Two sittings with a prix-fixe, little-choice, “special” menu, complete with a glass of sparkling wine and a red rose for the ladies? Must be V-Day.
You may not yet have noticed, lovebirds, but the 14th falls on a Saturday this year. The posh places will all be booking up as I type. And soon, the panicked phone calls will begin: Help me; you’ve got to help me!
Last year, I “helped” a young man with a “romantic” restaurant recommendation for Valentine’s Day. His experience? The evening was a disaster. The waiters flirted shamelessly with his girl. Worse, she didn’t seem to mind. He was not pleased.
How odd, said I. That had not been my experience with these servers. The look the lad gave me haunts me still.
So what works for me may not work for you, but allow me to attempt to define the must-haves of a romantic restaurant:
The food should be first-rate, of course, but you should never allow it to overshadow the distracting qualities of the beloved. Eyes should be on eyes, not on plates.
Perhaps even more important than the food are the other details that must work. The right lighting is crucial. Music to set a mood, candles, flowers — all nice. But mostly the restaurant should be a relaxing pleasure.
It should be warm and comfortable. And good service, above all, is critical, service that hits exactly the right level of charming, informative familiarity mixed with professional discretion and hustle.
Herewith, some ideas.
If your red rose simply must be displayed on thick, white napery, and your sweetie’s purse cradled on its own stool, her lamb sweetbreads served under a silver dome, you can’t beat the haute experience of the lovely Signatures at Le Cordon Bleu. Le Baccara is another sure bet for grande-luxe, scratch-in-all-the-right-places dining.
Less formal, but where the service standards are high and the food reliably delicious, I would recommend a table by the fire at the handsome Restaurant E18hteen. Booths are highly sought-after cocoons for intimate eating, and I should think one of those persimmon-red booths in the upper dining room at the newly reopened Black Cat Bistro on Preston Street would do quite nicely, too.
For oysters, bubbly and a big, juicy steak, book a booth at Big Easy’s, also on Preston Street. For mussels and frites and a Belgian brew, or a four-course “menu surprise” with matching wines, head to the long-standing Le Sans Pareil in Hull. The back room may be in high demand.
If a country restaurant tucked into the woods is your idea of romance think of Chelsea and a window table at Les Fougères. And if having your head in the clouds appeals, there’s always the revolving charms of Merlot Rooftop Grill, on the 29th floor of the Marriott Hotel.
For some, romance must be red, white and green and come with pasta. For romantic dining, Italian-style, and with service that knows its business, I’ve found Bella’s Bistro works well.
The stout pig with pink wings airborne on Bank Street at Heron Road is another option: Flying Piggy’s is a cosy space of wood floors and reddened walls, and though the tables are densely spaced, the pasta is homemade and properly cooked, and the service is warm and welcoming.
Let’s move from pigs to elephants for the next suggestion. I have always found the service soothing, the attention to detail a cut above at the sister-run Aiyara Thai in a mini mall on Walkley Road festooned with the elephants that are its namesake.
For dining on an even tighter budget, and if you’re happy to be tighter with neighbouring tables and less fussed about privacy, I’d head to an upstairs table at Mekong, in the yellow loft they’ve created, or to the newly renovated Siam Bistro, with its racy red foyer and its burnished gold ceiling.
One final thought. Why not declare the whole of February to be Cupid’s month, and celebrate your love on the 18th, say, or the 26th.It has never been my experience that restaurants are at their best on Valentine’s Day.
But if you choose this route, best not to announce the plan mid-afternoon on the 14th
Signatures, 453 Laurier Ave. E., 613-236-2499 www.signaturesrestaurant.com
Le Baccara, 1 boul. Du Casino, Gatineau 819-772-6210 www.casino-du-lac-leamy.com
Restaurant E18hteen, 18 York St., 613-244-1188 www.restaurant18.com
Black Cat Bistro, 428 Preston St., 613-569-9998 www.blackcatcafe.ca
Big Easy’s, 228 Preston St., 613-565-3279 www.bigeasys.ca
Le Sans Pareil, 71 boul. St-Raymond, Gatineau, 819-771-1471 www.lesanspareil.com
Les Fougeres, 783 Route 105, Chelsea www.fougeres.ca
Merlot Rooftop Grill, 100 Kent St., 613-783-4212 www.merlotottawa.com
Bella’s Bistro, 1445 Wellington St. W., 613-724-6439 www.bellas.ca
Flying Piggy’s Bistro Italiano, 1665 Bank St., 613-526-4900 www.flyingpiggys.com
Aiyara Thai, 590 Walkley Rd., 613-526-1703
Mekong, 637 Somerset St. W., 613-237-7717 www.mekong.ca
Siam Bistro, 1268 Wellington St. W., 613-728-3111 www.siambistro.com