Every year, in the weeks before Valentine’s Day, romance becomes the name of the game. Tables are reserved, flowers arranged, and chocolates purchased. Restaurants are full to bursting and couples feel the love on Feb. 14. But what about Feb. 15, and beyond?
This year, let’s keep that Valentine’s spirit going. 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. To reignite the spark again and again — treat your loved one to a romantic dinner in mid-March, late June or early September. You’ve got to feed the fire to keep it going, n’est-ce pas?
Chef Ryan McCaskey’s Winter 2019 menu is a thing of beauty, and you can feel oh-so special being pampered by the excellent service here at any time of the year. If you really want to score big with your significant other, shoot for the stars with the 14-course tasting menu ($185 per person; wine pairings $125). Some of my favorites from this menu are the Bluefin Tuna, Miso Butter, White Truffle, Katsuobushi (shavings of dried, fermented tuna), and a symphony of Potato, Brown Butter, Perigord Truffle, Watercress. Every plating, each on a bespoke dish, was perfection. If you aren’t feeling quite so flush, you can still partake of a different Acadia experience in the front bar, where you might share Fried Jidori Chicken ($14) with pickled cauliflower, the Stonington Maine Lobster Roll ($18), or the show-stopping Acadia Burger ($15), all tarted up with bacon-onion jam, truffle mornay, and melted gruyere. Nothing short of orgasmic. 1639 S. Wabash, Chicago, 312-360-9500
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 Prawns a la Planxa ($15) and a Guanciale Flatbread ($15), the house-made crust topped with guanciale (cured pork jowel), Italian taleggio, and rapini, then drizzled with spicy Calabrian chili honey. Share a Steak Frites ($29) with green peppercorn sauce while sipping from a voluptuous bottle of Brunello di Montalcino. Now that’s a sexy meal. 6727 W. Roosevelt Road, Berwyn, 798-775-8122
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 ($14) topped with tomato and Quince jam, preserved lemon yogurt, and fresh oregano. But nothing is quite as sultry as the Roasted Lebanese-Style Lamb ($59) 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 Spiced Carrot Cake with Tahini Mousse ($12) is sure to satisfy. Resist the urge for a cigarette after. 1604 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, 312-929-4945
Lettuce Entertain You is throwing back to the heyday of The Pump Room with this update 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. The Playboy Club ($12), a prosecco-based cocktail with passionfruit and lime, sets the celebratory and special tone for the evening. Modern classics — perhaps the ruby-red Bigeye Tuna Sashimi ($14.95) spiced up with harissa, or the Black Truffle Scrambled Eggs ($24.95) — whet the palate for the scrumptious New Zealand Ora King Salmon on a bed of tiny black lentils ($34.95) or Confit of Duck ($28.95) with orange reduction and silky potato purée. A shareable side of Parmesan 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. 1301 N. State Parkway, Chicago, 312-649-0535
James Beard Award-winning chef Carrie Nahabedian’s perfect jewel of a restaurant was made for romance. The hushed and gorgeous interior is the perfect backdrop for you and your amour. Chilled “Lady Chatterley” Oysters ($24) garnished with tart champagne vinegar and thyme sorbet and smoked trout roe, paired with the Steak Tartare ($18) with its piquant pickled onions and mustard seeds and topped with a quail egg, will get the meal started in just the right direction. The real European Dover Sole Meunière ($57), served with a perfect beurre noisette, is truly special, and the French Artisan Cheese Plate ($32) may just be the best in the city. If there’s anything that sums up a gorgeous French meal better than a Warm-Baked Cherry and Almond Clafoutis ($14) topped with a generous dollop of Chantilly cream, I’ve yet to meet it. 534 N. Clark St., Chicago, 312-595-1616
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 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. If you have (ahem!) plans for after dinner, you may want to opt for the Cheese & Chocolate Fondue ($26.95 per person), which includes Geja’s Salad, imported Gruyère cheese fondue, and orange-liqueur flamed chocolate fondue with fruit and sweets for dipping. The sacrifices we make for love! 340 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, 773-281-9101
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, as 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 Shellfish Plateau ($70), 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 ($14). Baked Alaska for Two ($16) would be a very sweet ending. After such riches — served with a de rigeur bottle of bubbly, bien sûr — and the promise of a different kind of treat, I’d ask for the check. 11 E. Walton St., Chicago, 312-625-1324
