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 BOULUD is 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 DANUBE are 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
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when MEXICO LINDO represented all New York knew about Mexican food. A strolling guitarist appears, heralding enchilada, tamale, and tostada combinations swimming in mild chile gravy. The black bean soup, rife with chopped onions and kissed with sherry, is unimpeachably good. The main dining room is warm and extensively decorated, but the glassed-in annex harbors the best tables for two. 459 Second Avenue, 212-679-3665, $35 for two
Under Rafael Guastavino's vaulted dome we sat, slurping raw oysters named Matinecock and Cuttyhunk, avoiding Prudence Island. At the GRAND CENTRAL OYSTER BAR, watch the shellfish shuckers and chowder cooks methodically go about their work while you deposit a self-mixed cocktail sauce with plenty of horseradish on your bivalves. Next share a perfect oyster po' boy, and, finally, an oyster pan roast. Your paean to the world's most popular aphrodisiac is complete. Grand Central Terminal, lower level, 212-490-6650, $35 for two
Home is the sailor, home from the sea, and his table is set at PÃO!, New York's finest Portuguese restaurant, a cramped and dimly lit matchbox of a place in a neighborhood with no name. Marvel at the tart pork-and-clam combination that sent Magellan on his way, as your garlic sausage sputters in a pig-shaped brazier, cooking at the table in brandy flames. The extensive list of affordable Portuguese wines is another big plus. 322 Spring Street, 212-334-5464, $60 for two
Guttering candles dribble wax into gothic towers, and branches hang in tangles from the ceiling at IL POSTO ACCANTO, giving the room all the coziness of a hobbit's lair. The paninos, pastas, and pizzas seem to have been invented to go with the impressive list of Italian wines, many available by the glass or quartino. There are plenty of vegetarian options, including a stunning selection of antipasti in the glass case at the end of the bar. 190 East 2nd Street, 212-228-3562, $40 for two
Rhône, a rare gal-friendly atmosphere
Romance is in the air at RHONE, where the wine-sipping singles at the bar are as likely to be women as men, creating a rare gal-friendly atmosphere. Rhônes are the wines of the moment, and this soaring space, nooked and balconied like a Taliban cave, offers a wealth of them, many by the glass. In addition to full meals, there are plenty of snacking options to go with the Châteauneuf-du-Papes and Liracs, including an intriguing platter of olives and dips, and a deliciously oily salad of asparagus spears and artichoke hearts. 63 Gansevoort Street, 212-367-8440, $40 snacks and wine for two
If you long to be Rock Hudson or Audrey Hepburn in a lip-locked cinematic interlude, pick the back dining room of ROMANO, an Italian restaurant dating to the '30s. Tiny lights cascade from the ceiling, and the Roman spedinia deep-fried cheese sandwich draped with salty anchoviesis one of the most erotic eats I know. Finding this obscure Dyker Heights spot is half the fun. 7117 13th Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-232-5226, $50 for two
Cheapest date in town, and still one of the best, is a nocturnal jaunt on the STATEN ISLAND FERRY. First, carry out a Pakistani banquet from the PEARL PALACE (60 Pearl Street, 212-482-0771), consisting of tandoori chicken, garlic naan, and a vegetable or two, then picnic on the boat. Explore all the decks, and steal a kiss on the deepest one, where passengers once sat in their cars, staring ahead into the darkness. $12 for two
Some people think that passion's perfect prelude is a thick cut of juicy red meat. Giving this linkage physical form, STRIP HOUSE looks like it was decorated by Russ Meyer, with portraits of strippers lining the red-flecked walls, and solid entrées featuring steak and fish. Of the former, best is the New York strip, and don't miss the potatoes fried in goose fat, either. 13 East 12th Street, 212-328-0000, $100 for two
Wattled and thatched like an African hut, the eccentric SUGAR BAR is the domain of '70s superstars Ashford & Simpson, one of the city's most romantic couples. The menu is pointedly brief, and you can't go wrong chasing the catfish fingers with sliced steak draped in caramelized onions, but the powerhouse cocktails are the star of the show. 254 West 72nd Street, 212-579-0222, $70 for two
We're very lucky to have SWEET-N-TART, serving a full menu of tong shui ("sweet soup"), a Chinese food fad that goes back a thousand years. There's a typical Cantonese menu available, too, in addition to various porridges, gelatins, soups, and hot and cold beverages, all with obscure health-enhancing properties. The amorously inclined are invited to sip fruit-based beverages with names like First Love, Pink Lady, and Hawaii Escape. With its playful lighting, dangling grapes, and comparatively sprightly clientele, the downstairs room at 20 Mott is especially recommended. 20 Mott Street, 212-964-0380; 76 Mott Street, 212-334-8088; 136-11 38th Avenue, Flushing, 718-661-3380, $25 for two
Tentacles unfurled and drenched in herbed oil, the octopus appetizer makes a magnificent mass in the middle of the plate. Offering modern Italian fare with well-chosen pastas, and meaty and fishy secondi heavy on the garlic, TAPPO is a pair of darkened halls with big wood tablesyou'll be sharing your table with other couples and liking it. The flattering lighting seems invented for romance. 403 East 12th Street, 212-505-0001, $80 for two
"Red Alert: Valentine's Day Gift Shopping" by Lynn Yaeger
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