Valentine’s Day is upon us, and whether you choose to dine out for the holiday or not, here’s a handy list of restaurants to keep in mind the next time you’re looking for a place to take that special someone. These places are also great to take a good friend or family member, or just show yourself some love.
Pappo, 2320 Central Ave.
Located just steps away from the buzz of Park Street, Pappo is an oasis of modern California cuisine in Alameda. The menu, based on seasonal produce, changes frequently, but you might find dishes like housemade pappardelle or gnocchi, wild mushroom risotto with winter squash, or a burger served on a bun from local Crispian bakery. You’ll also find an extensive list of both Californian and European wines.
La Marcha, 2026 San Pablo Ave.
Tapas are meant to be shared, and La Marcha is an ideal spot for sharing an evening with someone special. You can get all the classic tapas here, like Spanish tortillas, croquetas with all sorts of fillings, and patatas bravas, plus unusual offerings like wild boar meatballs or the “patatas animales,” topped with alioli, Manchego cheese, jamón serrano, and confit pork. The menu also includes a variety of cheeses and charcuterie, plus a whole list of paella. There’s even an extensive sherry list, plus Spanish beers, wines, and housemade sangria. On a limited budget? From 4-6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to midnight every day, a free tapa is included with the purchase of a glass of wine, beer, or sangria.
Lemat, 3212 Adeline St.
Everyone knows that food brings people closer together, but Ethiopian food, in particular, encourages closeness, where diners share the same platter and eat with their hands. In fact, it’s custom in Ethiopia to demonstrate caring or affection for family, close friends, and lovers by hand-feeding them a bite of food wrapped in injera. There are plenty of good Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants in the East Bay to choose from, but Lemat has one of the nicest settings, with wood-paneled walls, some traditional tables, art on the walls, and a unique display of injera baskets that artfully dangle from the ceiling. With a variety of dishes like a vegan combo, tofu and mushroom tibs, lamb stew, and kitfo (beef tartare), it’s great for accommodating a date with dietary restrictions. Accompany the meal with a glass of Ethiopian honey wine.
Belotti Ristorante, 5403 College Ave.
Belotti is the perfect place to fall in love with pasta all over again. Try the casoncelli — Lombardian handmade pasta stuffed with beef, prosciutto, pork shoulder, and pancetta, served in a velvety butter-sage sauce. It’s chef Michele Belotti’s mother’s recipe, and upon tasting a single bite, you can tell this pasta is made with love. Or go for the Piemonte-style agnolotti di Lidia, stuffed with a mixture of beef, pork, spinach, and Parmesan cheese in a robust beef reduction.
Farmhouse Thai Kitchen, 336 Water St.
What could be more romantic than dining in a room full of roses? At Farmhouse Thai Kitchen, on the waterfront in Jack London Square, chef-owner Kasem Saengsawang dedicated the entire back dining room to his young daughter, adorning the walls with roses in various hues. There, enjoy playful cocktails like the Island Thai Tea, served inside a rose gold metallic pineapple, or the Miss Thailand, served inside a porcelain seashell. Appetizers like neua num tok rolls, made with steak rolled with cucumber, mint, and cilantro sauce, are an elegant yet fun way to start the meal. Plus, spice up your night with the blisteringly hot kang kua prawns, served inside a coconut with plenty of greens to help cool the palate. Desserts like the Thai Vacation — sticky rice with coconut meat and coconut ice cream, served inside a coconut — will make you feel as though you’ve been transported to another place at a fraction of the cost.
Delage, 536 9th St.
Sushi is often a go-to option for date night, but there’s much more than sushi at Delage, a California-inspired Japanese restaurant in Old Oakland. Though the prix-fixe, eight-course menu changes frequently, it typically includes two rounds of four pieces of nigiri. The rest of the menu might feature unusual, artfully presented dishes like a daikon salad with ume dressing and rice chips, a Kurobuta pork loin with mushroom sauce and cranberry purée, or a seafood miso soup. The meal typically ends with a dessert, such as seasonal fruit or ice cream. Plus, if your date is a sake drinker, you can impress them with your knowledge of sake varieties from the extensive menu.
Pucquio, 5337 College Ave.
Pucquio is a shoebox-sized restaurant, but that only adds to the romantic charm. A few tables are available, but if you sit at the counter, you’ll be able to watch chef Carlos Moreira work his magic in the kitchen. For appetizers, be sure to share one (or more) cebiches, made with high-quality seafood and various marinades, ranging from spicy and acidic to floral, sweet honey-orange. Equally satisfying is the appetizer of crisp-skinned pork belly with a purple corn purée. For mains, don’t miss the whole fried fish, served in a rich broth atop prawns, squid, mussels, and clams. Between courses, chat up your date and sip on the surprisingly strong house-made sangria.
Tao Yuen Pastry, 816 Franklin St.
Romantic doesn’t necessarily have to mean fancy or expensive. For a one-of-a-kind date on a shoestring budget, grab a picnic blanket and head to Tao Yuen Pastry, my favorite takeout dim sum shop in Chinatown. A “small” order of chow mein or chow fun comes in a plastic container packed to the gills. Though they’re out of plain view to customers, ask for the cha siu bao, or barbecued pork buns, in both baked and steamed varieties. The dumplings here aren’t as delicate as the ones you’ll find at a sit-down dim sum parlor, but they’re gigantic, tasty, and well-priced. Good bets include the ha gao (shrimp dumplings), siu mai (shrimp and pork dumplings), and the triangle-shaped shrimp and scallop dumplings. For dessert, grab some sesame balls or steamed custard buns. Once you’ve paid for your loot — which usually ends up costing under $20 for two people, with leftovers — take a romantic stroll to Lake Merritt or Jack London Square to enjoy your picnic.