5 Neighborhood Restaurants for an Unexpected Romantic Dinner in Chicago

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As a food writer, I am legally required to post about eating out on Valentine's Day. Honestly, it's in the bylaws somewhere. Which is fine, because as a husband, I have to admit that I am actually all for the tradition, even if I have very definite opinions about the specifics.

My biggest piece of advice? Stay home on February 14th. That's especially true this year, since the holiday falls on Friday. Of course, if you've already made a reservation, don't even think about canceling it—you just won't find me out and about. Instead, my wife and I pick a date a few days before or after to celebrate, and then spend the actual day cooking something meaningful at home. Not only do we avoid the crowds and chaos, but we get two meaningful meals out of the deal.

My second piece of advice? Think local. Skip the flashy River North mega-projects for the quaint and charming arms of the neighborhood joint. You won't have to travel as far, pay as much, or talk as loud—and isn't conversing with your partner the whole point? Of course, I'm not suggesting you pull a Shaun and book a table at the same grubby pub you waste every other night in (plus, fighting off all those zombies would be a chore). But there are some unexpected neighborhood places I've spotted over the years that I think are ideal for a romantic evening.

Kai Zan

Fish Carpaccio at Kai Zan [Photograph: Roger Kamholz]

One of my favorite sushi restaurants also has a beautiful little jewel box of a room. The warm and inviting atmosphere is the opposite of most cold and solemn Japanese joints. Obviously, you both have to be into raw fish, and definitely make sure to bring your booze of choice, because Kai Zan is BYOB.

Ada Street

Dining Room at Ada Street [Photograph: Chelsea Ross]

Ada Street isn't really located in a residential neighborhood, though it is very close to both Lincoln Park and Wicker Park. While some recent landscaping has improved the block, it's still mostly an industrial area. But thanks to a very clever design, all of these attributes only add to the shock of eating here for the first time. Quite simply, Ada Street has one of the most surprisingly beautiful dining rooms around. You enter through a dark and claustrophobic hallway, but after turning a few corners, you dramatically enter an open and airy room. The effect is so jarring it kind of makes you forget where you are, which helps you loosen up and enjoy the experience. It also helps that the food is as playful and lively as the design.

Yusho

Dining Room at Yusho [Courtesy of Yusho]

Logan Square has an abnormally high concentration of truly excellent neighborhood restaurants, many of which would make for a nice romantic evening. The only problem is that most of them feature spare dining rooms, full of exposed brick and dark wood—a design that reverberates sound and can sometimes make it hard to hear. As an alternative, I'd suggest Yusho, which balances hard-edged materials with soft fabrics and actual cushions on the seats (I know!). It's easily one of the most uniquely decorated restaurants in Chicago, and like Ada Street, you immediately feel like you're in a different place. But as great as the room is, this is my favorite Logan Square restaurant because of the food, which never ceases to impress me.

The Barrelhouse Flat

Upstairs at The Barrelhouse Flat [Courtesy of The Barrelhouse Flat]

The first floor of this Lincoln Park cocktail haven is pure chaos, with an enormous bar, cramped seating, and little chance of intimacy. But make your way upstairs, and you have the opposite: dimmed lighting, plush seating, and the chance to drink some of the best cocktails in Chicago without having to yell at your date.

Lao Ma La

[Photograph: Nick Kindelsperger]

This might be a stretch, but if you and your partner like an active eating experience, make your way to Chinatown for this Tony Hu project. The room is sleek and seductive, and always seems packed with other couples. Instead of individual entrees, most of the food requires you to share enormous platters, so be prepared to dunk things into boiling cauldrons of broth. Just know that you both have to be fans of spicy food, messy eating, and questionable dance music.

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