The lights are low. The candles flicker. The music — Michael Bublé, perhaps — plays softly in the background. Gazing into each other’s eyes over a flower-strewn table and clinking glasses, one feels… an intense pressure to perform.
It could be the other couples, crowded together in a competitive arrangement that suggests judging relationships is a spectator sport for staff at this time of year (it is). It could be the tortured Valentine’s menu of strawberries, chocolate fondants, and hastily-sourced oysters, shucked by people who only shuck on February 14. It could be fact that the “free glass of fizz” is prosecco, and both flat and lukewarm because there’s not enough fridge space to accommodate the bulk order. Or it could just be that, in trying so hard to be romantic, the restaurant has tipped headlong into schmaltz.
It is always a risk. Even when it’s not Valentine’s week, the line between romance and cringe is a fine one. There’s an alchemy to creating a meal and atmosphere which sparks genuine chemistry: smashing wine, gorgeous food, kind lighting and music that nurtures (rather than forces) feeling are vital, but to bring those together in such a way as to inspire that fuzzy, buzzy feeling takes a great restauranteur. Below, then, are the places which work — where neither the food, table-planning nor staff feel like hallmarks of a couple’s convention. They are romantic restaurants in which I could happily be courted at any time of year.
One could be dining with a housemate in Trullo, and it would still be romantic. I have; it was. I’ve also dined with there a client, and that was, too. This is down to the space — unvarnished wood floors, flickering candles, tableclothed tables, a striped awning, white curtains — and the fact it’s Italian. All their pappardelle with beef shin ragu needs is two dogs, and it’s Islington-meets-Lady and the Tramp. And yet somehow, it’s not cringey. It’s not even that coupley. Such is the quality of the handmade pasta (rolled minutes before service) and lovingly-sourced produce it comes with, there could be two newly-weds making out in a corner and it would still feel classy.
Trullo has been here for 13 years under the careful hands of Tim Siadatan: one of the last of the graduates of Jamie’s Fifteen course and famed for his talent and consistency. That shows in the staff, who are lovely; in the food and wine, which are near-flawless; and in Trullo being what few people are: a reliably great date.
300 – 302 St Paul’s Road, N1 2LH, trullorestaurant.com
The name Carousel could suggest a revolving door approach to dating, where one sees a number of candidates over the course of an evening. One could do that here — they wouldn’t judge, at least not openly — but it is far better served as a place to take someone beloved. The name actually refers to their dining room in the back, which plays host to an ever-changing line up of talented chefs. It’s a single-sitting supper-club affair, so it is a convivial experience for couples of four months or 40 years and counting, though the former may be better off in the wine bar at the front.
Here, chef and co-founder Ollie Templeton serves a menu as laid back and chic as the palazzo floors, white brick walls and warm staff that make up the surroundings. Cantabrian anchovies are draped over crisps, chicken is fried with habanero and honey, and the apple pie which comes with a quenelle of caramel ice cream is deep fried into burnished beauty. Cocktails are decent, but it’s the wide-ranging wine list drinkers come for.
19-23 Charlotte Street, W1T 1RL, carousel-london.com
There is, admittedly, a lot that is not romantic about Soho. The tourist traps. The sex shops. And don’t even get us started on the (thankfully now shut) sex restaurant. But when one knows it well enough to sort the wheat from the chaff that overcharges, these scruffy, cobbled streets run not just with rain but with romance. Maresco is a good example. Tucked into a blink-and-miss-it building on Berwick Street, it serves Spanish tapas via Scottish seafood, courtesy of Glaswegian restauranteur Stephen Lironi. It sounds bizarre, until one finds that Spain imports much of Scotland’s seafood anyway; Lironi is just short-circuiting that. Tapas is always romantic: the careful halving of the third croquet, the try-this try-that dance of courtship, the delight of discovering something new to both parties. Under head chef Pablo Rodriguez, Maresco does this in a buzzy, friendly setting of high seats and low, cosy tables, and with aplomb.
45 Berwick Street, W1F 8SF, maresco.co.uk
With its quaint French music and cute candlelit dining room, Casse-Croûte might appear a smidge schmalzy on entry. Bear with it, though, as one has no sooner been seated at one of the red and white checked tables than dissuaded of the idea that this restaurant is in any way over-the-top. The service is distinctly Parisian: stylish, seamless — and direct to the point of brusque, which in its way is highly entertaining. The menu is du jour, and changes regularly for seasonal ingredients, though it’s never on trend, which is reassuringly French. Mais oui, it’s on a blackboard. Ditto the wine list, which is basically the greatest hits of France. Combine this with excellently executed rilletes, fillet de canette and crème brulee, and it’s all the fun of Montparnasse with none of the cost of the Eurostar.
Casse Croute, 109 Bermondsey Street, SE1 3XB, cassecroute.co.uk
The most romantic part of dinner at Legare is not the fresh lobster, tangled with handmade spaghetti. It is not the focaccia, as soft and yielding as an expensive pillow, nestled in a linen basket alongside golden, peppery olive oil. It is not the concise, well curated wine list, nor even a shared cannoli, dusted with sugar and encrusted with jewel like pistachios. These are all very romantic, but the most romantic part is the walk. Whichever station is used — London Bridge or Tower Hill are your best bets — the wander to Legare is beautiful. It takes in the Tower, the winking lights of the City, the reassuring bulk of the HMS Belfast and of course, the broad, gleaming sweep of the river. And it ends in a bitter-sweet Negroni at Legare, one of the best Italian restaurants to have opened in this mad, bad, beautiful city in recent years.31 Shad Thames, SE1 2YR, legarelondon.com
The dining room is soft, slung with paper lanterns and hanging ferns. The rusty pink terracotta walls beckon with bright ornaments and candlelit corners. There could be romance in the air; there’s certainly the aroma of charcoal, braising beans and soft maize tortillas waiting to be filled with chargrilled octopus, or chicken with bright green mole. Start with a watermelon-spiked margarita, crusted with lime infused salt, then swoon over ceviche scatted with nasturtium flowers. Cavita’s Mexican owner, the eponymous Adriana Cavita, may have cut her teeth at three-Michelin-starred El Bulli, but her ambition is to create a home from home: “I hope you think you are in the house of a mother or grandmother,” she says. This is a restaurant to delight in, serving food to devour, not shoot on your phone.
