Romance isn’t dead — it just needs a little nudge now and then to keep it alive.
Every year, in the weeks before Valentine’s Day, the romance machine starts up. Tables are reserved, flowers are arranged, and chocolates are bought. Restaurants are full to bursting and couples feel the love on Feb. 14. But on Feb. 15, and beyond? Crickets. And it just isn’t right.
This year, let’s keep that Valentine’s spirit going all year. So, by all means, check out these oh-so-romantic bistros and boîtes for the big day, but keep them in mind year-round, because love has no limits. The stomach wants what the stomach wants. If you want to really impress your mate — or your date — treat them to a romantic dinner in mid-March, late June, or early September. You’ve got to feed the fire to keep it going, am I right?
6727 W. Roosevelt Road, Berwyn, 798-775-8122
What’s more romantic than a lovely Mediterranean bistro owned by not one, but two couples? Clearly there’s something in the air here. Owners Christine Tully Aranza and John Aranza met chefs Dan Pancake (yes, his real name) and Beth Partridge when they worked together at Spiaggia. Share a bowl of Mussels Gallego Style ($15) and an Heirloom Apple Flatbread ($15), the house-made crust topped with Grand Crus Surchois cheese and walnuts and drizzled with saba, an Italian syrup made of grape must. Feed each other mouthfuls of the Scarlet Prawn Risotto ($22) for two, and Steak Frites ($29) with green peppercorn sauce while sipping from a voluptuous bottle of Brunello di Montalcino. Now that’s a sexy meal.
1604 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, 312-929-4945
Whether you’re seated in the dark and pillow-strewn dining room or the high-ceilinged, garden-like front bar, this is a place where beautiful music could be made, especially if you score one of the booths along the wall. Romance will flourish as you feed each other bites of Halloumi Cheese ($9) topped with tomato and Quince jam, preserved lemon yogurt, and fresh oregano, or the light-as-air Curry Meatballs ($13) with spicy sun-dried tomato and harissa purée and cooling avocado hummus. But nothing is quite as sultry as the Roasted Lebanese-Style Lamb ($55) to share; shreds of tender meat fall off the bone and into the warm embrace of house-made roti bread, to be slathered with pistachio tzatziki and pickled vegetables. To finish, the Chocolate Halvah Torte ($11) is sure to satisfy. Resist the urge for a cigarette after.
1301 N. State Parkway, Chicago, 312-649-0535
Lettuce Entertain You is throwing back to the heyday of The Pump Room with this new iteration of the iconic restaurant. Named for the table they oft reserved for the biggest celebrities (think Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, or Liza Minnelli) of the day, the room is aglow by the warm light of the exquisite floating orbs above. Prosecco cocktails, like the Sophia Loren ($10) with its addition of grapefruit, Aperol, and sorbet, set the celebratory and special tone for the evening. Modern classics like the Onion Poppyseed Parker House Rolls ($7.95) or the Black Truffle Scrambled Eggs ($24.95) whet the palate for the scrumptious Tournedo of Salmon Asiatique ($31.95) or Rack of Lamb ($39.95) with preserved lemon and Sicilian oregano. And Creamed Spinach ($8.95) is an absolute must. Feeling the retro love? Go for the Original Cheesecake Circa 1954 ($10) topped with sour cherry compote. Show ‘em how it’s done.
534 N. Clark St., Chicago, 312-595-1616
James Beard Award-winning chef Carrie Nahabedian’s second restaurant was made for romance. The hushed and gorgeous interior is the perfect backdrop for you and your amour. French Kiss Oysters ($24) garnished with tart cider sorbet and luscious ossetra caviar, paired with the Steak Tartare ($18) with flavors of rye, tarragon, and sorrel and topped with a quail egg, will get the meal started in just the right direction. The Tranche of Duck Breast ($45) with honey, French flageolet beans, and pancetta and Lobster Brindille ($46) with asparagus and grapefruit in a lobster and corn Nantua broth are very special dishes, and the French Cheese Plate ($32) may just be the best in the city. If there’s anything that sums up a French meal better than a Warm-Baked Cherry and Almond Clafoutis ($14), I’ve yet to meet it.
