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The here is Tapas on Main and the there is Emeril’s Burgers and More, both in Bethlehem.

Let’s start with the there. We spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s bouncing around the house looking for reasons to get out in the Valley. My wife mentioned that some new outlets had opened at the Sands Casino in Bethlehem so I had the idea to grab a burger for lunch at Emeril’s. We’d been there once before, shortly after it opened, and our recollections were positive. Well, on this second visit, things didn’t start out strong. The hostess was nowhere to be found while 10 people stacked up at the doorway staring at a bunch of empty tables. The manager repeatedly noticed the lineup but continued delivering food to tables rather than alert the hostess or jump in to get people seated in the meantime. We were finally seated close to the kitchen and noticed how rapidly the food was stacking up under the warming lights. The place was definitely understaffed. Our drinks took forever to arrive (and we were never offered water), but the food was tasty. Though burgers and fries from Five Guys are more satisfying for half the price. The service was friendly, but the atmosphere was offputting – bright lights, dirty floors and chaos. One might chalk that up to the casino experience but somehow Vegas has figured out how to make even casual dining feel classy. Emeril’s feels like a fast food joint that sells $10 burgers. Total: about $50 for a burger, crabcake sandwich, fries, cole slaw, a beer and a margarita.

Two days later, we found ourselves in Bethlehem again to do a little ice skating. We were shopping on Main Street around 5pm and decided to fuel up before hitting the rink. We considered Mama Nina’s, a new Italian Place called Molto Pazzo, and the Brew Works. A shopkeeper recommended the new Tapas on Main and we figured a couple small plates and a glass of wine would be perfect for our purposes. We chose wisely. They offer a happy hour menu with a handful of tapas dishes, mixed drinks and glasses of wine for $5 each. We ordered the hand-cut fries (ideally crisp with a great aioli), the chorizo (with melted manchego cheese and an interesting chocolate balsamic drizzle), and the coca de calamari (perfectly cooked and flavored). We then shared a petite flourless chocolate cake for dessert. All of that plus 3 glasses of wine, tight service, and great ambiance for the same amount we spent at Emeril’s two days prior.

Some may say the comparison of a casino burger joint to a quiet tapas bar is apples to oranges, but if you’re in Bethlehem in the mood for something casual to semi-casual with a medium budget in mind, these are certainly two places you might have considered. And in the interest of keeping you away from Emeril’s (if wine and tapas aren’t your scene), check out Looper’s just down from the casino on 3rd street. Great casual food, good drinks and decent atmosphere.

This is the first in a series of general reviews of our favorite dinner spots – places we know we can go for great food, service and ambiance. These aren’t rankings – just the order in which I’m choosing to write them.

I’ve already mentioned Ocean a bit here and here. My wife may be getting tired of the menu but the variety of tapas options give me a chance to mix and match to fit my mood. The list of appetizers spans everything from yellowfin tuna tartare to chorizo & root vegetable soup to lobster mac ‘n cheese.

They had an amaaaazing angus burger and fries on the app. menu for a while but they must have received “complaints” that the platter was just way too voluminous to not be an entrée so they upgraded it. I highly recommend it (rare), but make sure you bring your appetite. An egg yolk slathered burger and hand cut fries don’t hold up well as leftovers. When we do go for an entrée, it’s generally one of the specials. They usually have maybe 2 specials a night if i remember correctly. Portions are good and the plating is excellent.

The dessert choices are all delicious, though the fact that i know that indicates i’ve had them all – so they could probably afford a shakeup. They have a lot of great mixed drink options, a sophisticated wine list, a nice bottled beer selection (i go with the Framboise Lambic in the champagne flute when i want to feel fancy) and a talented head bartender.

Apart from all the consumables, the experience is very enjoyable. The manager is extremely personable and bends over backwards to make sure you have a good time. The staff is very amiable and professional as well. It’s a small restaurant – i’d estimate that the front room seats 2 dozen and the rear section a bit more. There’s a lounge downstairs, though I’m unclear if there’s any food service. In the few years we’ve been going, Ocean’s popularity has steadily grown so reservations are highly recommended at this point. The dining room bar area can get very crowded due to its close proximity to the tables and, with waitstaff having to fight through the crowd, it’s not the most comfortable place to stand if you can’t get a barstool. The vibe is modern and urban. It’s got good energy which is tempered effectively by relatively low lighting.

So that’s my topline review of Ocean. Got reservations for this Saturday and I’m really looking forward to it. My next review will be for a place just a few doors down – Sette Luna.

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