Ashland, Oregon: Cucina Biazzi
Cucina Biazzi is a cozy, romantic Italian restaurant run by chef Chandra Corwin, who carefully selects the freshest ingredients from local farmers’ markets to prepare her menu creations. I love the experience of savoring four tantalizing courses, ending with an insalata mista and then a fantastic dessert. My favorite dish is the chef’s specialty, tre formaggi raviolo con lobster, jumbo three-cheese ravioli with butter-sautéed lobster served in lemon cream sauce.
Boulder, Colorado: The Kitchen
A romantic meal is mostly about the company I’m with and the atmosphere, but a close runner-up is the food. My husband and I love the Kitchen in downtown Boulder, which boasts a farm-to-table menu. The minimalistic decor includes exposed-brick walls with chalkboards listing local farms that provide fresh ingredients for the day’s meal. The menu varies daily, but any seafood dish will do the trick, especially the steelhead trout served on a bed of lentils. I can’t help but love the little touches that create a perfect romantic setting: crystal chandeliers hung from exposed industrial ceilings, rustic-looking tables and chairs, and, of course, impeccable service.
Brooklyn, New York: Maison Premiere
My husband and I recently celebrated our two-year wedding anniversary at our favorite spot in Williamsburg, Maison Premiere, a gorgeous little oyster and cocktail bar in the heart of Brooklyn that specializes in the freshest seafood and—believe it or not—absinthe. They have the widest selection of oysters I’ve ever seen, which are their specialty and my favorite menu item to order. It’s fun to pick out a few options with your loved one as you sample oysters from all over the country. The decor resembles that of New Orleans in the 1920s, with staff dressed to match. The lighting is low, the candles are lit, and the romance is high. It’s hard not to fall in love with your dining partner after a meal at Maison Premiere.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Trilussa La Trattoria
Trilussa La Trattoria is housed in an unassuming brick building that’s owned by the nicest Italian man you’ll ever meet. Inside boasts a cozy ambience with murals of Italian buildings, shelves of interesting collectibles, and only about 15 tables. If you’re lucky to arrive before they’re busy, you can usually snag a seat near the window and watch couples and college students as they walk by on Franklin Street. The small dining room features dim lights and table candles that make for an extremely romantic, intimate setting. Trilussa boasts an extensive wine list and some of the best authentic Italian food you’ll ever eat. If there’s something you want that isn’t on the menu, the chef can accommodate you because everything is made from scratch. I like the tortellini, gnocchi, and ravioli, while my husband enjoys the gamberi fra diavolo (shrimp in spicy marinara). Don’t miss out on the Tiramisù and a cup of espresso for dessert.
Dayton, Ohio: El Meson
My husband and I love El Meson for authentic Latin cuisine in a funky, tropical-inspired atmosphere. The chefs specialize in a wide range of tapas, with dishes that highlight a particular region each month. We’re fans of any dish with chorizo, and of the empanadillas (little toasted pillows stuffed with salmon or beef). I can also confirm that El Meson mixes the best Mojito north of Key West! The brightly decorated nooks work for any kind of dinner, from a group party to an intimate evening for two. And when El Meson throws a salsa party, the romance level bumps up a notch. The delicious food and wonderful drinks mix with the Caribbean sound as you and your partner dance the night away.
Gainesville, Florida: Paramount Grill
Tucked away in an old brick building downtown, Paramount Grill is often my first choice for anniversary or birthday dinners. The restaurant, known for outstanding locally sourced and seasonal food prepared by chef/owner Clif Nelson, offers an intimate setting complete with white tablecloths, fresh flowers, and a superb team of servers. The streamlined menu with a handful of entrées makes choosing what to eat a pleasant challenge, but fresh Florida snapper, wild mushroom ravioli, roast free-range chicken, and organic beet and heirloom salads always delight the palate. Even when the restaurant is packed, it maintains a quiet ambience, and a coziness that always brings me back for more.
Knoxville, Tennessee: Café 4
When it comes to romantic restaurants, I couldn’t care less about fanciness or cost bragging rights. I prefer a place with good food, perfect lighting, comfortable seating, and a friendly staff that knows when to leave you alone. Café 4 is all of that, and it boasts incredible modern Southern soul food like fried green tomatoes with goat cheese, red-pepper relish, and balsamic reduction; buttermilk fried chicken with black pepper aïoli and pickles; and Low Country shrimp and grits. It’s an added perk that you’re forced to walk past the restaurant’s bakery (and humongous cupcakes) on the way into and out of the dining room. It’s the ultimate spot for date night.
Lawrence, Kansas: Café Beautiful
If you’re going on a date in Lawrence, Kansas, Café Beautiful is possibly the most intimate, romantic spot in a hundred miles. Set in a renovated apartment on Massachusetts Street, the restaurant is manned by chef Ken Suken, who prepares a divine seven-course sushi dinner for just four to eight people each night. The menu changes according to what’s in season, but past dinners have included the most delectable tiny fish cakes and white tuna in a citrus soy sauce. As the name suggests, from the food to the surroundings, everything about this place is beautiful!
