For some people, romance means a single red rose or a heart-felt poem. Others count on candy hearts and greeting cards to make their sweetheart swoon.And for some romantics, true love means a truly passionate display of emotion—rose petals on the bed, a custom-made diamond ring or words of devotion written in the sand for all to see.
On Valentine’s Day, the sky is the limit.
After months of economic uncertainty, however, this could be the year for a more timeless expression of affection: the classic dinner date. Cuisine, after all, plays a part in so many of our most romantic milestones. Many a great couple started as strangers sharing dinner on a first date. We whip up home-cooked meals to spoil loved ones. We toast to newlyweds during catered receptions featuring cakes and cocktails, and we commemorate anniversaries with cozy candlelight dinners.
At its very best, love, like food, simmers and smolders and sizzles.
This Valentine’s Day, why not return to that traditional notion of romance? A bottle of spicy red wine. A thoughtfully prepared dinner for two. A shared crème brulee or chocolate dessert. An opportunity to hold hands and linger, looking into each other’s eyes. A true heart-to-heart exchange.
What other ingredients go into the perfect Valentine’s Day dinner? Consider the setting. Perhaps a table by the fire suits your taste, or maybe an intimate corner two-top fit for quiet conversation. How about open-air seating on a stone patio, with bubbling fountains and fragrant vines? Maybe your style is more dinner with a view, looking out at coastal cliffs, soaring California condors and Pacific Ocean swells.
To that, add a dash of Italian charm or a splash of French glamour, and season with a bit of soft music. Dim the lights, set up some candles and bask in the glow.
Still looking for inspiration? Here, five local restaurateurs dish about the most memorable love-inspired scenes to take place in their dining rooms. They also share which tables are most popular with the couples that return again and again to mark anniversaries, birthdays and special dates.
Most romantic seating: Tables 8, 10, and 11
This winter, Casanova event coordinator Vanessa Bogenholm welcomed a couple celebrating 78 years together. “They were incredibly polite to each other,” says Bogenholm.
“I asked her how she put up with him for 78 years. She said, ‘Vanessa, he’s just so nice to me.’ It was a tender moment.”
A flower-filled patio, crackling fireplaces and quiet tables for two make Casanova a favorite among romantics. For anniversaries, birthdays and other celebrations, staff members pour Prosecco at the start of the meal; they bid guests farewell with a box of homemade truffles.
Couples regularly get engaged in Casanova’s wine cellar, as well. One of the most memorable met on a blind date at the restaurant.
“I’d seen the man date a few different women and he’d finally found the one,” remembers Bogenholm.“ He wanted to put the ring in her wine or on a cupcake, but we didn’t want to put an expensive ring in food. Instead, we put it on a flower on her dessert. She had to move the flower to see the ring, and it was just perfect.”
Aubergine at L’Auberge Carmel
Most romantic seating: Table 77, a two-top by the corner window
Last fall, a couple on Carmel Beach happened upon a rose-petal heart in the sand.As the gentleman stopped to propose to his girlfriend, a server from Aubergine poured champagne, served a three course dinner and stoked the flames of a crackling bonfire.
The groom-to-be pulled it all off with the help of Aubergine executive Christophe Grosjean, who packs champagne and caviar picnics and regularly serves up special menus for sweethearts. This Valentine’s Day, his 12-seat restaurant will offer a three-course chocolate aphrodisiac dessert.
“With its lighting and ambience, Aubergine lends itself to quiet, intimate conversation.The experience here touches all the senses,” says L’Auberge Carmel Sales and Marketing Director Bobbi DeMore.
Restaurant and hotel personnel collaborate on dreamy getaways for inn guests, as well.The Lovers’ Carmel Escape, for example, includes a steaming bath service.
“When we see that guests are on their last course [at Aubergine], we go to their room and draw a scented bath,” says DeMore. “Sometimes, both people know about it; sometimes one member of the couple does it as a surprise for the other.”
Most romantic seating: Outdoor, ocean-view tables on the veranda
“To come to Nepenthe, people travel away from what is familiar—whether that is their hotel or their home—into one of the most beautiful places in the world,” says General Manager Kirk Gafill. “They’re making an effort to visit this destination.”
For that effort, guests are rewarded with vistas stretching from rugged hills to rocky coastline to rolling ocean waves. Gafill, whose family founded Nepenthe 60 years ago, sees the restaurant’s longevity as part of its appeal.
“Couples remember being here 10, 20, 30 or 50 years ago, and they are often startled by how much Big Sur and Nepenthe have stayed the way they remember,” he says.
Weddings are among the most romantic occasions at the restaurant; engagements and anniversary dinners are common, too. Whether watching the sunset over the Pacific or sharing a bottle of Pinot Noir inside by the fire, couples can expect a memorable experience.
Most romantic seating: Table for two in the conservatory
Sardine Factory manager Kenneth Rockefeller has helped men surprise their sweethearts by hiding jewelry in flutes of champagne, desserts and the restaurant’s signature lighted ice swan intermezzo. But the most memorable presentation was a tennis bracelet concealed in an ice cream sundae.
“We drenched the bracelet in chocolate.When she dug into the ice cream with her spoon, there it was,” he says. “Whatever you envision, we can make it happen.”
Countless couples have courted and celebrated at the Sardine Factory over the past 40 years, including many who return annually to mark anniversaries. Each Valentine’s Day, the restaurant welcomes women with red roses and serves up a special holiday menu.
Rockefeller says the most romantic tables are in the Sardine Factory’s glass-walled conservatory.
“It offers views of the stars. It’s the place to go for a night you can’t forget,” he says, adding that warm service that is attentive without being intrusive rounds out the experience. “We treat every guest like they are our only guest. It’s our job to exceed expectations.”
Most romantic seating: Table by the fireplace in the Terrace Room
“Our restaurant consists of several rooms and they all have a little different feeling,” says Pierre Bain, who owns Fandango with his wife, Marietta.“By nature, it’s very warm and cozy.”
That inviting ambiance makes the Pacific Grove restaurant a popular place for proposals. Sometimes, grooms-to-be arrange for a photographer to document the evening; other times, they add a little romance with music.
“Not long ago, a gentleman brought in a flamenco guitarist to play by the table as he proposed,” Marietta says. “We were almost as nervous as he was.”
Such a personal connection between the restaurant’s staff and guests is part of what keeps clientele coming back again and again. In fact, many who get engaged there return to Fandango for their most important milestones.
“We have many, many couples that get engaged here and then come back every year to celebrate anniversaries and major holidays. When there’s a baby, they come in for the christening. Over the years, we get to know the couples, their children and their grandchildren,” says Marietta.