Date night in West Chester
Story & Photos: Becca Boyd
Date night in West Chester has evolved over the years for me and my husband. As newly married borough dwellers we would walk up to Limoncello after work, sit at the high tops at the bar, and enjoy our “West Chester Pours” while fighting over the focaccia in the breadbasket. The only inhibitor to dates was how much money we budgeted into them. When the first baby wouldn’t take the bottle (followed by a second and third who also agreed the rubber tip would not suffice), dates became tricky things that often involved hiding car seats under tables, rocking them with our feet, and praying the pacifier wouldn’t drop. Now with willing babysitters and relaxed bedtimes, dates have become fun again—but alas, some of our old haunts are no longer around. So often we’re frozen in indecision and end up at the same place, at times with a touch of regret and a feeling of missing out.
I’m hoping this exploration of date night options will help you as much as it helped me. We are lucky to have ourselves a town full of “industry people,” and the bar is continually being raised. When a place becomes staid, they’re soon overlooked. The three restaurants highlighted below each have a passion for fresh; not just to keep up, but rather because the chefs and owners are folks who followed a calling and now revel in being in the right place at the right time. And we’re happy to partake.
A visit to Marshalton Inn and Four Dogs Tavern is more than a date, it’s an experience. Driving onto the grounds you’ll see several historic buildings in pristine condition, various outdoor seating locations and fields stretching out in the distance, with corn in summer and sunflowers in the fall. Chef and owner David Cox’s menu is “American Brasserie with French Fundamentals,” which, considering his extensive experience in haute cuisine kitchens from Manhattan to San Francisco, makes perfect sense. David started cooking when he was 15 and hasn’t stopped; lucky for us his quest to be the one in charge brought him home to West Chester when he and his wife decided to buy a home in quiet, historical Marshalton. The restaurant and Inn nearby became available and the last 15 years David, along with Wendy (also the pastry chef) have poured their hearts and souls into making this restaurant a place where diners will feel warmly welcomed and eat consistently excellent food.
Though they share the same menu, as far as I’m concerned there are two different dates available at this location. For period post-colonial architecture (circa 1815), linen tablecloths, more privacy, and an elegant, polished atmosphere, Marshalton Inn is the place to make your reservation. Four Dogs only takes reservations for parties of eight or more, but for a date, that’s where the fun begins. Originally the stables, Four Dogs is all dark wood and stone, with cozier seating, blazing fireplaces, and a fun, casual air. You may wait for your table, but they’ll serve you a cocktail anywhere on the grounds; perhaps even a stroll through town (hand in hand) as the nearby shops stay open late. In the summer months you can feel free to bring your dog, and with three AirBnBs now on the property, it’s the ideal place for a mini staycation.
With this menu, one weekend wouldn’t be nearly enough. The perfect meal to share would start with the charred octopus with paprika, chorizo, balsamic, and lemon that’s served impressively as one, long, tender tentacle, along with the charcuterie and artisanal cheese plate for some divine mixing and matching—try not to fight over the mouthwatering grilled bread.
For the French foodies, the duck terrine is a must try, and it even changed my mind on pâté. Though all the desserts are created with sharing in mind, the mile-high lemon meringue ice cream pie will have you momentarily curbing conversation so you can get more bites in than your date.
And what meal would be complete without a seasonal cocktail? David is strict with his use of seasonal produce and makes all his syrups in house. The Winter White Cosmo is the hit of the season, with Stateside Vodka, St. Germaine, white cranberry, and lime. I plan to return on a Sunday when Chef offers “Buck-a-Shuck” oysters by the dozen and I’ll get to check out some live music (as well as Thursdays nights from 6-9, set up outside for most of the year). No matter when you go, the destination that is Marshalton Inn and Four Dogs is sure to delight.
So, you graduated from college, are finally earning an income (whether you’re still living with your parents or not—no judgment) and are looking to go out in town. It’s a new relationship and he or she has been thoroughly vetted on social media, but what will they be like in person? You’ll need background music, loud enough that if conversation lapses it’s not awkward. With its exposed brick, vintage light fixtures and high ceilings, Slow Hand will feel like a throwback, but the gleaming stainless bar and bright white subway tile keep it fresh. You’ll need a menu of seemingly familiar foods but with a twist (Foie in chicken nuggets? Intriguing). You’ll need generously measured cocktails that, according to the general manager, change flavors as you drink (great conversation point). You’ll want to order some small plates, some starters, maybe even avoiding an entree altogether because overly full stomachs lend themselves towards TV binging and not…anything else. If the date is going well and the cocktails are doing their thing, you may want to text friends to meet you—which makes sense, since by 9pm on Friday and Saturday the live music has started, and the restaurant is a vibrant, splashy bar scene. What you won’t find is a college crowd, because although there are 24 tap lines, dollar drafts are not a thing.
