AS I WRITE THIS it is exactly two weeks before Valentine's Day, and I just got off the phone with Cocotte—a highly under-celebrated, romantic little French bistro on NE Killingsworth. I'd been hoping to feature it as a recommendation for a romantic Valentine's dinner, but no dice: They are full to the rafters until 10 pm.
Valentine's Day Lesson #1: It's already too late. You're screwed.
Most of the city's nicer restaurants offer special Valentine's Day menus, many of which will set the two of you back a couple hundred bucks. This isn't going to make me any friends in the industry, but I'm pretty sure this an opportunistic gouge. Dinner plans do not have to be artificially grand; why not surprise your date with a table at someplace he or she may have mentioned in passing recently—even if it's just a weird little pizza joint that caught their eye, or an ad they saw in the paper? It will do far more to show your lover you care if the restaurant has any significance to them.
Lesson #2: Try to remember anything that your partner has ever said.
Went trawling through the muddied wells but came up empty-handed? Happens to me too. Here are some excellent options I researched for just such an eventuality. As in lesson one, call for reservations soon or, my friend, you're at Plaid Pantry buying polyester roses and Barefoot blush.
Lesson #3: It is okay to plagiarize ideas if, when your partner speaks, you tend only to hear a vague whooshing sound.
Ned Ludd (3925 NE MLK), that wood-fired miner's cathedral of Northwest bounty and integrity, has a generous deal going: $100 a couple for a four-course dinner (one vegetarian and one omnivorous menu are offered, and couples need not order from the same menu) with four paired alcoholic beverages. That's eight dishes and eight drinks for about $6.25 each (gratuity not included). Carefully sourced meats and greens become sturdy and unpretentious fare in chef Jason French's open kitchen, with powerful flavors and plating that shows food for how beautiful it already was, not for how cleverly it can be manipulated. Also, their bathroom is the best in town.
Ciao Vito (2203 NE Alberta) is an oft-overlooked neighborhood standby whose Pacific Northwest/Italian menu was recently expanded to feature the talents of Barcelonian chef Jose Chesa. Their 15-item happy hour menu alone is a respectable tapas assortment, but the comfortably enveloping, low-lit casual ambience is well suited to a quiet evening sharing paella for two or sugo di maiale. The standard menu will be available on Valentine's Day, so no financial chicanery is in play.
Café Castagna (1752 SE Hawthorne) is joined at the hip to mothership Castagna, and though it might sound expensive by association, this slick, approachable café is surprisingly affordable. Though pizzas and mains start at $12, the décor and service elevate the experience to something that will make your date feel as though $20 bills are literally wriggling from your wallet and climbing down the legs of your chair.
Chef Enzo Lanzadoro's Enzo's Caffe Italiano (2529 NE Alberta) is another under-the-radar neighborhood Italian joint that deserves more recognition than it gets. Despite the compact café seating, tables feel conversationally isolated from their neighbors, and the endearingly decorated space echoes the sincerity of the scratch-made pastas, breads, and sausages. Lanzadoro's way with fresh herbs can make a simple spaghetti pomodoro a sexy and intriguing thing, which is good, because that's usually the cheapest dish anyway.
Mextiza's (2103 N Killingsworth) warm, upscale dining room also dresses a couple up nicely, if Italian and Northwestern don't fit the mood of the evening. Oswaldo Bibiano's unique and beautifully plated gourmet Mexican fare fits the "special occasion" bill, and the well-stocked tequila bar also pours house cocktails with custom-crafted bitters and syrups.
At the very least, you should have privacy. Disappearing into a booth at Foster Burger (5339 SE Foster) or Slingshot Lounge (5532 SE Center) for burgers and pints will run tabs half as steep, and the relatively new and quiet Bar Dobre (3962 SE Hawthorne) offers an excellent cocktail list, low lighting, and hard-to-find good Polish specialties like handmade pierogi and smoked kielbasa.
You know what my girlfriend and I are doing? We're going to order the "Kim's Taco" pizza from Bob's Rocket on NE 42nd (it comes with packets of Hunt's taco sauce, but not enough, if you ask me), watch The Sopranos in bed, and she is going to drink somewhere between two and four big stinky IPAs. If we get ambitious we'll go shoot pool at the Dancin' Bare—but only if they're not having that sexy banana-eating contest they keep threatening to throw.
Lesson #4: It's not where you are, it's who you're with. Aww.