Los Angeles: Puran’s Restaurant
Shhh… don’t tell too many people about it! We found the best hideaway in Los Angeles, and it’s a secret spot only locals know about: Puran’s Restaurant in Los Feliz. My husband and I like to sit at one of the back tables, but there are also a few booths for two where you can sit next to each other. On most nights, Puran herself is in the kitchen, making sure that your dinner is cooked to perfection. Our go-to appetizer is Puran’s famous roast beet salad with Gorgonzola, and for main dishes, we always enjoy the filet mignon and the salmon stuffed with homemade kalamata olive paste. For dessert, don’t miss the bread pudding, which melts in your mouth and pairs beautifully with a hot cup of fresh mint-leaf tea.
Nashville: Germantown Café
Germantown Café is my dining destination of choice every Valentine’s Day. It’s nestled in a historic section of the city that’s home to quaint, colorful homes and gourmet shops. The wall of windows on one side of the restaurant offers a spectacular view of Nashville’s skyline while the decor is both modern and cozy. But it’s the food that makes the café one of the city’s most popular restaurants. I can never say no to the squash fritters with buttermilk cream, or the braised lamb shank, which is always cooked to perfection. If you prefer a relaxed brunch to an upscale dinner, try the steak Benedict, which is topped with sun-dried-tomato hollandaise sauce and served with pepper jack grits.
New Haven, Connecticut: Cumin India
A gutted IHOP-turned–Indian restaurant in quiet Hamden, just north of New Haven, Cumin India may not shout, “Let’s have our pre-baby-making dinner here!” But it’s definitely transformed from a pancake hot spot into an intimate space with exceptional food and excellent service. Try the fried vegetable pakoras, the goat curry, or the reshmi chicken served with daal tadka (a lentil soup). Cumin India also has a fully stocked zabiha halal menu, catering not only to its Muslim clientele but also to patrons with concerns about the treatment of animals prior to being used for food. Almost every bread on the menu will make you exhale in bliss and rub your tummy like Winnie the Pooh. If you’re new to Indian food, or just indecisive, the restaurant has a combination breadbasket, but make sure you try the poori before you leave. Your life will not be complete until you’ve eaten proper poori.
Salt Lake City: Fresco Italian Cafe
My husband and I frequent Fresco Italian Cafe for every special occasion or whenever we find an excuse to celebrate. It’s the perfect romantic spot, seating less than 25 diners at a time in one of the cutest neighborhoods in the city. The restaurant is adjacent to a bookstore, so you can peruse books, cocktail in hand, while you’re waiting to be seated. We get one dish every time we go there: the gnocchi appetizer. Anytime we order gnocchi at other restaurants, it’s always a comparison against Fresco’s light, ethereal recipe, and we’ve yet to find one that stands ground against it. The seasonal menu changes often, but we’ve never been disappointed by any dish we’ve tried.
San Francisco: San Francisco: Gitane
Gitane is a wonderfully eclectic, sensuous slice of Europe in San Francisco. It’s tucked away in an unassuming alley, and descending the stairs to enter the restaurant feels like you’re going down the rabbit hole to a hidden gypsy den. The decor is a combination of high-architectural and Euro vintage, with sculptural chandeliers and handprinted wallpaper. The cuisine is a fabulously funky mix of Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Moroccan. Don’t miss the bacon bonbons (bacon-wrapped prunes stuffed with goat cheese), or the cordeiro (braised lamb cheeks with quince and pomegranate). There is also a stellar bar manned by some outstanding mixologists, making it ideal for a sexy sip before supper. Beignets for dessert are a must.
Seattle: The Hunt Club
The Hunt Club at the century-old Sorrento Hotel in downtown Seattle is a great romantic spot. It’s a small hotel restaurant, so it’s cozy and intimate, plus you could make it a mini-getaway and spend the night. Atmosphere is half of a dining experience, and this place has it in spades—you feel like you’re in an old movie. The Hunt Club’s prime rib is guaranteed to satisfy all red-meat lovers, and the restaurant also features prix fixe dinners on special occasions such as Valentine’s Day.
Tampa: Pia’s Trattoria
Quaint Gulfport, Florida, is an artsy town just minutes from the white, sandy beaches on the Gulf of Mexico near Tampa. It’s home to one of my favorite romantic spots, Pia’s Trattoria. Pia-Maria, the owner and chef, creates the most soulful Italian food, and the restaurant’s rustic atmosphere is true romance mixed with Old World Italy. The drippy candlesticks, Italian music, wood tables, carafes of house wine, and house specials, like seafood lasagna and veal with wild mushroom risotto (my favorite), are the ultimate combination for a romantic dinner for two.