OpenTable, an online reservation site, has been sending me regular emails asking where I will “valen-dine.” Reservations get pretty competitive this close to Valentine’s Day, so don’t be that person to wait until the last minute and then realize that if you want to go out, you’ll have to dine with the senior citizens at 4:30 p.m.
Here are my top five picks for whatever type of Valentine’s Day celebration you’re looking for, whether it’s a super fancy, candle-lit dinner or a casual night out.
Pasteur ($$$) 5525 N. Broadway St.
Take a short walk from the the Bryn Mawr Red Line stop and you’ll find this French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant that will provide a romantic, elegant dining experience. The interior is decorated like a classic upscale Parisian dining room, with flowers and candles at each table, soft-lit chandeliers and white leather-backed chairs. The French-Vietnamese food is far from your usual take-out order, and the restaurant offers both big and small plates. Start with one of the appetizers such as the Saigon crepe ($9), made with coconut milk and filled with chicken and shrimp, then enjoy an exotic entrée such as the Clay-pot ginger chicken ($15) or seared duck in tamarind sauce ($19). Be sure to order the light and fresh mango mousse cake for dessert ($7).
Miku Sushi ($$$) 4514 N. Lincoln Ave.
Full disclosure, the PR firm where I intern represents this sushi spot, so I’ve had the chance to dine here on several occasions, but each time I’m blown away by the exquisite food. The chic atmosphere, extensive menu and excellent service make it an ideal dinner spot. The sushi-grade fish is flown in from Japan, and you can taste how fresh it is. Each dish is beautifully presented, as the chefs use different colored sauces to paint each plate with elaborate designs before it arrives. Make sure you and your date also split a bowl of Miku’s authentic ramen ($14), which takes three days to prepare. To add some sparks to your evening, order the flaming dragon maki ($16), which arrives at the table on a fiery decorated plate and includes shrimp tempura, salmon and white tuna all in one roll.
Vapiano ($$) 44 S. Wabash Ave.
Nothing says romance like Italian food. This restaurant is cafeteria-style, making it a little more casual, but the food is excellent. Chefs cook whatever pasta dish you’ve chosen (typically $7.50 to $12) right in front of you at the order counter, and they’ll add a generous dose of parmesan and fresh bread as well. The pizzas ($7.50 to $12) are Neapolitan-style and cooked in a stone oven, which adds a great smoky flavor.
You pay individually after swiping a card you receive when you enter at each station you visit, so if you’re in that awkward, “Are we dating — how do we split the bill” phase, Vapiano is the place to go.
Cookies and Carnitas ($$) 5757 N. Broadway St.
If you want a night out without all the fuss and frills but are still looking for a fun restaurant to try, head to Cookies and Carnitas. Close to the Thorndale Red Line stop and specializing in tacos, sandwiches and old-fashioned cookies, the casual counter-service, cash-only spot will provide a low-key evening with memorable food. Don’t let the casual atmosphere fool you, though, this place offers some serious eats. Order tacos with pork belly, pineapple and Chihuahua cheese ($4 each), or sandwiches such as the aged steak sandwich ($14) with Manchego cheese and sundried tomato jam or the classic Italian porchetta ($14). Don’t forget to end on a sweet note with one of its hand-sized cookies ($2.75) such as the triple chocolate cookie or the kitchen floor cookie (more appealing than its name leads you to believe, this one is a chocolate chip cookie topped with espresso and sea salt).
Café Ba-Ba Reeba ($$) 2024 N. Halsted St.
The vibrant Spanish atmosphere and great variety of tapas options at this restaurant will make for a fun night out. Start with the pintxos platter ($11), which includes six bite-sized tapas, including a chorizo-wrapped medjool date with cheese and a mushroom toast with aged roncal cheese and a sherry gastrique. You and your date can then each pick a few dishes such as the patatas bravas ($6), which are spicy potatoes with a tomato aioli and roasted chicken empanadas ($6), or go all-out and order the paella ($12 to $15 per serving), a traditional Spanish rice dish. Tapas are a lot of fun to share, and they have something for everyone. The menu is conveniently broken up into vegetarian and meat categories, and the staff is accommodating of any food allergies. Considering the desserts are also small plates and only $3 each, go ahead, order a few.