It's easy to dismiss eating out on Valentine's Day, and justly so. Restaurants get mobbed and weighed down with pricey tasting menus, resulting in large (and noisy) crowds, frenzied service, and food that all too often doesn't do justice to a kitchen's abilities. This is not what a special night out should be.
So let's back up for a minute and look at that premise: "it's bad to eat out on Valentine's Day." Well, not totally the case. It's bad to eat at certain restaurants on Valentine's Day; stay far away from bistros, Italian pasta joints, steak spots, and any place offering a "special" Valentine's menu, and you're already safer. Try out one of the suggestions below and you're definitely in the clear.
These aren't necessarily what you'd call "traditionally romantic" restaurants. But what do you want out of a Valentine's Date—a good meal at a cute place where you can linger, have a little adventure, and steal off each other's plates. If you're willing to set aside your traditional Valentine's motions, these offbeat dates will treat you well.
Typical steak spots won't be pleasant places to eat come the 14th, but it's a different story in the Latin American neighborhoods in Queens. Jackson Heights, about 30 minutes from midtown by subway, and Corona, a little farther out on the 7, are home to a number of great unpretentious meat houses worth a trip. What they lack in dry aged ribeyes and pricey wine lists they make up for in under-$20 strip steaks, ribs, sausages, and sweetbreads, cooked by a grill team that knows how to coax serious flavor from humbler cuts.
My favorite Argentinian steak spot is El Gauchito in Corona, where the skirt steaks are juicy and tender, the accompanying fries are crisp, and dessert means fresh shatter-crisp churros topped with dulce de leche. It's a sweet and friendly spot that's low on English but high on charm. El Chivito De Oro in Jackson Heights offers a massive $21 mixed grill "for one" that serves four. It comes with skirt steak, chorizo, blood sausage, sweetbreads, and short ribs—dinner and a show in one massive grill plate.
If you're going to eat fondue once a year, it might as well be on February 14th. The cheese-laden version is all well and good, but how about Chinese hot pot instead? You keep the fun of dunking meat, starches, and vegetables into a bubbling pot, but without the creeping feeling of oh god how much cheese did I just eat. Hot pot isn't a light meal, but you're in charge of its pace.
In Manhattan, Hou Yi (née M Tasty) (not closed, despite the Yelp notice) does a two-hour all you can eat hot pot for $23 a person. The atmosphere is pretty no-frills, but we love their wickedly hot broth and fish options for dipping. Mister Hotpot serves Sunset Park well, with a white broth that reaches near-ramen levels of milkiness. And in Flushing, Little Sheep is an international franchise that does everything right.
Ethnic BYOBs (and BYOB-esque Restaurants)
We've long been fans of BYOBs (there was a column devoted to them back in the day), and stand by them all the more on Valentine's Day. They're rarely crowded—all the more so for ethnic cuisines—even on one of the busiest eating out nights of the year. Just two of our favorites: The Islands, a Carribbean paradise of a restaurant in Prospect Heights with close quarters and serious jerk chicken; and Gazala Place, Manhattan's only Druse restaurant.
Small cozy ethnic restaurants that do serve alcohol can also be smart choices. At Awash in the East Village, Morningside Heights, and Carroll Gardens, you can sip on Ethiopian honey wine while digging into a shareable platter of braised and spiced meat, vegetables, and legumes. Don't miss the tartare.
A Pastry Crawl
Should your tastes run more sweet, take Thursday as your chance to do a slice for dinner and have a multi-course walkable dessert. Good pastry shops are one place you can trust for Valentine's specials; just pick a neighborhood and make sure to pace yourself. In Soho, for example, you can start with some pastries at Dominique Ansel (where everything will be pink come V-Day), get some standout chocolate truffles at Kee's, and hit up Balthazar for a take-home tart to keep your energy up. Just be sure to start your crawl early; Dominique Ansel and Kee's close at 7, Balthazar Bakery at 8, and due to demand they may run out of some sweets early.
Prefer your chocolate at home? Check out our gift guide.
Now how about you? Where are you eating—or hiding—on Thursday?