If you are reading this right now, you or your significant other most likely have reservations booked, a bottle of wine selected and a box of chocolates wrapped in a bow. Yes, it is Valentine”s Day, and there”s little you can do to change tonight”s plans, whatever they may be. All respectable restaurants in town, and numerous “thought-to-be good” dining establishments are booked with thousands of romantic, sappy Ann Arbor lovebirds and local high school sweethearts festooned with ugly boutonnires and corsages competing with midterm-stressed University students for tables.
Just know that Valentine”s Day is a holiday trumped up by the greeting card and confectioners industry, and if you get it wrong this year, know that it”s not the end of the world. If you”re going to be around Ann Arbor next year, take a few lessons here and make next year”s Valentine”s a far-superior evening.
Laying some ground rules:
Picking the right place
Note to the guys: If you made a reservation anywhere on or near South University Avenue, you are pathetic. Going to Good Time Charley”s or the Brown Jug may be good for drinks, but not for a romantic dinner. If you plan to bring your date to Pizza House tonight, you should have thought ahead and made reservations downtown.
The popular standards that are familiar to most University students are Gratzi (326 S. Main St.), Real Seafood Company (341 S. Main St.), The Chop House (322 S. Main St.), Palio (347 S. Main St.) and The Gandy Dancer (401 Depot St.). These are the places you go to when your parents are in town. And obviously, since most students don”t frequent downtown that much, knowledge of what lies west of State Street is often limited. But there is much, much more to Ann Arbor than the obvious. Selecting the right restaurant can make this special day even more romantic.
Quality over quantity
But like many over-commercialized American holidays, lovebirds can often become mired in the mass-appeal of Valentine”s Day and emphasize gluttony and kitsch rather than quality food and a one-of-a-kind environment.
To do Valentine”s Day in Ann Arbor right, you need to find a restaurant that is something out of the ordinary.
Would you believe that one of the city”s best restaurants is located across the street from the Modern Languages Building? That”s right, Escoffier (300 S. Thayer St.) is probably Ann Arbor”s best kept secret for Valentine”s Day. Escoffier doesn”t advertise itself you can walk past the Bell Tower Hotel and not even know that the city”s finest French dining can be found off its lobby.
If you like mood lighting coupled with French and Italian provincial fare, try the Earle (121 W. Washington St.). Located in the basement of a historic commercial building, the Earle, like Escoffier, is frequented by the University”s power-brokers. Twice when I”ve been there, Regent Rebecca McGowan (D-Ann Arbor) dined a couple tables away. (It”s rumored that former University President Lee Bollinger would dine there with his wife Jean because of the restaurant”s secluded environment.)
If you want to take the “eye” out of Eye-talian cuisine, try Bella Ciao (118 W. Liberty St.) for authentic Italian cuisine. Here, they aren”t going to slap marinara sauce on a bed of spaghetti and say tres magnifique. Though it may be shocking to some myopic Americans that not all Italian food is pasta slathered with sauce, non-Eye-talian food can center on a nice cut of beef or veal and fine antipasti that go a little farther than fried mozzarella sticks. Bella Ciao is probably the best unassuming Italian restaurants in Ann Arbor that doesn”t cater to the masses. Its intimate dining room makes for a perfect Valentine”s Day meal. (By the way, the Earle and Bella Ciao were ranked the two best romantic restaurants last year in the Ann Arbor Current.)
If you seek a non-traditional Valentine”s Day meal, two other restaurants come to mind. For an interactive and out-of-the ordinary meal, go to the Blue Nile (221 E. Washington St.). If you like Ethiopian food or are adventurous in general, eating with your hands at a traditional woven-basket table with your date might be just what you”re looking for.
Restaurancja Amadeus (122. E. Washington St.) might be a good selection if you like an intimate and unassuming atmosphere and want to recreate your trip to Prague last spring break. Though the restaurant does not focus on the cuisine of any individual European country, the menu samples from Polish, German and Hungarian food. The place has great Viennese coffee and live classical music in the evening. And like your Prague adventure, it”s cheap in comparison to other restaurants downtown.
“Oooooo, you”ve got $80!”
Dennis Miller is right limos are stupid. But no doubt, tonight at least one white limousine is going to cruise South U., State Street, or past the line of single people outside Scorekeeper”s. You never know, the degenerate lovebird occupants might even stand up through the moon roof to proclaim their love to the world.
Please be aware that limos aren”t all that expensive to rent for an evening and therefore aren”t as exclusive as you may think. Therefore, the entire purpose of getting a limousine to impress your date and pedestrian-gawkers with your financial resources is essentially futile.
If your pockets are deep and ego is through the roof, maximize your cash. If you want to show off your wealth and get a limo, don”t do it in Ann Arbor, because there aren”t any valet stations here worthy enough for such a vehicle.
To go all out, you need to get the hell out of Washtenaw County and head to downtown Detroit or Birmingham. A couple places come to mind: Opus One (565 Larned St., Detroit), Cuisine (670 Lothrop St., Detroit, near Fisher Theater) or the Detroit Athletic Club (members only, of course). My favorite of Detroit”s top dining establishments is the Rattlesnake Club (300 River Place, Detroit). Located about a mile east of downtown Detroit toward Belle Isle, the Rattlesnake Club boasts an elegant but not stuffy atmosphere. The restaurant overlooks the Detroit River and is frequented by auto execs and entertainers when they come through Detroit. And the cuisine is top-notch. If you appreciate excellent food presented in a stimulating environment, think about going here.
Sometimes, the best romantic dining experiences don”t even have to be centered on the perfect restaurant. For those blessed with the culinary arts, cooking at home might be on the agenda for tonight. To make the evening in your kitchen even better be sure to shop for quality ingredients. Instead of running out to Meijer, think about heading over to Kerrytown. Monahan”s Seafood Market, Ciacco Produce Market and Sparrow Meat Market, inside the Kerrytown complex (North Fifth Avenue at Detroit Street) offers some of the best ingredients in the city. Other good places to shop for the best stuff in town is the People”s Food Co-Op (216 N. Fourth Ave.), Jefferson Street Market (606. W. Jefferson St.) and South Main Market (615 S. Main St.).
South Main Market, along with its counterpart in Kerrytown, Partners in Wine in Cheese, has the best wine selection downtown. But if you don”t want to walk that far, Village Corner (601 S. Forest Ave.) has the selection close to campus.
Instead of meeting your date for dinner, consider dessert or cocktails. Why not both? The two best places to do that in town, are La Dolce Vita (322 S. Main St.) and Caf Felix (204 S. Main St.). Sometimes a quality trifle, strong espresso, a scone or an $8 martini will be ten times more romantic than a bowl of fettuccini alfredo.
What ever you do end up doing for Valentine”s, make sure to emphasize quality over quantity. With love, it”s not how much you show your affection, but how you show it. To those who don”t agree, let me shove this box of chocolate down your throat.
Michael Grass will be dining alone tonight and will later be seen tonight at Ashley”s Pub drinking a 21-year old Glengarioch neat. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org if anyone cares to join him.