It’s almost St. Valentine’s Day, and you want to treat your sweetie right. You’ve got chocolates and long-stemmed roses wrapped and ready, but you know you’ll put that starry-eyed gleam in her if you escort her to dinner for two at a romantic restaurant.
To help you make your pick, I’ll tell you about some of my favorite local eateries in the wine-and-roses-and-romance category.
But first, for those of you who combine your natural romantic spirit with a practical sensibility, here’s a discreet little piece of advice. Step close, I don’t want to say this loud enough for everyone to hear:
Valentine’s Day may not be the best time to fully enjoy a fine place to dine. Like Mother’s Day, New Year’s Eve and Derby Day, these popular holidays are the busiest days of the year in the restaurant business. Loud, demanding crowds put waitstaff and chefs under pressure and can challenge even the best-managed eatery. Savvy diners skip the holiday in favor of enjoying a quieter, less frenzied scene a day or two before or after.
But hey! Who wants to be practical all the time? On Feb. 14 or any other day, these are some of my local favorites for food, service and romance. It’s an idiosyncratic and personal list, based on my judgement for food, service, value and a romantic setting. This combination of factors rules out some top-name favorites that ring my chimes for fun and food but make their sale with glitz and excitement and happy noise, not quiet romance.
First, let’s look at four top-end favorites. You can be assured of world-class fare and service and a memorably romantic atmosphere here, but don’t forget your wallet.
610 Magnolia, 610 Magnolia St., (502) 636-0783
Under the long-term guidance of innovative owner-chef Ed Garber, this stylish Old Louisville spot has ranked among the nation’s finest restaurants, known for the creative genius of its cuisine and for its take-no-prisoners approach to getting everything exactly right without regard to cost. Chef Edward Lee, Garber’s successor, has added his personal stamp but maintained the same high standard, and the quiet elegance of its old-house setting in Old Louisville puts the romantic icing on the cake.
Le Relais, Bowman Field, 2817 Taylorville Road, (502) 451-9020
How do I love Le Relais? Let me count the ways: Elegant art deco style, excellent service, and most of all, creative riffs on traditional French cuisine keep Le Relais consistently near the top of Louisville’s restaurant competition. Chef Daniel Stage’s menu is rooted in classic French cuisine but always modern, never stuffy, and he never fails to deliver a memorable meal.
The Oakroom, Seelbach Hotel, 500 S. Fourth Ave., (502) 585-3200
The loss of two signature chefs had local foodies worried about the continued status of the Oakroom in the city’s top tier, but we needn’t have fretted: Chef Todd Richards, who had worked under chefs Jim Gerhardt and Walter Leffler, learned his lessons well. Now in charge, he has maintained its standard and, some say, been bold enough to break new ground. The Seelbach’s antique, Gatsby-style ambience makes a perfect setting for a quietly romantic evening.
Limestone Restaurant, 10001 Forest Green Blvd., (502) 426-7477
Speaking of Jim Gerhardt, he and associate Michael Cunha, who built the Oakroom’s reputation over a decade, continue their winning formula of creative, locally flavored cuisine and exceptional service in this independent suburban restaurant. The modern shopping-center facility may not match the Oakroom’s wood-paneled gravitas, but first-rate food and service keep it on everyone’s list of favorites.
Looking for something just a little more affordable? Choose from this more thrifty but inviting group that’s second-tier only in price but not at all in quality.
Equus, 122 Sears Ave., (502) 897-9721
Unassuming in curb appeal with its modest St. Matthews shopping-center setting, Equus opens up to comfortably formal dining rooms (and the inviting Jack’s Lounge), where proprietor-chef Dean Corbett has built a solid reputation and a loyal following over 20 years. The bill of fare takes advantage of seasonal specialties and manages to be adventurous without going over the top.
L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, 1765 Mellwood Ave., (502) 897-0070
This relatively recent arrival, Louisville’s only full wine bar, dispenses more than 100 well-chosen wines by the bottle, full glass or 2-ounce tasting glass. But it’s not just about the wine: L&N scores for Chef Rick Adams’ food as well as drink; and it adds romance points for its relaxing, comfortable old-house setting with fireplaces blazing on chilly February evenings.
211 Clover Lane, 211 Clover Lane (Colony Center), (502) 896-9570
Blessed with an atmospheric setting and a loyal crowd of East End followers, 211 Clover Lane has changed management in recent years but continues to rank among the city’s top restaurants. Suave service and innovative but never alarming cuisine make it a critic’s choice; intimate dining rooms make for a cozy setting that invites romance.
De la Torre’s, 1606 Bardstown Road, (502) 456-4955
If you can’t afford to jet your sweetie off to sunny Spain for a holiday, this may be the next best thing. Spanish style and Castilian fare, a short but interesting wine list and pleasant service … who could ask for more? The charming dining room’s lofty interior with oak beams and pillars and discreet blue-tile decor brings a Spanish accent to busy Bardstown Road.
Asiatique, 1767 Bardstown Road,(502) 451-2749
Long a St. Matthews favorite, Asiatique kicked things up a notch when it moved into larger, more stylish quarters on busy Bardstown Road. Chef Peng Looi, one of Louisville’s most innovative culinary artists, offers Pacific-Rim fusion dishes in a spare but stunning setting; for late-night dining and drinking, don’t miss the downstairs lounge.
On a tighter budget still? These three favorites offer a full ration of romance and excellent fare for a relatively affordable toll:
Buck’s, 425 W. Ormsby St., (502) 637-5284
The dining room in Old Louisville’s genteel old Mayflower Hotel is eclectic Victorian with tongue firmly in cheek. A gigantic brass chandelier hangs from the center of the main dining room, and Victorian-style objects of art, joyously mixed table settings and a profusion of flowers add touches of humor and fun. The bill of fare offers a good mix of American-style dishes (don’t miss the signature dessert, mocha dacquoise), and the magisterial bar is an outstanding spot to stop for a drink even if you can’t stay for dinner.
Westport General Store, 7008 KY Hwy 524, Westport, Ky., (502) 222-4626
It’s well worth the short drive out the highway to this pleasant little spot on the river in tiny Westport in Oldham County. Once the town general store, it’s now a comfortable, modestly upscale restaurant, where proprietors Will and Laura Crawford and their crew provide a comfortably sophisticated bill of fare that would in no way be out of place in the fanciest bistro on Bardstown Road or Frankfort Avenue.
Saffron’s, 131 W. Market St., (502) 584-7800
You might think an ethnic restaurant is an odd choice for a list of romantic dining rooms, but Saffron’s isn’t just any ethnic restaurant. Specializing in royal Persian cuisine, it’s operated by the amiable Majid Ghavami, a veteran of Casa Grisanti and Vincenzo’s, who brings his exceptional front-of-the-house skills to this simple but stylish Market Street spot. Saffron’s does it right, from its striking outdoor murals through comfortable decor to unforgettable Persian dishes that leap over international borders to speak directly to your palate.