River North welcomed Mason, a spot that virtually screams romance, back in September of 2018. Located in the new FOUND hotel, this spot has an intimate supper-club feel, with plenty of cozy booths, low lighting, and dark wood paneling. It just screams “clandestine,” but in the very best way. The dry-aged prime steaks are certainly a draw, but I can’t stop thinking about the pasta, including the Stinging Nettles Cavatelli ($18), tossed with plump nuggets of lobster, shaved grana padano cheese, and crunchy breadcrumbs, and the Gnocchi a la Parisienne ($21), done cacao e pepe style with pecorino and parmesan cheeses, plenty of black pepper, and a smidge of truffle oil to gild the lily. Double dip all you want with the Caviar Dip ($18), layers of crème fraîche, finely chopped hard-boiled egg, chopped shallots, scallions, and caviar, along with freshly fried potato chips for glorious scooping. So decadent! 613 N. Wells St., Chicago, 312-643-0449
This arts-and-crafts stunner delivers romance from every angle: chef Bruce Sherman’s lovely and creative menu; the gorgeous interior; the impeccable 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 Octopus, Cashew ($17), marinated and charred Spanish octopus with citrus-cashew butter and sweet-tart kumquats; or the Wild Pheasant, Celery ($41), the pan-seared game bird served with a celeriac galette and garlic cream. The Carrot, Quince ($12) dessert, a spiced carrot cake with lime curd and horchata-flavored frozen custard, is sheer indulgence. 2610 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago, 733-477-5845
The entrance of this two 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 $215 per person — which buys you 14 courses of near-perfection — it’s worth every penny, providing an all-star list of ingredients: golden osetra caviar, Maine sea urchin and lobster, prawns, foie gras, and Japanese A5 wagyu beef among them. Chef Noah Sandoval presides over the kitchen, while his 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. 661 W. Walnut St., Chicago, 312-877-5339
To my palate, this is the best seafood restaurant in Chicago. The fish is impeccably 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 battered with squid-ink panko crumbs and fried ($4 each), Ahi 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 ($29) with black garlic and preserved lemon or the Maine Lobster Pot Pie ($48) for two are the stars of the entrée firmament. For dessert, I must insist on the Grape & Lemon Tapioca ($8), which entails a parfait of lemon-coconut tapioca layered with a compote of concord grapes and rosemary granola, topped with grape sorbet. Amazing. 660 N. State St., Chicago, 312-202-6050
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. “Top Chef” winner and Spiaggia Executive Chef Joe Flamm 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 Risotto Nero ($31) with winter truffle, caramelized leeks, and rich fonduta. 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. 980 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, 312-280-2750
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 ($140); or the five-course Seasonal ($95) or Classic ($110). 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 Suckling Pig with Winter Mole and Creamy Chestnut Mash (Seasonal), or the Crepas con Cajeta (Classic) with house-made goat milk caramel and tahini-black sesame ice cream. 445 N. Clark St., Chicago, 312-661-1434
Civilized luxury is a currency not much trafficked in recent years, but Travelle, the lovely restaurant in the stunning Langham Chicago, has made bank on it. Large picture windows overlook the Chicago River below as the dining room itself flows on serenely. Chef de Cuisine Jeff Vucko has a way with proteins, from the Mediterranean flavors of the Colorado Rack of Lamb ($42) with gremolata, smoked date mostarda, and lamb jus to the Latin-accented Chef’s Pick Whole Fish for Two (market price), which gets a lift from bright lemon beurre blanc and an herby salsa verde. Take a side trip to Vietnam with the Wok-Fried Green Beans ($11) with nuoc cham, mint, chili, and spiced peanuts. Their brand-new pastry chef, Danielle Marelli, has already made a splash with her updated classics, including a sultry Black Forest Tarte ($12) built with deep, dark flourless chocolate cake, cherry sorbet, chocolate cream, and Black Forest vanilla ice cream. The Langham Chicago, 330 N. Wabash Ave., Chicago, 312-923-7705
It’s hard to believe that this exceptional spot just opened in late 2018. The cuisine of Executive Chef Mari Katsumura, known largely as a pastry chef and the daughter of the late Chicago restaurant legend Yoshi Katsumura, is astonishingly assured, the flavors of her classic French training and her Japanese heritage combine to be a hybrid cuisine more modern, more vital than either. Service and ambiance are exquisite. And is the food sexy? You bet your sweet booty it is. Umami flavors are always a turn-on. Highlights from the 13-course tasting menu ($205 per person, beverage pairing $135) might include a gorgeous Ora King Salmon with Hijiki Seaweed, Sunchoke, Winter Perigord Truffle and Sunflower, or a Chawanmushi egg custard with Santa Barbara sea urchin and Hudson Valley foie gras. Pastry chef Jeanine Lamadieu’s desserts are a wonder to behold — and to taste. 652 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-265-1008
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.