It’s Valentine’s Day, and even if you don’t have a reservation at Per Se, you can still show your better half a wonderful time. Here are a few under-the-radar, beloved or just plain classic places to have a drink and a bite on this day for lovers. Bon Appetit!
Zucco: Le French Diner
188 Orchard St.
New York, NY 10002
Note: The first thing you notice about Zucco: Le French Diner, the most beloved bistro on the Lower East Side, is its owner, Greko Chemoul. He haunts the tiny place behind its bar – a generous six-seater that takes up most of the restaurant – and he’s stubbled and wearing a hat, taking the occasional sip of a Stella, followed by a requisite break outside for a cigarette. The next thing you will notice is the food, which is excellent, and then you’ll notice the clippings from French boxing magazines framed all around, pinned alongside other boxing-related miscellany. The lightweights that line the wall are an homage to Zucco Chemoul, Greko’s father, who opened the joint after spending years in Paris editing the boxing magazine disassembled all around his kitchen. Zucco died in 2010 (of a heart attack he suffered outside of the restaurant) and the place that remains is a testament to his gregarious charm. Order a bottle or two of the Côtes du Rhône, a plate of the risotto, a marguez sandwich and some escargot and you and your date will leave feeling like victorious boxers strutting out of the ring.
242 Mott St
New York, NY
Note: There’s one particular date I always think of when I walk into Cafe Gitane: Baz Lurhmann wining and dining Leonardo DiCaprio before offering him the role as Gatsby. No doubt the setting of Cafe Gitane in Nolita had something to do with Leo saying yes. You may not have a role in an F. Scott Fitzgerald silver screen adaptation to offer your beloved, but the giant and scrumptious couscous will do quite nicely, perhaps paired with a couple of camparis and soda. What’s more, the whole place is coated with cerulean tiles, reminiscent of the byzantine art in Morocco, one of the exotic lands that inspires Gitane’s fare. And order the avocado toast – the green spread flecked with red pepper flakes looks wonderful through an Instagram filter.
Bemelman’s Bar at The Carlyle Hotel
35 E. 76th Street
New York, NY 10021
Note: It’s not only acceptable to order a $24.00 dry martini at the Bemelman’s Bar, inside The Carlyle Hotel, it’s downright criminal if you don’t. It arrives in a giant glass, chilled just so, and with it is a sizable tumbler nestled in ice filled with a splash or two extra. The first sip is as crisp as any martini in the city, dry as can be, yet never watery. If your date’s averse to gin and olives for some reason, a few other cocktails are more than passable. Go for a Whiskey Smash or The Old Cuban (Hemingway would more than approve). And if the snack tower – filled with cups of salted nuts, potato chips and spicy cheese crackers – doesn’t suffice, splurge on steak tartar and oysters. A tip for the guys: are you jacket-less and wearing jeans? Don’t waste your scratch on the cab up there, as you’re not welcome.
113 MacDougal St.
New York, NY 10012
Note: Perhaps the crown jewel of Keith McNally’s New York dining empire, Minetta Tavern takes chops and spuds to another level. That first glance past the curtains in the classic Greenwich Village location, smack in the middle of Macdougal Street, is enough to convince a classy lady or gent that you mean business. Though perhaps the most buzzed-over item at the old school place is the most transgressive: the Black Label Burger, a cheese-less masterpiece done up with caramelized onions and brushed with grapeseed oil. The place can be tough to score a table at, though, so if you didn’t have the foresight to make a rez, Valentine’s Dinner will have to be $3 falafel at Mamoun’s, a block down. One could do worse.
42 Grove St., New York, NY 10014
near Bleecker St.
Note: Go for the lovely small plates at the lovely small place! Buvette, which took over the decades-old Pink Tea Cup a few years ago, is what owner Jody Williams calls a “gastroteque,” a cute spot for hearty snacks such as a sampler of croques monsieur or a charcuterie plate. And Buvette has upped the standard for the nuts by the bar: the salty almonds and pecans come in a custom-made leather satchel. If that doesn’t impress the significant other, we’re not sure what will, unless they are allergic to nuts, in which case don’t do the nuts part.