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The Spot: Bistro Romano

You'll most likely order the tableside Caesar at this durable Italian restaurant-cum-dinner theater in Society Hill.

We always hear about the shiny, new restaurants. This is one in a series about the Philadelphia area's more established dining establishments and the people behind them.

With a Villanova degree under his belt, Michael Granato landed a good accounting job at Price Waterhouse, but within four years, he realized he enjoyed entertaining clients much more than working on their financials. Around the same time, he fell in love with a historic building just off Headhouse Square - a former restaurant that had been sitting dormant but was only in need of minor sprucing up. He decided to quit his job and follow his passion.

In 1988, he opened the doors to Bistro Romano. There weren't many restaurants in Philadelphia at the time, especially not in the area between South Street and Society Hill, and the 26-year-old's venture was busy from the start. With a menu of high-end Italian food served in a relaxed environment, it filled a niche; not snooty like some white-tablecloth spots, but still a great place to bring a date.

During the last 27 years, countless dates have taken place in the brick-walled, grotto-like dining room - especially after Conde Nast Traveler named the candlelit wine-cellar one of the most romantic tables in the country. Others have come for the third-floor dinner theater, which offers 85 people the chance to enjoy dinner over the course of a live, four-act show every Friday and Saturday.

Sitting beside an in-wall wine cabinet built by his father, Granato described the pleasure he's gotten from making guests happy for nearly three decades - and his guests sure do love him. During his first year of operation, he tried to shut down for a week in August, only to return to customers angry he was gone. He's never closed for vacation again.

How did you find this location?

I originally looked at it as a real estate investment, but I fell in love with the space. The building's around 200 years old; it was built for industrial use. It was a granary, and then a warehouse. In 1972, Stouffers - the hotel people - turned it into a restaurant called The Cheese Cellar. When fondue fell out of fashion, maybe in the early '80s, it changed over to concept called JB Winberie's. I believe that closed around '85. When I saw it, it had been sitting dormant for around three years. There was dust on everything, but behind that, the bones were there.

Were there other restaurants in the area?

South Street had a few, and there was the Monte Carlo Living Room, but there was nothing like what we wanted to do - fine food without pretentious service. The Philadelphia restaurant scene was very different back then. Today, the bar is much higher, to be candid. You have to be at the top or you're not going to last. Back then, it wasn't quite as competitive, so when we opened, we were busy immediately.

Do you think there are too many restaurants in Philly these days?

I don't know, but if there are, I think natural selection will take care of it. The good ones will survive and the ones that aren't as good will pass by. It's a good thing; it's exciting to be in Philadelphia at this time. It's one of the top restaurant cities in the country now.

Do you think people outside Philly would agree with that statement?

I think so, yes. New Yorkers love to come here because we've got everything they have - on a smaller scale - but it's much less expensive. You can get a very good restaurant meal in Philadelphia, soup to nuts, for $150-$200, where in New York it's clearly double.

Your piano bar has what looks like a giant marble sculpture behind it. Where did that come from?

It's actually wood - oak. It was actually here when we came, but it was painted white, so it was kind of blah. We researched it and discovered it's from an old passenger ship - the City of Detroit III - so we thought it would be great to restore it. But then we got the estimate: $127,000. So instead I had an artist come in and marbleize it.

It's unique. So is the table in your wine cellar, downstairs. When did you start that?

That cellar room is actually part of this whole network of tunnels that used to connect under all the city streets. I've heard it was part of the Underground Railroad, and then it was used to funnel alcohol through the city during Prohibition. But we made it into a wine cellar and put a table for two in there. It's very popular for engagement dinners and Valentine's Day gets booked at least a year in advance. But we didn't know it was going to be a hit.

Where did you get the idea to do it?

One Saturday night, around '93 or '94, a regular customer came in without a reservation, and we didn't want to turn him away, so we threw a table in there. He loved it. He was like "Now I want this table every time!"

Who runs the dinner theater on the third floor?

We are our own production company. Originally we had a group that came in and did it, but after three years or so, I bought them out. The show changes every nine to 12 weeks, depending on popularity.

Who comes up with the stories?

I have a writer who sends me ideas, and I'll pick ones I like. Then they develop an outline for me to approve, and then they write the script. It's always a mystery tale - fun and lighthearted, not like Agatha Christie or anything. It's four acts, and between each act, a course of dinner is served.

What's your most popular dish?

Number one, by far, is our tableside Caesar salad. We started doing it in the early '90s, and now people come in just for that. Before any servers are allowed to go on the floor, I have to approve their Caesar. We really pride ourselves on it. On a Saturday night, we probably serve around 120 of them.

How do people hear about you?

We have a lot of repeat customers, but I'd say 90 percent of the rest of our business comes from word of mouth. Out-of-towners find out about us from online review sites. The big one is OpenTable, which I like, because people who write the reviews had to have eaten here, or they wouldn't have gotten an invitation to review us. I don't mean any disrespect to any of the other sites, but I do feel that sometimes reviews might not be as genuine on those sources. People have mentioned items that we don't even serve.

But you do read those reviews?

Every one of them. We have a management meeting with the team every Friday and we devote probably half an hour to go over every review posted on the major review sites. Any guest that wasn't happy, we try to contact.

Do you have plans for the future?

I don't plan on opening any other locations, if that's what you're asking. I can't be in more than one place at one time, and as long as God keeps me going, I plan on being here. I love it.

Bistro Romano

120 Lombard St., 215-925-8880

Hours: 4:30 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 4:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday