Since the beginning of time, lovers have offered food and drink to the objects of their affection. Call it courtship or bribery, but the practice is still in play, making Valentine's Day one of the busiest days of the year for dining out. This year, the opportunity to express at least epicurean love is extended by the Valentine's Day weekend, and already restaurants are booking up for reservations on Saturday night, as well as the official Valentine's Day on Sunday. To make sure nothing disturbs the loving vibe, make reservations, or at least double-check hours and availability before heading out. The only thing you want your date to hunger for is love.
All the way
If you're prepared to go all out to impress your beloved, Park Plaza Gardens in Winter Park has an indoor-park setting that includes potted ficus trees strung with hundreds of tiny, white lights. Maison & Jardin in Altamonte Springs is far more opulent, with its Louis XIV reproductions; this is a place where waiters have international accents, and they stroll around with silver carts to flambé your dishes tableside. Peter Scott's in Longwood has more big-city sophistication, plus nightly shows; and the clubby, private bar is a great place to start off with cocktails.
If you're willing to navigate the downtown parking scene, Le Provence offers upscale country French, and the lacy window panels and golden candlelight make everyone look good. Tasca Tacón is a tongue-twister, especially if you've indulged in their killer sangria. But it's also an excellent choice for upscale Spanish dining in a charged setting that includes a live flamenco show on Saturday nights.
The only hitch in for all of the above restaurants is that dinner for two easily hits the $100 range.
If you want to impress on a more modest budget, not a lot of people -- and hopefully not your date -- realize how affordable Le Coq au Vin is for excellent French cuisine. It perennially lives up to its reputation, but a full dinner for two might run only about $50, if you don't count wine. For something even cheaper, Le Cookin' Book in Ocoee may not be much to look at, but its French menu is on par with some of the pricier restaurants in town, and service is genteel. Another little-known fine-dining spot on the east side, Oakwood Bistro, is modestly priced too.
Variety is the spice
If your love is a picky eater, try The Tapas in Altamonte Springs, which has an intimate setting and a huge selection of Continental dishes in affordable appetizer portions that are priced right for sampling. In Winter Park, one of the best-kept secrets for affordable but romantic dining is Schafer's Caffeehaus, a European bistro that offers exquisite dinner pastries, presented artistically for eye-appeal.
Ethnic eateries are as much fun as Continental restaurants and, in many cases, cheaper. If your date has a passion for Thai, Siam Garden in Winter Park offers soft lighting, smooth service and a menu that blossoms with spicy fusions from the Far East. What better way to get cozy than on a tatami mat for two at Shiki Japanese Cuisine in Winter Park, over a tray of sushi, sashimi and sake? And if you have a yen for Indian, Clay Oven in Longwood will seduce your palate with its well-crafted curries.
For a more non-traditional experience, head over to Enzian Theater in Maitland and catch a flick during dinner (the moving Dancing at Lughnasa plays through the weekend). The menu has expanded to include Saturday-night specials like blackened snapper or steak with Beaujolais sauce.
Under the moon
If a big night out isn't your scene, take your love to Moo's Brothers at Thornton Park for a scoop of ice cream, followed by a stroll to nearby Lake Eola Park. For the more ambitious, the park is perfect for a moonlight picnic, but be prepared to stake-out your turf early, since a growing number of couples have had this idea in recent years. Don't forget a jug of wine, a loaf of bread and a book of sappy poetry.
And remember, it's all about being creative.