Perhaps the relationship is in full bloom, and a sitter is needed. You’re sub-forty or still acting like you are. You want a scene, people watching, but know there are booths so you can still hear your conversation. On Thursday the live music starts earlier and is of the smooth jazz variety. You no longer consider sharing your plate to be romantic and maybe even have a clear “I don’t share food” policy like my husband does. There are no TVs on the wall behind the bar, which is purposeful to encourage conversation, but watching the bartenders work will be entertaining enough.
You can divvy up some small plates but then order the smoked short rib because you’ll want to bathe in the sweet potato puree and make sure every bite of the tender, flavorful smoked meat is dragged through the spiced yogurt. Encourage your date to order the Rye Dumplings because, being vegan, it will offset the short rib environmentally (and because it’s absolutely delicious). If the sitter is older than 16, please order the Sleepless in Suburbia, which is an espresso martini that uses espresso from Dia Dolce (who has, incidentally, created a cupcake of the same name).
No matter what kind of date brings you to Slow Hand, I beg you to order the goat cheese crème brûlée—and not to share, you each need one. After breaking the crisp surface with your spoon (because it’s fun) you’ll encounter the smoothest filling that is as much cheesecake as it is custard. It’s all luscious and sweet but then there’s the unmistakable and totally pleasing tang of goat cheese. You’ll crunch up the streusel and candied walnuts thinking it’s balanced but straightforward and then, right at the end, you’ll taste the black licorice flavor of the fennel that complements it amazingly well. It’s served with a beet meringue that takes you back to the breakfast table as a child, searching for the marshmallows in the Lucky Charms. The menu, as well as the cocktails, “chase the seasons” so no matter how often you come, you’ll always find something new. In short, Slow Hand would be an ideal date for a slightly younger subset, ready to spend on unique cocktails and updated comfort food while enjoying one very, very cool ambiance.
In the five years since Mercato opened their doors they’ve made a name for themselves for one very simple reason: they’re universally pleasing. I mean, haven’t we Americans basically decided Italian cuisine is now ours? At Mercato you’ll find all your old favorites in generous portions, from Chicken Marsala to Fettuccine Alfredo. But you’ll also see a slew of updated options, some healthier (the Mercato Chop salad topped with grilled chicken is a choice I can personally vouch for—a weeknight girl’s night staple for me) and some that are downright tantalizing (the C.A.B burger served with parmesan truffle fries, swoon), another favorite of mine. The menu is mostly staples but is tweaked seasonally to provide the freshest, most complementary produce. If Italian food is something you and your date love, no matter your age or situation, a date at Mercato is ideal.
First up, the college student. The welcoming, home-away-from-home atmosphere and dim lighting (think Edison bulbs) creates a romantic environment, and the music trends towards what you’d expect to hear in an Italian restaurant: a lot of Sinatra.
College students, notoriously low on cash, can order a Regina Margherita brick oven pizza and a simple Verde salad and show their date a classy time while keeping the damage under $30.00. Just got paid and want to bring home leftovers? You’ll feel right at home with an order of chicken parmigiana or penne vodka, and the two of you can split the chocolate mousse. It’s sweet for sure, but it will suit your palate considering that the concept of a low-sugar diet is still years in your future.
How about the date with kids in tow? Just because sitters aren’t always available doesn’t mean mom and dad can’t enjoy a night out. Mercato is a great option for kids; not only are chicken fingers on the menu (there’s a small but sufficient kids’ section at the bottom), but they have highchairs at the ready and crayons available if you ask. Pizza is your best bet because the kids will like it, but the adults will love it. The wood burning pizza oven was made in Naples and bears the name of the owner (Alfredo Giannaccare). It churns out Neapolitan style pizza with crisp, chewy crusts and a bevy of original toppings.
If you can manage a kidless meal but don’t have a lot of time, a weeknight happy hour date at the bar might fit the bill. Order the Winter Pine and suggest your date try the Peppermint Mocha Martini. You can share an order of Clams Casino (two each)—barely any filling, all meat—or if you’re ravenous, try the short rib ragu, a generous portion of tender short rib drenched in red sauce atop a firm polenta cake that hints of gorgonzola.
Lastly, the date for the borough dwellers, sophisticated folks who could go anywhere (and are often on foot) but keep coming back to Mercato because consistency matters. You’ve tried it all, alas, but a new menu item was recently added. A sweet potato gnocchi with zucchini, roasted red pepper, ovalini (mini fresh mozzarella) and crushed walnuts in a Prosecco sage butter sauce. It reads like it could be heavy but it’s light, perfectly balanced and totally addicting.
When it comes to a date at Mercato remember this: any pair at any age on any budget with any number of children in tow will enjoy the cozy, cool environment as well as the updated Italian menu that is certain to please.
West Chester is a foodie town, and variety is the spice of life. If something you read intrigued you, my work is done. One thing is for sure—there has been a lot of Netflix and a lot of couch time in the past two years. I’m tired of matching sweatsuits and messy buns. Restaurants are striving to make their spot the place to be—make the date, get the sitter, and go out!