty much unparalleled. It makes you feel like it’s a really special night out no matter what. The steaks are great and I am finally venturing beyond ordering only the filet, but we always need to save room to share the fresh baked molten lava cake topped with vanilla ice cream. With fresh fruit, a dusting of powdered sugar and the sweet warm chocolate oozing over the dish, everything is most definitely scraped totally off the plate.

Bellissimo (Allentown)This is on the list not only as a great place to eat Italian (when my parents are closed on Sunday, of course!), but also one of the only outdoor eating spots in the Lehigh Valley. What a great place to spend a warm spring afternoon or a summer night. I especially love the super thin crust pizza, just like you get in Italy, and the great dessert selection (of course). Tucked behind a tall fence, surrounded by Italian statues, torches and even grapevines, the sound of the cascading water in the fountain at the center of the courtyard masking traffic, you may never know you are actually on Tighlman Street. In the winter we eat inside, staring out the windows, wistfully at the snow covered outdoor furniture and sad statues and count the days before springtime.

So now that you are all dreaming of spring and EXTREMELY hungry, start making plans for dinner.