It's date night. Whether you've been together for who-knows-how-many years or at the start of something wonderful, you've still got to eat. For this special dining guide, we pondered the idea of a date. It's about togetherness, first and foremost -- a shared experience that can enhance whatever other factors come into play.
Romance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. A couple who met and bonded while slurping down an orange slush at Wiles-Smith drugstore might be more "stimulated" by BLTs served on a Formica counter than sipping a robust Chianti in the darkest corner of Le Chardonnay or savoring the finest, freshest dishes at Encore or Chez Philippe. Such is the nature of sensual memory, love, and romance. But who among us -- no matter how humbly inclined -- could turn down the opportunity to be a prince or princess for a night? Who could refuse an evening in paradise?
Cielo (the Spanish word for "heaven") is truly the best of both worlds. Its gorgeous Victorian exterior cloaks the decadently modern interiors like chocolate covers jelly. It's a place where earthy delights such as mashed potatoes are made heavenly with brie and the humble pork chop is ennobled with fragrant coriander. Exciting contradictions abound in this funky little corner of the sky where the last is made first, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and innovation is synonymous with tradition. Everything on the menu is angel food.
There's another, more literary way to consider the "romantic." The word has always implied a longing for nature and the simple pleasures of bygone days. So what could be more romantic than hailing a horse-drawn carriage on Beale Street and telling the coachman, "To The Inn at Hunt Phelan, James, and make it snappy"? Who wouldn't feel like Cinderella and Prince Charming climbing down from their coach beneath Hunt Phelan's majestic columns? Who can resist holding hands in the garden? Whose sensual self wouldn't be revealed in the presence of quail roasted with pine nuts, currants, and cassis or a beef filet topped with a smoked-mushroom bordelaise? This too is something akin to heaven. -- Chris Davis
Cielo, 679 Adams (524-1886)
The Inn at Hunt Phelan, 533 Beale (525-8225)
Want to stretch your dating dollars and make a good impression too? Try the inventive menus at book stores and antique malls for an intelligent new twist to double dating.
At Midtown's Palladio International Antique Market on Central Avenue, the atmosphere at Café De France is charming and romantic. If the fresh flowers and indoor fountain don't win her over, wait until she smothers her crisp bread with pesto butter or tries a sparkling French berry limonadae.
The salad and sandwich menu, served Tuesday through Saturday, is equally appealing: smoked chicken with melted goat cheese, chopped dates, and toasted almonds; baked brie with honey, spinach, and Fuji apple slices; or pork loin with mango horseradish mayo and manchego cheese.
While lunch is a little pricey (about $25 for two), the entertainment is free. The mall offers dozens of booths selling collectibles and European antiques, or for more eclectic junking, walk across the street to Gary's.
Feeling literary in East Memphis? Try Davis-Kidd, where the store's knowledgeable staff can recommend a local author or a national bestseller. But before claiming the upholstered rocking chairs in the cooking section, find a table at Brontë bistro for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Breakfast starts at 8 a.m., with recipes from celebrity chefs like "Paula Deen's Perfect Scrambled Egg Platter" or "Tyler Florence's Yogurt Berry Parfait." Lunch service begins at 11 a.m., and it's hard to get past the appetizers. The asiago cheese and artichoke dip is served piping hot with warm pita chips, a satisfying complement to the restaurant's tomato bleu-cheese soup, made fresh every day.
Sandwiches and entrées priced under $10 fill out the dinner menu, offering deliciously updated versions of wraps, reubens, crab cakes, and pastas. -- Pamela Denney
Café De France, 169 Central (725-2212)
Brontë at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, 387 Perkins Ext. (374-0881)
Meet for Drinks
Have you had your eye on that certain someone and finally found the courage to ask him or her out? If dinner seems too much too soon at this point, meet for cocktails. It's a strategy that's paved the way for many relationships.
To help you out, we talked to some of the best bartenders from around the city and asked them what drinks can best kick-start a night.
The consensus was that it's hard to go wrong with wine. Everyone has his or her own personal favorite, but Lana of The Poplar Lounge says that Little Penguin Shiraz is perfect for date night.
Dan from The Hi-Tone, however, cautions that wine can be very hit-or-miss, depending on the quality of what an establishment stocks. His preference? "We have a drink that always leads to a good time, but it's not particularly the most appetizing-sounding thing," he says. "We call it 'Grease Lightning.'" "Grease Lightning" contains equal parts tequila and Red Bull served shaken and strained into a glass. "It sounds crazy," Dan acknowledges, "but it's good. Trust me."
Not that the Hi-Tone is the only establishment with a unique homebrew, of course. Anita, mistress of The Stage Stop, wouldn't give away her secret recipe but did tantalize with a teaser: "It's a mix of four top-shelf white liquors and a tropical-juice blend that's topped with beer and served on ice in 44-ounce pitchers," she says. Anita didn't give the concoction a name, so let's call it the "Stage Stopper."
