By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
What makes a restaurant romantic? Ask 12 people and get a dozen different answers. Many find Italian fare lusty, either because red is erotic or because they fall into a sensual fog after sucking down massive doses of garlic.
Out-of-the-way places are preferred by some for the secret sharing, while others insist more pragmatically on strong cocktails, vintage wines, chocolate desserts, and the proximity of a cheap hotel. Sometimes love requires a view, whether it be lapping waves, jungle foliage, or a busy thoroughfare. Aphrodisiacs, too, can be a turn-on, especially time-honored nostrums like oysters, eels, figs, asparagus, and testicles.
We strove to keep these factors in mind as we selected 20 favorite romantic spots. Pairing off with various pals to simulate actual dating, I concentrated on rewarding places that featured tables for two, subdued lighting, hidden nooks, and a noise level that permitted rapt conversation. We ignored placessuch as One If by Land and Alison on Dominickthat dominate such lists. Of course, the best prelude to love is a great meal, and all our choices handily provide it. Prices indicate the full tax-and-tip cost of a modest meal. The romance part is up to you.
Thrill to the remoteness of ALLEY'S ENDpropel yourself through a wrought-iron gate, down a dark alleyway, and in a battered pink door, then thread your way among labyrinthine rooms to a table with a view of a spotlit subterranean garden. The food runs from potpies to more adventuresome fare. 311 West 17th Street, 212-627-8899, $60 for two
Chef Daniel Boulud's CAFÉ BOULUDis named after his family's bistro in France. The beige room radiates an insouciant elegance, from the well-upholstered banquettes to the diffuse lighting to the beveled mirrors that permit discreet spying. Four mini-menus highlight market produce, traditional French classics, chef's creations, and fare from an exotic region of the globeon our date, it was the American Midwest. We relished bacon-wrapped trout and an inspired pairing of crisp Wiener schnitzel and meltingly tender veal cheeks. The prix fixe lunch (two courses, $29) is one of the city's best deals. 20 East 76th Street, 212-772-2600, $130 for two
The floor is charmingly strewn with rose petals at CHEZ ES SAADA, releasing a subtle perfume every time you tromp down. But don't descend to the downstairs rooms, thronged with scenesters, smoke, and rushing staff. Instead stay in the bar, where the tables are often empty, soft jazz plays, and you can enjoy the full Moroccan-leaning menu, as well as finger foods like mushroom-stuffed briouats and mounds of spice-dusted fries. The fruity cocktails do the trick every time. 42 East 1st Street, 212-777-5617, $50 for two
The Gustav Klimt knockoffs, plush banquettes, and profusion of gold leaf make this intimate fin-de-siècle room one of the most romantic in town. And the easiest reservations to get at DANUBEare the late-night ones, easing the segue from the dining room to the bedroom. Silky and perfumy Austrian white wines don't hurt, either. 30 Hudson Street, 212-791-3771, $120 for two
If Tony Soprano were entertaining one of his paramours on the Brooklyn waterfront, you can be sure he'd go to GIANDO ON THE WATER, a towering glass box sticking out among the decrepit buildings and junkyards under the Williamsburg Bridge. You can't beat the East River panorama, nor the triple-thick veal chop wrapped in a thin strip of fat to preserve the moisture. 400 Kent Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-387-7000, $70 for two
The original St. Pat's church and graveyard looms catercorner, adding to the gothic appeal of KITCHEN CLUB, and the Dutch half of the menu helps: venison, lamb chops, and the aphrodisiacal imported eel. But there are surprise Japanese elements, too, including soba noodles, dumplings, and a formidable bento box. The mix of cuisines is perfect for couples with divergent tastes. And you'd be surprised how well sake goes with deer. 30 Prince Street, 212-274-0025, $70 for two
If your idea of romance is strictly film noir, no better place than LA LUNCHONETTE, a retrograde French bistro on a grimy corner near the docks. Transgender sex workers strut outside, bikers rev their motors down the street, and, if you can't wait till you get home, the hot-sheets Liberty Inn beckons three blocks south. Pick from the chalkboard for specials like suckling pig and pureed chestnut-and-cauliflower soup, and wash it down with a blood-red burgundy. 130 Tenth Avenue, 212-675-0342, $70 for two
MARGIE'S RED ROSE is a Harlem old-timer, a jewel box of a place with a jukebox filled with '60s soul hits, and a bill of fare that includes the best collards and fried chicken in town. That's Margie behind the stovebe nice to her. After your dinner, rent Finding Forrester and find out why the Red Rose is in such a perfect state of preservation. 267 West 144th Street, 212-491-3665, $20 for two
The name MARSEILLE promises the romance of the Gallic port, haven for fishermen and smugglers alike, while the giant picture windows deliver the hubbub of Hell's Kitchen. The pan-Mediterranean menu has a plethora of crowd-pleasers, from a bouillabaisse that tries very hard to match its French counterpart to a series of nifty tasting platters of mezze that make for delicious grazing. A nice bottle of Côte-Rotie ties the evening together. 630 Ninth Avenue, 212-333-2323, $90 for two