Dining out for Valentine’s Day can be a double-edged sword. For those swooning in the hypnotic trance of love, it’s an evening fraught with the expectation of romance and, well, more swooning. But for others, it’s a bit of a bouquet of red rose thorns in the side.
For those celebrating longstanding relationships, it’s often considered more of an amateur night — not only for the young, smitten couples making the most of a day dedicated to romance, but also for restaurants that often half-heartedly work up a rather uninspired prix fixe menu churned out to turn lingering two-top tables as quickly as possible. And let’s not forget our single friends who feel more or less jilted by society and would rather avoid any public venture out into the buzzing scene.
Who says you have to share love with just one person on Valentine’s Day?
All cynicism aside, if you must brave the monumental night of romance, our standby suggestions would be Congress for its impeccable service, artful cuisine and immaculate dining room; The Carillon for its inspired food and equally excellent service; Arro for its romantically French atmosphere, food and fantastic wine list or Lenoir for its coziness and vibrant and effortless menu. (Good luck getting reservations at any of these locales.)
But if you’re looking for a few unconventional options, here are some suggestions from Austin food experts for celebrating your special one on Valentine’s Day.
Find a restaurant that’s a little less publicized than those new or hot in the Austin dining scene. I like Andiamo Ristorante. It’s up near the Domain in an unassuming commercial strip center, but the authentic, Italian-inspired menu is soulful and delicious. They are offering the obligatory prix fixe menu ($65 per person, $80 with wine pairings), but it’s likely you’ll taste a little more amore in the end result — plus you’ll get a complimentary bottle of premium olive oil from locally owned Con’ Olio Oils and Vinegars.
If you’re more of a DIY home chef, show your love through a home-cooked meal. Shop the local farmers markets and check out the specials at Whole Foods, HEB and Central Market for your own creative Valentine’s menu. Or simply take advantage of Central Market’s premade Valentine's dinners for two. Select from dishes with lobster, beef tenderloin, chicken or sea bass; you’ll get plenty to eat with accompanying sides, bread and a decadent dessert of chocolate mousse cake, mixed berries and macarons. All you’ll have to do is chill the Champagne and heat up your meal. It’s also a perfect option for the procrastinator in us all. Orders can be taken right up until February 13.
Perhaps my favorite option is to let a professional chef take the reins in my home kitchen and do the dirty work for me. Austin’s own personal chef and private caterer Carlos Crusco and his team let you enjoy an intimate evening at home as you’re pampered with a multicourse meal served restaurant-style at your own dining room table. A menu from Crusco includes a variety of options, including an appetizer of roasted salmon blinis, mixed green salad with crispy Lockhart quail, a French-inspired beef tenderloin entree with herb-roquefort compound butter and Madeira wine sauce. For dessert: a homemade Grand Marnier soufflé with chocolate ganache and Crusco’s specialty candied orange peels — an addictive post dinner treat. Five-day advance booking required. Contact Chef Crusco for details.
And for those who just want to be out for a good time with friends, head to Contigo for its Annual Non-Valentine’s Day Valentine’s Day Celebration (not a typo), which will serve up a buffet-style dinner for lovers, friends and strangers alike to enjoy in an arrangement of communal tables. After all, who says you have to share love with just one person on Valentine’s Day? Contigo invites one and all to simply love the ones your with. Early bird tickets are $40, and a cash bar will be available. Dance music promised to occur at some point in the evening.
It might sound sappy, but we tend to create romantic meals throughout the week. We always have dinner together at home unless there is a work obligation, we start the day with breakfast at the table and, when able, we take lunch together. I grew up in a house where my parents never did anything romantic with each other. So it's always been my priority to make sure we don't save it for special occasions.
Since I work in an industry for which fancy events and elaborate meals are part of the routine, what feels special is just hanging out the house together and kicking back.
We usually buy a nice steak at Central Market, fire up the grill, open a bottle of wine and watch a movie with Jigger, the dog.
If there were two places I would go to on Valentine's Day, they would be Lenoir and Barley Swine. Both offer pre fixe menus on a daily basis, and both offer communal seating regularly. They know how to handle a large number of two-tops and, with communal seating, you won't get the impression that they are trying to turn four-top tables because they could only seat two-tops.
You don’t have to be so by-the-book for Valentine’s Day. I love a place like Jack Allen’s Kitchen because the atmosphere is just lively and fun — no pressure. And for something more cozy, I love Fabi + Rosi. Chef Wolfgang is incredible and always comes up with great menus.
We usually try to go out on February 12 or 13 and avoid spots with overpriced set menus. Uchiko has an omakase for Valentine's Day but will let you use the regular menu, which is nice. I remain a big fan of Josh Watkins' three-course menu at The Carillon, which is a great value for fine dining. Fabi + Rosi is also a great spot for a date night because of their cozy atmosphere and neighborhood location. And Congress remains the restaurant with the most elegant service in town. A drink date at the quiet, reservations-only Midnight Cowboy would be a great finish if you're dining downtown.