Where should we go? What are you in the mood for? What about that one place? Are they still open? Do they even take reservations? Do you think they’ll have anything available? Did we wait too long? These are but a few of the likely questions you and your significant other find yourselves asking each year at just about this time. Valentine’s Day is right around the corner and, let’s be honest, a dinner date for two is still the best way to say, “I love you.” At least if you live in my house.
A romantic night out, for Valentine’s or really any other time of year, means different things to different people. Obviously. But it can also mean different things to the same people, depending on the year, the particular chapter of the relationship, or just your peculiar mood on the day itself. Some years you want to don your Sunday best and spare no expense. Other years, jeans and burgers at a dive bar hit the spot. Maybe you’re both ramen-crazy and exploring the latest pop-up noodle place is on your bucket list.
Whatever your mood or state of coupledom, the Twin Cities is blessed with options. Ample, solid options. Yes, occasionally my partner and I will stare blankly at one another, unable to offer any ideas for our annual diner à deux. More often than not, however, it doesn’t take long before we’re rattling off possibilities and our problem then becomes just how to narrow down a big fat list of great ideas.
Whether it’s feast or famine in the ideas department, worry thee not. If you’ve made it this far, you know I’m going to make your job super easy this year by giving you four sure-fire options guaranteed to suit most any mood or arrangement. Feel free to return the favor. I’m always looking for new ideas.
Side note: some of the restaurants listed below may have special menus for Valentine’s Day. If that’s your thing, feel free to ask when making a reservation or when you arrive. I’m not a particular fan of special menus that limit my selfish appetite, so I’m including four restaurants I know stand fully on their own, holiday special or not.
Meritage in St. Paul
410 St. Peter St., St. Paul
I gave you this recommendation last year and, because we still count this as one of our most memorable dinners ever, I’m giving it to you again. If you’re an old-fashioned romantic (or dating one) who’d love nothing more than to spend Valentine’s Day at a beautiful little restaurant in Paris, but don’t have the necessary swagger (or bank account) to pull it off, head no farther than downtown St. Paul to Meritage. The ambience, surroundings and, of course, food will transport you a lot more economically than a flight to Charles de Gaulle. And if you’re worried French cuisine is too complicated or stuffy, fear not. The food is simple, accessible, and totally satisfying. Pay special attention to the moules frites and oysters Meritage. Our first visit was for an anniversary dinner and we still count that meal as one of our best. Ever.
3753 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis
I was sad when Shorty & Wags Original Chicken and Ribs on Nicollet and 38th closed. For a hot second. That is, until Nighthawks opened. This self-described “post-modern take on the urban American diner” packs a perfect half-casual punch. And one of the best double cheeseburgers in town. We’re talking Beef-Con 4 burger here, people. Rival only to the storied Parlour burger. Yeah, it’s that good. And just the kind of place you can take a first date or your old ball and chain of two or 20 years.
4312 S Upton Ave., Minneapolis
Classic, classy, warm, while buttoned up. There’s a reason Upton 43 is on everybody’s radar. And on top 10 restaurants in the Twin Cities lists. If you’re looking for adventure in the safety of your own back yard, cozy up in the hearth of this Linden Hills hideaway. The creativity is at once jaw-dropping and lip-smacking. You and your date will explore familiar favorites through playful techniques and presentations. I’ve never heard from anyone who didn’t have a story to tell about their meal at Upton 43.
203 6th St. E., St. Paul
Minneapolitans are rarely willing to cross the river for any reason, but this Minneapolitan (and former Texan) does so gladly for a heaping helping of fine contemporary Southern cooking. Brisket and ribs are near religion where I come from and Handsome Hog will take you to church. You won’t have to wear your Sunday best, though, as the mood and ambience is casual and gregarious. Special note: if you and your date are pig people (as in, the thought of pork belly puts a little pep in your step), don’t hesitate to order the whole roasted pork jowl as an appetizer. It stopped our dinner dead in its tracks. We sat dumb with a mouthful of the most wonderful, unctuous pork, staring into each other’s eyes wondering how we’d ever put such porcine perfection to words. Impossible. Just go. Trust me.
That was easy! Now you’re armed with four perfectly good ideas for Valentine’s Day dinner. Truthfully, these recommendations would be perfect all year long. I don’t want to hear any carping the next time Valentine’s Day rolls around and you’re at a loss. Actually, feel free to carp, because I’m happy to keep giving you ideas. Your needing ideas means I get to eat more menus. Lucky us!