Martinis are always solid standbys. The specialists at Swig recommend either a "Flirtini" (vodka, champagne, and pineapple juice) or the house recipe "Strawberry Seduction," which tastes just like it sounds. Mike, a bartender for two years at Gill's, says that you can't go wrong with a classic Cosmopolitan, though he adds that a good whiskey and Coke will always warm you up in the winter. Café Soul's Melvin Daniel suggests a turn toward the exotic with a pomegranate or mango martini. "They are both delicious. I can put it no other way," he says.
The folks at The Buccaneer swear up and down on their "Malibu Madras," a mix of cranberry juice, orange juice, and rum stirred into a highball glass. Memphis staple Alfred's echoes Gill's thumbs-up on the Cosmopolitan, but they insist that their "Walk-Me-Down" -- rum, gin, tequila, sour mix, and Sprite served over ice -- takes the cake. -- Zac Hill
The Poplar Lounge, 2586 Poplar (324-1233)
The Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar (278-TONE)
The Stage Stop, 2951 Cela (382-1577)
Swig, 100 Peabody Place (522-8515)
Gill's, 551 S. Highland (458-2787)
Café Soul, 492 S. Main (859-0557)
The Buccaneer, 1368 Monroe (278-0909)
Alfred's, 197 Beale (525-3711)
Sweets for Your Sweetie
Here at the Flyer, we cherish our public-service role. It is in that spirit that we doggedly scoured the city in search of restaurants that wouldn't look askance at you, gentle consumer, for wanting only dessert on your date.
At Cheesecake Corner, former steelworker Kevin Matthews has elevated the art of the cheesecake to unprecedented heights. The pastry case holds cheesecake creations including brandy, lemon fudge, peach pecan, and "Red Velvet," among many, many others. The typical slice is good for sharing. The downtown shop is open until midnight on weekends.
The Crepe Maker's "Triple Treat" is your basic crepe with Nutella (need I say more?), bananas, strawberries, and whipped cream. The "Bad Girl" (for boys too) features the delicate duo dulce de leche and Grand Marnier, along with cinnamon, powdered sugar, and strawberries. Crepe Maker is open till 9 p.m. weeknights and 10 p.m. weekends.
If you're caught out east well after dark with a sweet tooth, the Silver Spoon has a tasty cobbler that's even tastier topped with ice cream. Plus, the place is a favorite of North Memphis rapper Yo Gotti. Open late with DJ and entertainment.
Paulette's offers one of the best dessert menus in the city. Do not allow yourself to become indecisive. Get the K-Pie. Better known as the "Kahlua Mocha Parfait," this monument to sweetness features a pecan-coconut crust and a shot of Kahlua. Not exactly your goin'-steady ice-cream soda. If you're not ready for that kind of commitment, though, Paulette's serves crème brûlée, key-lime pie, and their own classic crepes. Paulette's is open until 9 p.m. on weeknights and until 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. -- Preston Lauterbach
Cheesecake Corner, 113 East G.E. Patterson (525-CAKE)
Crepe Maker, Avenue at Carriage Crossing, 4630 Merchants Way Circle #731,
Collierville (861-1981); 175 Peabody Place (522-1290)
Silver Spoon, 6063 Mt. Moriah (365-6881)
Paulette's, 2110 Madison (726-5128)
Madison Avenue may elicit visions of well-coifed, high-fashion types in New York, but here in Memphis, Madison Avenue offers a plethora of venues for the ultimate cheap date. The P&H Café, the Lamplighter Lounge, and Yosemite Sam's all offer full menus, beer on tap, and entertainment at a reasonable price.
At The P&H Café, you can enjoy a game of pool or darts, live music, free wi-fi, and the best bathroom graffiti in town. The menu offers a variety of items ranging from spaghetti to a feta-and-caper-stuffed burger. If your date is in need of a sugar rush, go for the Bunny Cream -- a deep-fried honey bun topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup.
A little farther east on Madison is The Lamplighter Lounge. It's intimate and ... smoky. Belly up to the bar for a PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) on tap and a deliciously greasy "Shirley" burger. (If Shirley's not there to put a little extra love in the sauce, ask if tamales are in season.) The regulars can usually help out in terms of lively conversation. At the very least, they can assist you with The New York Times crossword puzzle.
On the corner of Madison and Cooper is Yosemite Sam's, once known for its eye-catching turquoise exterior. Go straight for a stiff drink and the karaoke menu. Even if you think you are not the karaoke type, chances are you will change your mind after an hour or two. The crowd is very accepting of the tone-deaf. Once you have a few songs under your belt, a Varmit burger will hit the spot. -- Stacey Greenberg
The P&H Café, 1532 Madison (726-0906)
The Lamplighter Lounge, 1702 Madison (726-1101)
Yosemite Sam's, 2126 Madison (726-6138)
How does a meat-eating dad cope with a teenage daughter becoming a vegan? In our household, he goes Dutch, bringing his own entrées to the dinner table from two family-owned restaurants tucked in East Memphis strip malls.