440 S. LaSalle St., Chicago, 312-663-8920
The magnificence of the view from the 40th floor is undeniable; so is the impeccably prepared and presented French cuisine of legendary chef Jean Joho. So as the lights of Chicago flicker below you, spread out like a twinkly carpet, gaze lovingly into your partner’s eyes and start to haggle over who gets to finish the Seared New York State Foie Gras with heritage quince and Alsatian spice cake, or the Hand-Harvested Casco Bay Sea Scallops and fennel choucroute sauced with a Tokay wine-kissed chicken jus. The Loin of Venison with braised red cabbage, spiced pear, and wild huckleberry jus and the Pasture Milk-Fed Veal Tenderloin are both spectacular choices. Dinner is priced at $98 for the starter-main-dessert option, and $130 for two starters with main course and dessert. Some dishes (caviar, filet of sole, truffled risotto) carry supplementary charges.
340 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, 773-281-9101
This Lincoln Park stalwart — open since 1965 — consistently ranks as one of Chicago’s most romantic restaurants, because what better way to show your love and trust of another individual than by allowing double dipping when you’re sharing a fondue? That’s old-school romance to the core. Given these reasonable prices, you should definitely opt for one of their Premier Fondue Dinners, which range from $39.95 per person for the Vegetarian Delight to $57.95 for Prince Geja’s Combination (a mix of beef tenderloin, lobster tail, shrimp, sea scallops, and chicken breast). All dinners include cheese fondue, a café salad, eight gourmet dipping sauces, fresh bread, and a flaming chocolate dessert; a gluten-free option is available as well.
11 E. Walton St., Chicago, 312-625-1324
San Francisco’s super chef Michael Mina finally made it to the Great Midwest, and we’re all the happier for it. Romance here can strike at breakfast, lunch, brunch, or dinner, and, helpfully to the cause, there are super deluxe hotel rooms and suites upstairs at the Waldorf Astoria Chicago. Obviously, any meal to be followed by sexy time must start (and potentially end!) with the aphrodisiac Petit Shellfish Plateau ($68), impeccably fresh. Cheese gets me every time, so the Warm Camembert Truffle Baguette ($9) would be on my wish list, or perhaps the supremely melty Onion Soup Gratinée ($13). After such riches — served with a bottle of bubbly, n’est-ce pas — and the promise of a different kind of treat, I’d ask for the check.
2610 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago, 733-477-5845
This arts-and-crafts stunner delivers romance from every angle: Chef Bruce Sherman’s lovely and creative menu; the gorgeous interior; the flawless service; and the outstanding view of the cityscape from within the actual Lincoln Park. Sherman’s devotion to seasonality shines through in every dish, from the spirit-warming Hen Egg, Potato ($16), a soft-boiled hen egg on a rosti potato pancake with house-made duck wurst, kale, sour cream, and apples; or the Monkfish, Chestnut ($39), the meaty fish pan-seared and served with maiitake-foie gras ravioli and delicata squash in a chestnut froth. The Carrot, Orange ($12) dessert, a carrot cake pudding with carrot-citrus sorbet and spiced pecans, is sheer indulgence.
505 Main St., Evanston, 847-864-3435
Chef Mark Grosz and Renee Andre, his wife and business partner, have created an oasis of calm and sophisticated beauty in South Evanston. If you’re looking to wine and dine your mate on the North Shore, this is where you start. Hudson Valley Foie Gras ($24) with pineapple-cherry chutney, parsnip, and caramelized pineapple pairs beautifully with a glass of 2010 Chateau Sarthes Haut-Montravel ($16); Corn-Leek Soup ($17) garnished with a brunoise of Maine lobster, soybeans, and orange cauliflower warms from within. Grosz’ Bouillabaisse Oceanique ($42), brimming with lobster, trout, halibut, shrimp, and scallops and a dollop of saffron aioli, may be the best you’ll have stateside. Save room for the Warm Three-Nut Tarte ($14) and then head out into the night, ready to rumble.
661 W. Walnut St., Chicago, 312-877-5339
The entrance for this Michelin-starred restaurant is unprepossessing at best. In the back of a building in the West Loop, off Lake Street just east of the expressway, is a loading dock. Walk through the door into one of the most magical culinary experiences in town — and in Chicago, that’s saying something. Yes to romance; yes to deliciousness. At $190 per person — which buys you 14 dishes of near-perfection — it’s worth every penny, providing an all-star list of ingredients: golden osetra caviar, sea urchin, oysters, king crab, foie gras, and wagyu beef among them. Chef Noah Sandoval and pastry chef Genie Kwon are a formidable duo in the kitchen, while Noah’s wife, Cara Sandoval, has the front of the house running like a fine Swiss clock. If you’re looking to impress, this is the place.
