Romance is a loaded concept, isn't it? For starters, it's completely relative. What qualifies as romance to some is embarrassingly corny to others. A gesture considered grandly over-the-top to some couples might be merely the stuff of everyday life to a different pair. Add to that the fact that, despite what movies and books have conditioned us to believe, romance often requires some orchestration, and it's during those planning stages that the idea of romance can start to feel altogether unsentimental. Then there's the whole issue of money. I know that expense is thought to be directly proportional to romance, but I also know that one of my most memorable and romantic Valentine's dates involved me, my boyfriend, and a double order of extra crispy Runyon's wings. Though your time to secure reservations is running low, the Twin Cities is rife with romantic little spots that serve some under-the-radar, inexpensive dishes. Here are some ways to have a fun and fancy Valentine's Day for two for less than $50.
It's dark, cozy, classic, and the food is filling enough to satisfy the most insatiable meat-and-potatoes type of diner. Do it up Old World style with a tour of German and Eastern European fare, but keep it reasonable by going for some of the half portions and more rustic dishes. Start with a half order of gorgeous liver pate and follow up with two entrees: the tender braised pork shank, with a good amount of gravy and a pile of pillowy mashed potatoes, and the slightly spicy Hungarian goulash, which is heavy on the paprika and served with squiggles of eggy, house-made spaetzle. Save room for one of Vienna's most iconic desserts: the ultra-rich Sachertorte. Glazed with apricot and made without flour, the fudgy and fruity torte is an indulgent finish that will make you feel like you spent way more than $44. (1 E. 26th St., Minneapolis; 612.872.0812; blackforestinnmpls.com)
Hot spots for special-occasion dining will be especially busy over the next week or so, and Butcher & the Boar is no exception. You might be able to squeeze into the bar if you're willing to go at an off hour, but the good news is you don't have to get the $27 double-cut pork chop to have a good, meaty time here. Instead, piece together a more moderately priced but still festive meal with aphrodisiacs of varying degrees of sophistication. Start with the beautiful wood-grilled oysters, all plump and briny nestled in their half shells, then (and you have to trust me, even though it doesn't scream romance) order the footlong hot dog with Cajun chow chow. It's six inches of sausage apiece on a lovely, glossy bun, and it will leave you with just enough room to savor a few spoonfuls of an iconic Southern dessert: banana pudding. Butcher & the Boar fancies up its pudding with crumbled gingersnaps and bruleed meringue, and it pairs really nicely with a shot of Old Crow Reserve, which will run each of you just $3, bringing your total bill to just $34 before tax and tip. (1121 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.238.8888; butcherandtheboar.com)
Yes, the portions are small — that's part of the concept — but that's what makes it possible to experience Doug Flicker's exquisite food at under $14 a plate. Skip the whole rigamarole of going out on actual Valentine's Day and wait until the weekend to celebrate. Then you can come here and do the whole late-night European dining thing — like Spanish tapas with loads more whimsy. Share one plate from each of the five sections of Piccolo's imaginative menu — such as smoked octopus with hot peppers; scrambled eggs with pickled pig's feet; chicken with ham hock, sauerkraut, and parsnip puree; and lamb merguez with persimmon and salsify — and still spend just $50 for the two of you. (4300 Bryant Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.827.8111; piccolompls.com)
Sea Change is best known for its fish, with good reason. Its arctic char actually delivers the crispy skin it promises; its scallops are always perfection, no matter how they're prepared; and its raw bar is truly an embarrassment of riches. But Sea Change's non-seafood dishes are overall less expensive and still equally delicious. Try the golden lamb samosas with mint yogurt, a warm and wonderful way to start your night, followed by the linguine with duck confit, squash, black trumpet mushrooms, and pistachios, which is sophisticated, hearty, and portioned to share. It would be sacrilege to leave Sea Change without experiencing any fruits of the sea, so take advantage of the individually priced fresh, raw oysters — a few with spicy sauces would be more than appropriate on this holiday. Conclude your meal with the chocolate cremeaux, a rich, brownie-like dessert with black currant, which will bring the bill to around $40 for both of you. As a big-time bonus, the ambiance in the sleek lobby of the Guthrie Theater, with views of the Stone Arch bridge, is as conducive to silly conversation as it is to exchanging loving glances. But be forewarned, sometimes those glances will be directed toward your plate. (806 S. Second St., Minneapolis; 612.255.6499; seachangempls.com)
Because of the small-plates concept and well-priced wine list at Nightingale, the thoughtful new late-night eatery in Whittier, you can really have a classically elegant evening and come in just under the $50 mark — bubbly included. Deviled eggs may evoke a retro cocktail party, but they can really be elevated when topped with caviar, and they are set off beautifully by a glass or two of sparkling Italian rosé. Move along to what is fast becoming one of Nightingale's signatures, a fresh ricotta bruschetta with Egyptian dukkah spices and a hint of mint, and share the sumptuous steak tartare with grilled bread and sunchokes. You'll have just enough change and appetite left over to devour the silky and simple chocolate pot de creme with sea salt. (2551 Lyndale Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.354.7060; nightingalempls.com)
They say sex is like pizza: Even when it's bad it's still pretty good. And Ann Kim's pies at Pizzeria Lola are very, very good. They're also unique, and therefore special, and served in a setting that is very date appropriate. Besides, there is just something about eating with your hands and not being afraid to get a little messy that's very intimate. Order up a carafe of Barbera and split a simple salad of greens, blue cheese, crispy pancetta, and biting sherry vinaigrette, followed by the Sunnyside pizza, a rich and elegant melange of Pecorino, cream, smoky guanciale, leeks, and two runny-cooked eggs. When the toppings hit the bit of tomato sauce on the crispy, wood-fired crust, the overall effect is like eating the simplest, most perfect Bolognese sauce you've ever had. Don't leave without having some homemade vanilla soft serve topped with a good glug of olive oil and flakes of sea salt, and do it all for $42. (5557 Xerxes Ave. S., Minneapolis; 612.424.8338; pizzerialola.com)
If you manage to snag a reservation on Valentine's Day, Blackbird is doing a fixed, five-course dinner for $35 a person, but this low-key neighborhood spot is an even better deal when you can order off its regular menu. Go out on Friday instead and start with a small but filling plate of earthy truffled gnocchi and a refreshing shaved apple salad. Then share a full pound of mussels (for an astounding $8) in a smoky, tomato-based broth and a subtle, delicious plate of whipped robiola flavored with lavender oil and sprinkled with pistachios. Blackbird's desserts never disappoint and are always just $6. Make a toast over whatever they have for dessert (cross your fingers for key lime pie) with two perfect Kir Royales, all for about $46. (3800 Nicollet Ave., Minneapolis; 612-823-4790; blackbirdmpls.com)