From New Chang Ying on Park Avenue, the dinner contribution is a quart of wonton soup made fresh to order in one of Danny Liu's well-seasoned woks. At $2.45, the soup is delicious and affordable. A simple stock seasoned with green onions, shredded Chinese cabbage, and a little salt and pepper is the warm and soothing backdrop for 10 plump wontons filled with ground pork, a touch of sugar, and three sauces: soy, soy mushroom, and oyster.
"We also put a little chopped vegetables in the wontons, and there's no greasy chicken broth," Liu explains. "We make our broth with water."
About a mile away on Getwell Road, another local family is cooking the most authentic chicken wings this side of Buffalo. Ching's jumbo party wings offer just that -- a hearty mix of drummies and two-prongers seasoned any of nine different ways: honey hot (our favorite), honey gold, original seasoned, lemon pepper, dry hot, mild hot, regular hot, extra hot, and suicide.
Along with the wings, orders are dressed with sliced carrots and celery and (no kidding) a croissant. "One day we ran out of rolls so we brought croissants, and everybody liked it," explains owner Josh Williams, juggling phone orders and walk-ins on a busy Thursday night.
Not that waiting is a problem at Ching's, the nickname of Williams' grandmother, Shirley Wilson. These folks are serious Memphis Tiger fans, and they have the memorabilia to prove it and keep their patrons occupied while they wait for their orders. Jerseys, posters, and more than 100 framed photos cover the restaurant walls. Coach Cal is a customer, and yes, he has a regular order. "Original seasoned," Williams says. "He likes his wings dry, no sauce." -- Pamela Denney
New Chang Ying, 3992 Park (324-8080)
Ching's Hot Wings, 1264 Getwell (743-5545)
Date night doesn't always mean going out. Sometimes the most romantic setting is right in your own dining room. Just ask Kristi Witt.
With 20 years of professional cooking under her belt, Witt is something of a food goddess. Typical catering jobs have her preparing meals for as many as 75 people, but she also has been hired to make dinner just for two.
Witt has worked in food service since she was 21 years old. That's when she moved to Memphis from Arkansas, first working for Fascinating Foods and then for Karen Carrier after Carrier started Another Roadside Attraction. About 10 years ago, Witt decided to go out on her own, making food her business.
"Sometimes people think I have 20 employees and three delivery vans, but it's really just me," Witt explains. However, she has a network of friends who are also food-service professionals, which she "recruits" for jobs that require more than one woman.
Although she has dined out on Valentine's Day many times, she now prefers her own dining room for a romantic dinner.
"My husband and I really try to make every day special," Witt says. "If I have to work on Valentine's Day, we wouldn't feel like we missed our chance for a romantic evening. You miss your chance if you wait for Valentine's Day to come around."
Because both Witt and her husband enjoy cooking she isn't sure yet who'll be wearing the chef's hat that night. But she knows what's cooking if she gets to choose the menu.
"Mushroom risotto. I would definitely make mushroom risotto. That's the ultimate comfort food for me. And because it's a special occasion, I would add truffles to the risotto. We would have arugula salad with roasted beets, toasted walnuts, and blue cheese and a nice piece of fish -- probably tuna. It's my husband's favorite fish."
And for dessert? "A couple of pieces of really nice dark chocolate -- the kind that's good for your heart," she says with a laugh. To complement the chocolate: Rosa Regale, a very affordable red sparkling wine with a hint of raspberries and rose. -- Simone Wilson
Kristi Witt, email@example.com
The Morning After
Sometimes it's tough to get away for a night on the town. Family obligations, children's sleepovers, etc. can keep you home, hoping against hope to find some humor on Saturday Night Live. But all is not lost. There's another day left in the weekend, another chance to act like grownups out on the town.
And that's where Sunday brunch at Café 1912 comes in handy. It's sophisticated and comforting all at once. When you walk in, you're greeted by the smoky aroma wafting from Chef Tony Barnes' small, open kitchen. The warm yellow walls and the intimate seating make you feel as though you've found an oasis of civilization, a little piece of Europe in Midtown.
I suggest starting brunch the civilized way, with a Mimosa, though some folks prefer the Bellini (peach nectar and champagne). The menu offers such delicacies as Lobster Benedict, crepes, and other luscious fare, but the pièce de résistance is the Irish Breakfast. I know, I know, this is a Continental/French kind of place, but Café 1912 does Irish right, with eggs, sausage and bacon, garlic potatoes, sliced Roma tomatoes, and brown-sugar baked beans piled high on a crockery plate. Savor and enjoy. Have another Mimosa. Follow it up with a crème brûlée, and you're ready for an afternoon nap. And what could be more grownup than that? -- Bruce VanWyngarden
Café 1912, 243 S. Cooper (722-2700)