660 N. State St., Chicago, 312-202-6050
To my taste, this is the best seafood restaurant in Chicago. The fish is exquisitely fresh, the menu of far-ranging global influences intriguing, and the lighting might possibly shave a few years off. Now that’s romance! Oysters freshly shucked ($18/half dozen) or fried ($4 per piece), Tuna Tartare ($15) with a boost from an umami shrub, and a transporting Cacio e Pepe ($16) with uni butter and caviar all vie for your attention on the starter menu, while the Lemon Sole with Meyer Lemon ($29) and truffle beurre blanc, or the Wild Striped Bass ($32) with a braised beef cheek bourguignon are the stars of the entrée firmament. This is no time to debate whether one should pay for bread in a restaurant, because if you, like Oprah, love bread, you’ll be wanting the Nori Ciabatta with Wasabi Butter ($2 each). Actually, you’ll order two or three for yourself.
64 Green Bay Road, Winnetka, 847-441-3100
This charming French restaurant has been wowing the North Shore for over a decade. Chef/proprietor Michael Lachowicz, who is literally half the man he used to be after adopting a healthier lifestyle, hasn’t lost a step when it comes to enlightened French cuisine. The House-Cured Smoked Salmon on a warm potato cake strewn with wild rice “popcorn” and drizzled with a ginger-and-honey crème fraiche is a dazzling start to your meal, and no visit here is complete without the Salade Lyonnaise, breaking the poached egg to emulsify the dressing. So few places even serve rabbit, let alone do it so well. Here, the Roast Saddle and Leg of Rabbit is served with a stone ground mustard sauce, sage butter gnocchi, and sautéed red chard. And there’s no classic dessert I’d rather consume than a dessert soufflé, and here there are two: Frangelico with toasted hazelnuts and Frangelico cream, and a Hot Fallen Chocolate soufflé with butterscotch gelato. The two-course prix fixe is $48, three courses $63, and four courses $69.
980 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, 312-280-2750
Look, if it’s good enough for Barack and Michelle Obama to make it their go-to romantic spot, it’s good enough for me. But all perceived politics aside, Tony Mantuano’s flagship restaurant has been destination eating for three decades, and with reason. The setting, the view, the superior service, and the often astounding food all add up to an outstanding and much-rewarded restaurant. Executive Chef Joe Flamm, who is soon to appear on this season’s “Top Chef,” has a deft touch with pasta, and if there is a valid reason not to shower any of them with freshly shaved truffle, a compelling case has yet to be made. Especially the toothsome Bucatini “1985” ($35), tossed with saffron, honey, truffle, and caviar. I’d follow up with a Bistecca alla Fiorentina ($140) for two, the rival of any steakhouse in town, perfectly charred without, and medium rare within, seasoned to a turn and all together delectable. Red meat is mighty enticing.
445 N. Clark St., Chicago, 312-661-1434
Rick Bayless’ fine dining Mexican restaurant is even more vibrant these days, filled with colorful artwork and flower arrangements, Latin music in the background, copper accents gleaming. All of your senses are engaged and heightened in anticipation of the meal to come from this multiple James Beard Award-winning chef. Choose from one of three tastings: the seven-course Pre-Columbian ($120); or the five-course Seasonal ($90) or Classic ($100). Wine pairings range from $55 to $90, and they are spot-on, traveling through Spain, Italy, France, Oregon, Austria, Portugal, and even Mexico itself. I will personally never tire of the Duck with Pasilla Chile and Wild Mushrooms (Seasonal), or the Crepas con Cajeta (Classic) with bruléed persimmons, five-spice ice cream, and that luscious homemade goat’s milk caramel.
41 E. Chestnut St., Chicago, 312-982-0050
This gorgeous new entrant in Chicago’s steakhouse derby could pull into the lead on the strength of its design alone. The two-story windows overlooking the streetscape; the magnificent bar, its marble warmly lit from within and bathing the entire area in a warm glow; the enclosed wine room, dotted with cushioned banquettes. Live jazz music enhances the chill vibe. All this, and stone crab claws, too? Rich Lobster Bisque ($9/$11), gilded with horseradish goat cheese and lobster morsels, is the perfect start to a cozy meal. The Wedge Salad ($12), here with a vinaigrette (rather than creamy) blue cheese dressing and nuggets of warm bacon, was a step up from the usual. The 22-ounce Prime Bone-In Ribeye ($52), served sizzling hot with a roasted head of garlic, was beautifully marbled. There are lots of possibilities for sharing here, which only makes the date that much better. No need to squabble when there’s plenty to go around.
Julie Chernoff, Make It Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.