60 Wigmore Street, W1U 2RZ, cavitarestaurant.com
The coldest of all the hot takes on dating apps is the line, “I don’t like dating apps”. Mate, no one likes them. No one dreams of doom-swiping to love, any more than one dreams of riding the Central Line; but sometimes one needs to in order to get to get somewhere great. In the case of the Central Line, that place is Leytonstone: specifically, Mora, a Sardinian restaurant run by chef Carlo Usai and his wife, Silvia. Already that sounds romantic, and that’s before you get to the octopus carpaccio with pink peppercorns, fresh sausage with pecorino and saffron, or tagliatelle tangled with hazelnut pesto or Sardinian goats’ cheese. The prices are swoon-worthy too: £13 for pasta and under £30 for most wines, all served in one room that bubbles with local love and bustling familiarity. In the case of the apps: hang on in there, and upon swiping lucky, take them to Mora.
487 High Road, E11 4PG, moraitalianrestaurant.co.uk
Not everyone needs spaghetti, blackboards and rustic vibes to feel romantic, because not everyone was raised on a diet of Nora Ephron, Richard Curtis and Disney. At BiBi in Mayfair, chef Chet Sharma offers Michelin-starred Indian cuisine inspired by his grandmothers, his travels around India and his Cambridge physics degree, and it’s one of the most romantic meals I’ve ever had. The space is intimate — not in an estate agent sense, but because the design makes every table feel like the only ones in there. The rich red kitchen counter is a fun place to be, but the dining room offers equal, if quieter, pleasures in observing the abstract artwork, and ivory black stone floors. As for the food, I defy anyone to eat Sharma’s creamy Lahori chicken or squidgy, spice-encrusted Buffalo milk paneer with fenugreek masala without falling in love all over again — with him, if not their current partner. His marriage of classic comfort and Michelin-lead cooking, combined with creative, well-crafted cocktails, is one of the happiest around.
42 North Audley Street, W1K 6ZP, bibirestaurants.com
Orasay is a seafood restaurant inspired by Scotland’s Western Isles and, however busy it becomes, it remains as calm and clear-sighted as a bothy. The fried haddock bun with tartare sauce is a seaside dream of romance; the oyster with sea buckthorn and lime leaf, a very Notting Hill one. Ask for one of the tables under the skylight, especially if it’s lunchtime, which is ideally when best to eat here. Upon arrival order their Champagne and pear martini. Drink it in alongside the warmth of the refracted February sun. Get their revelatory olives, served with thyme and orange zest, then crack on; it’s a well-curated and concise menu, courtesy of acclaimed chef Jackson Boxer, but there’s plenty to enjoy and plenty to linger over on the wine lists: regular, black book and — more exclusive still — special pours.
31 Kensington Park Road, W11 2EU, orasay.london
There are few places in the world more straightforwardly romantic than a pub. It is where most first dates start, and where we return when we are old and grey. Yet if one is to be so bold as to suggest a Valentine’s date in pub, it had better be good. Enter the Holland. Though it only opened a few months ago, it already feels like an old familiar, even to those who aren’t local. Its spiced brown crab toast, sustainably sourced, spiked with hot sauce and generously piled, is worth the journey alone. The menu is pub-esque, but not pub-y: there are fries and ribs of beef and things on toast, but the toast toppings are that crab, and the soup is Jerusalem artichoke. It is a shining example of the new era of gastropubs and all the better for it — but one can still rock up without booking, order a pint at the bar and feel comfortable saying everything or nothing at all.
25 Earls Court Road, W8 6EB, thehollandkensington.co.uk
Trivet is the brainchild of the former executive chef and the former sommelier of the Fat Duck, Heston Blumenthal’s famously avant-garde restaurant in Berkshire . That heritage suggests it should be experimental, pretentious, even. The reality is anything but. It’s as if, after 12 years of tortuing celeriac with a centrifuge, Lake has had enough. Celeriac is best braised and roasted into a nutty, jammy risotto of freekeh and dill oil. Beetroot could be frozen in nitrogen — but isn’t it happier roasted and dressed with sherry vinegar? And so on. This is a celebration of artful simplicity, yet it is still fine dining. It still has a Michelin star. It feels special, without feeling sugar-coated and puffed up with foam. The staff know their stuff — particularly the sommelier, whose knowledge is necessary for navigating the encyclopaedic wine list — and the tranquil, simple setting is a joy.
36 Snowsfields, SE1 3SU, trivetrestaurant.co.uk
The romance of Luca is the kind that creeps up on you: if not at the bar over a pitch-perfect Negroni, then in the main dining room, surrounded by warm oak, soft light and leather. There, in seats overlooking either the kitchen or a courtyard filled with olive trees and enclosed with a century old boundary wall, parmesan fries — which are more like churros — and fresh pasta tip the balance from lust to love. Luca are serving a Valentine’s menu, featuring those churros, raviolo of whipped salt cod and braised fennel and Hereford beef fillet, with pink Champagne to begin. It’s not cheap, but impeccable service shouldn’t be, and nor should good food. Luca is truly one of the most beautiful restaurants in town.
Luca, 88 St John Street, EC1M 4EH, luca.restaurant