What makes a restaurant romantic? Is it just candlelight and Champagne? Is it all about the music and the mood? Can an oyster or a chile pepper ignite passions? I ask these questions because I don’t know the answers. To force romance into a formula or plan seems foolhardy. Yet, as Valentine’s Day approaches, no doubt many of us are asking these questions, wondering how best to express love through a restaurant meal.
If you ask most people in the industry for their frank opinion, they’ll tell you to stay home on Valentine’s Day. Avoid the crowds, they say. It’ll be too much trouble getting a table, they say. You’ll get better service on any other night of the week. If New Year’s Eve is amateur’s night for drinkers, Valentine’s Day is restaurant night for rubes.
That is a cynic’s opinion, of course. The whole point of a holiday like Valentine’s is the opportunity for a gesture, a thoughtful effort. What says “Look at what I’m willing to do for your love” more than getting a table at a nice restaurant on one of the most in-demand nights of the year? It requires forethought, taste, and, above all, a knowledge of your partner. If you make a reservation at a steakhouse for a date with your vegetarian husband, don’t expect him to be impressed.
Romance is a personal thing, the result of knowing (or getting to know) someone in a way that others don’t. As a restaurant critic, I’m often called upon to make these sort of recommendations, but when it comes to the matter of romantic restaurants, I’d prefer to plead unqualified.
Say I told you that getting a reservation for the tasting menu at Bacchanalia is a good idea, which, in a general way, it is. Much like the thoughtful gesture of getting a reservation on Valentine’s Day, a meal at Bacchanalia is full of thoughtful gestures. It is, perhaps, the most formal meal that one can have in Atlanta, from the starched linens to the stately cheese course. Now all of that would be great so long as your sweetheart is not the kind to be bored by formalities or uncomfortable with hushed decorum. If she is, you’re in for an expensive misadventure.
This year, instead of offering opinions, I’ve taken an informal survey of friends to see what they thought about romance in restaurants. The responses often fell far from the predictable ideas about candlelit dinners. In fact, almost everyone suggested such wildly different ideas that I almost couldn’t make sense of them, until I realized a couple of common threads.
“The thing that I find most romantic is going somewhere new,” one friend said. She didn’t mean the newest, hottest restaurant in Atlanta; she meant a place where she and her husband had never been. This is a risk, of course, because neither of you knows whether you will like the place. That’s exactly the point. What are relationships if not a mutual risk, a shared adventure with your partner? If it turns out great, then you’ll have a new favorite to call upon. If you both hate the place, then what a story you’ll have: “That terrible place we went to one time on Valentine’s.” The point being that the experience will belong to both of you.
This is the kind of stuff a restaurant critic can’t tell you. I don’t know where you’ve been. Have you never had a perfect French omelet? Get thee to Bread & Butterfly in Inman Park. Are you unfamiliar with the finer points of Korean barbecue? Try Breakers BBQ in Duluth. Have you seen “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” but never been served omakase by a master? Make a reservation at Sushi House Hayakawa.
Another friend told me that one of the most romantic things a woman had ever done for him was introduce him to pho. “How romantic is a Vietnamese restaurant with bright lighting, a ceiling ringed by garland, Vietnamese ‘American Idol’ playing on the big screen on mute, and Kenny G descending from the sound system? Very. We didn’t make it in the long run, but we’ll always have pho,” he said. Try Pho Dai Loi 2, if you think your loved one would agree.
Almost everyone agreed that some kind of atmosphere and mood, the kind that makes you feel closer to your partner, is romantic. One friend swears by the bucolic setting at Canoe, where the Chattahoochee River runs along the restaurant and the paths lead you through a garden. Another prefers the divey, cigarette-friendly burrito bar El Myr in Little Five Points. “It’s the best into the night, like 10 or later. The air, thick with cigarette smoke and everyone way wrapped in their own table’s business, is the best for feeling completely alone with your person,” she said, adding that they pour heavy on the tequila, too.
Another suggested that intimacy can even be found at the buffet line at Golden Corral, by saying, “If it’s supposed to be a holiday to celebrate intimacy and escapism, one maniacal bout at a heartbreakingly public buffet ought to be required as a reality check for every couple once a decade at least.” Who am I to tell you that’s not romantic?
Of course, candlelight is a cliché because it works. A wick is only enough light for two people. It creates a little world for you and yours. Lately, I’ve noticed the candlelight at the Federal, Shaun Doty’s brand-new restaurant in Midtown. They serve classic dishes of a mostly European style: onion soup, loup de mer, steak frites. It’s the kind of place that seems romantic to me. Maybe it would work for you, too.
But, if you forget to get a reservation, remember that you can always light a candle at home, too.