Ah Valentine’s Day, a night that aggressive marketers would like you to believe is the make-it-or-break-it moment in any romantic relationship. The truth is that New Yorkers don’t need an overpriced prix-fixe menu as an excuse to slip into heels or a fancy shirt and park it in a sexy banquette for the evening. When we do want a steamy night on the town (be it V-Day or otherwise), this city teems with blush-worthy restaurants — whether tiny or sprawling, timeless or of-the-moment, daring or sure-fire, splurges or saves — and here are 10 of the city’s best for wooing your sweetheart.
Canoodling carnivores head to Takashi, chef Takashi Inoue’s West Village beef shrine, where making dinner together is as alluring as eating it. Whether seated at the coveted chef’s counter or one of the small wooden tables, diners get intimate by cooking adventurous offal like heart and stomach — or the more familiar short rib and rib eye — over built-in grills. While this interactive dining experience is a surefire icebreaker, ordering cheeky items like the Tongue Experience (that’s three different cuts of the rich meat) will take things to the next level. One caveat: it’s a tight space, so once you’re through with the homemade Madagascar vanilla soft-serve ice cream, you may want to get a nightcap at the ambient cocktail bar Employees Only a few blocks away. 456 Hudson St., 212-414-2929, takashinyc.com
Whitewashed brick in the dining room, a vaulted ceiling in the bar and a profusion of candles and wine bottles alone make the Piemontese restaurant Sorella an amatory destination at the crossroads of the Lower East Side and Chinatown. Luckily for lovers, there are also amorous cocktails like the Cherry Godmother (Scotch, Amaretto, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, bitters) to sip that pave the way for executive chef Molly Nickerson’s pork rillettes on bacon fat English muffin bread and garganelli nero strewn with ruby red shrimp and Nduja pork sausage in a Calabrian chile and tarragon-spiked sauce. Sharing an Italian cheese plate keeps the evening going. 95 Allen St., 212-274-9595, sorellanyc.com
La Lanterna di Vittorio
Cozy La Lanterna di Vittorio, across from Washington Square Park and in the midst of chaotic New York University country, looks to be plucked from a charming European village. At this small, dark bi-level eatery that’s outfitted with a crackling fireplace, you can sit and talk over simple but satisfying fare (and with the most expensive entrée at just $15, it’s inexpensive too!) such as steaming bowls of minestrone soup and hearty slabs of lasagna Bolognese. Top it off with an excellent cappuccino, or keep the night going downstairs at the intimate jazz hub, Bar Next Door. 129 Macdougal St., 212-529-5945, lalanternacaffe.com
It may require saving more than a few pennies, but dining at Daniel is worth the potential scrimping in the aftermath. Acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud’s signature restaurant on the Upper East Side, which turned 20 in 2013, maintains an Old World elegance that feels decidedly modern, not stuffy. For this special date, dress up and splurge on a seven-course tasting menu, or piece together your own a la carte feast, perhaps including stewed Alaskan king crab with Hawaiian hearts of palm, orange-braised endive and crispy tamaki rice, or kataifi-encrusted Dover sole in a bone marrow-green peppercorn sauce. The latter, meant for two, might leave you thinking you are too full for a molasses-poached pear, but carry on; dessert maintains the Cinderella illusion for just a tad longer. 60 E. 65th St., 212-288-0033, danielnyc.com
A clubby celebrity set flocked to Butter — and gave it cachet — when it first opened over a decade ago in NoHo. Now, executive chef Alex Guarnaschelli, she of the Food Network’s Iron Chef fame, has moved the operation up to Midtown, where her cooking is at the forefront. The striking subterranean dining room, tucked inside the Cassa Hotel, gets a natural light infusion courtesy of a soaring atrium. For a more private experience, skip the communal table and head for one of the booths, where you can revel in the warmth of the wood-fired oven and order basil oil-dressed lobster on the half shell from the raw bar, thickly cut veal bacon paired with red wine mustard and a hearty, 40-day dry-aged bone-in filet with bone marrow gremolata perfect for two. 70 W. 45th St., 212-253-2828, butterrestaurant.com
The two of you could be up front, in the warm, welcoming tavern, enjoying duck liver mousse with pickled vegetables, or ensconced back in the more polished dining room tackling a multi-course seasonal affair — heirloom bean chili strewn with cornbread croutons followed by red snapper with bok choy and sweet potatoes in a peanut curry sauce. Either way, at the Flatiron District’s iconic Gramercy Tavern you get treated to executive chef-partner Michael Anthony’s sophisticated greenmarket-driven cooking amid a classy, inviting backdrop that makes the hours go by far too fast. 42 E. 20th St., 212-477-0777, gramercytavern.com
Oh, how Zenkichi tempts. Dining in a curtain-wrapped booth inside this labyrinthine, pebble-lined izakaya in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood is the epitome of a private experience. The small plates that keep arriving are marvels, too — white miso-topped Japanese eggplant, chicken meatballs in a soft egg dipping sauce and frozen black sesame mousse. No need to fret over waitstaff intruding upon your intimate fete, unless of course you desire more sake, in which case a buzzer instantly summons them. 77 N. Sixth St., Brooklyn, 718-388-8985, zenkichi.com
The Water Club
After Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on New York last fall, the circa-1982 Water Club — and its famous sister restaurant River Cafe, in Brooklyn — were forced to shutter. Luckily, the Water Club is back on its feet, where you can drink Sazeracs until your table is ready for miniature beef Wellingtons, jumbo shrimp cocktail, and not your-everyday lobster thermidor, paired with braised leeks and mushrooms and a heady sherry sabayon. The Water Club’s biggest seduction, however, may just be its mighty view of the East River and glittering Long Island City beyond. 500 E. 30th St., 212-683-3333, thewaterclub.com
One if By Land, Two if By Sea
That your three-course meal at One if By Land, Two if By Sea features executive chef Colt Taylor’s fancy dishes like spiced beef tartare with ginger, black plum and bonito aioli; a Maine lobster bake; and a chocolate caramel budino is beside the point. Instead, relish that you are in what might be the city’s most fabled carriage house. From its picturesque perch on a West Village street, to its charming arched windows and brick walls and abundance of breathtaking floral arrangements, it’s understandable why marriage proposals have been happening here over bubbly for decades. 17 Barrow St., 212-255-8649, oneifbyland.com
Queens’ sexiest restaurant is Mar’s, in Astoria, where the menu straddles the traditional — grilled lamb sausage with crispy potatoes accented by yogurt and mint — with the ambitious — veal sweetbreads surrounded by pickled red onions and aged balsamic. The owners, who are behind neighborhood favorite Sparrow, embraced a more upscale approach with this newcomer. And it oozes vintage charm: jazz plays softly out of 1930s-style retro speakers, the light fixtures are handmade, and the bar — serving up classic tipples like potent Manhattans — is fashioned out of old courtroom pews. 34-21 34th Ave., Queens, 718-685-2480, lifeatmars.com
Discover more of top places to see and things to do while in New York City with our Best of New York series. And, for more romantic restaurants, check out The 10 Most Beautiful Restaurants in New York City.