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10 dreamy dining destinations

Melissa Burdick Harmon

By now, the word is out that Manhattan’s River Café is the perfect place for a marriage proposal, and that the French Laundry is the place to go in the Napa Valley. Dig a bit deeper, however, and romantic restaurants can be found almost everywhere, with marvelous menus combining with a lovely sense of place. Here are some ideas from every corner of the country.

The White Barn Inn, Kennebunkport, ME
For ultra-luxury “Down East”

Kennebunkport is arguably the most posh address in Maine. In fact, it’s not unusual to see former President George H.W. Bush around town. Small wonder, then, that it boasts one of only 50 Relais & Château hotels in America. The 150-year-old White Barn Inn’s restaurant, playfully tucked into what was once the hotel’s barn, features picture windows perfectly set to frame garden views. Summer menus focus on locally sourced ingredients . . . lobster fresh off the boat, just-picked mushrooms, tuna and striped sea bass caught hours ago. The blueberries in the pie? They were gathered that morning. In winter, the menu leans away from the sea, with grilled venison sauced with port and Madeira leading a list of heartier fare. Go for the fine dining, of course, but treat yourself to a room at the inn afterwards.

The Compound, Santa Fe, NM
For a chic Canyon Road evening

This Santa Fe classic, helmed by James Beard Award-winner Mark Kiffin, is in the heart of the town’s art scene, on sophisticated, gallery-lined Canyon Road. In fact, The Compound bows to the art scene with its folk art décor, from collector Alexander Girard, whose collection also forms the basis (106,000 pieces) of Santa Fe’s impressive Museum of Folk Art. Chef Kiffin has focused the Compound’s menu around the regional ingredients that were introduced to the area in the late 16th century, including cattle and wheat, resulting in a cuisine that he calls Contemporary American. The Compound’s lovely garden is a perfect setting for romantic summer evening meals. One other important asset: The restaurant has its own parking lot, which is a significant advantage on crowded Canyon Road.

Elizabeth on 37th, Savannah, GA
For stylish Southern comfort

Just stepping into Savannah’s Victorian District, with its enviably elegant mansions, graceful public squares, and towering live oak trees can put you into the mood for love. A table at Elizabeth on 37th, a Savannah classic since it opened in 1981, can seal the deal. The building, a grand turn-of-the-19th-century home, sets the tone for romance. The menu sweeps you forward in time, with a delightfully modern take on traditional southern dishes. Long-time chef Elizabeth Terry has ceded the way to her successor, the equally talented Kelly Yambor, who performs delightful magic on fresh coastal seafood, sources all produce locally and even grows her own herbs. The Savannah red rice with Georgia shrimp (not to mention clams, grouper, okra, and sausage) is superb. The wine cellar is vast.

Asiate, New York City
For fine dining and spectacular Manhattan views
If you want to propose, or be proposed to, in New York City, book a window table at Asiate, the super-romantic 90-seat restaurant that offers arguably the best views of Manhattan, overlooking the full sweep of Central Park and the skyline beyond. Intimate booths (request one when you book, and mention what you’re up to) allow you to pop the question in genuine privacy. The restaurant’s amazing floor-to-ceiling “Wall of Wine” ensures that you will find a vintage perfect for that first fabulous toast to the future. Splurge on the seven-course tasting menu featuring everything from avocado mousse to warm chocolate cake with toasted milk gelato and candied violets. And the best part: You are already in one of Manhattan’s most posh hotels – the Mandarin Oriental New York –  with the same unforgettable views. Let the romance continue.

Gertrude’s – John Shield’s Restaurant at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MD
For fine art followed by fabulous dining

One of Baltimore’s most romantic restaurants is, perhaps surprisingly, housed in its excellent art museum. Gertrude’s, named for Chef John Shield’s grandmother, who taught him how to cook, features fabulous local fare. Gertie’s crab cakes are the perennial bestseller, single-fry oysters delight, and the more exotic Moroccan chickpea couscous matches the setting, with its gracefully canopied banquettes. In summer, white-canopy-covered tables outside can seat an additional 80 people with views of the three-acre sculpture garden. The Baltimore Museum of Art is packed with 90,000 works of art, including a major Matisse collection. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, but look at the art first, as the museum closes at 5 p.m. on Wednesday through Friday, and 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.    

The Painted Lady, Newberg, OR
For inventive cuisine paired with perfect Oregon (and beyond) wines

It’s a pretty little Victorian house in a relatively small town in the Willamette Valley, but genuine  delights await the curious traveler who makes the trip out from Portland (about 40 minutes), or from anywhere else on the continent for that matter. The Painted Lady, in the small, old-fashioned-looking town of Newberg, features nightly multi-course tasting menus (wine pairings are optional, but worth it—some will likely be samples of the fine local pinot noirs), brought about by the magic of Chef Allen Routt. Trust Routt and order the seven-course chef’s menu, which changes constantly, according to what strikes his imagination on any given day. Make a weekend of it, by booking into the Painted Lady Guest Cottage, complete with fully stocked kitchen. But why would you want to cook?

Picasso at Bellagio, Las Vegas
For fairytale fountains and fabulous food

Romance isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind in busy, bustling Las Vegas. Yet, very special places for that perfect dinner à deux do exist. The exquisite Picasso at Bellagio heads that list. The restaurant’s walls are lined with Picasso paintings, as well as some of the artist’s ceramic pieces. You can make the evening even more special by booking (well in advance) one of the 16 tables on the outdoor patio, overlooking the graceful dancing Fountains of Bellagio—arguably the prettiest view in all of Las Vegas. Tables are spaced well apart, allowing the chat to match the romance of the setting. Executive Chef Julian Serrano’s six-course menu dégustation features American favorites from Maine lobster salad to sautéed steak with foie gras to loin of Colorado lamb. Wine pairings are available.   

The Plantation House Restaurant, Lahaina, HI
For old-time Hawaiian hospitality and excellent island fare

For more than 20 years, the Plantation House Restaurant in Kapalua, not far from the popular visitor town of Lahaina on Maui, has delighted guests with fine dining combined with casual island ease. The restaurant’s large windows offer views of the Plantation Golf Course at Kapalua, and of the island’s north coast. Watch the sun sink into the Pacific, as you enjoy eclectic fare. Folks who write about food call Executive Chef Alex Stanislaw the best on the island, with his luscious Mediterranean-influenced fare. On cool nights, book a table close to the cozy double-sided fireplace. Perhaps start with a crispy crab stuffed ahi roll, followed by a panko crusted goat cheese with mixed kale greens, then filet mignon or lamb shank. Savor the flavors and the setting.

Restaurant 1818 at Monmouth Historic Inn, Natchez, MS
For antebellum luxury

Contemporary Southern fare, with a bow to tradition, is the order of the day at this classic Natchez plantation house, freshly renovated under new ownership. Step into the Antebellum South, as you dine in the mansion’s former Mens and Ladies Parlors, illuminated by Waterford crystal gasoliers. Don’t miss the “courting bench,” designed to accommodate the boy, the girl and the chaperone. Choose Restaurant 1818’s five-course “A Taste of the South” menu, to sample such southern favorites as fried green tomatoes remoulade with lump crab, seafood gumbo, spinach and oyster salad, and crawfish. Order mint juleps from Roosevelt, who has served this oh-so-southern beverage at Monmouth for 26 years. Book a room in the inn (the honeymoon suite, perhaps?).   

Tallgrass Restaurant, Lockport, IL
For fabulous French fare in a historic canal town

Sure, Chicago has an abundance of superstar chefs working in superb settings, but sometimes it’s fun to discover something new, romantic, a bit off the beaten path. When that impulse strikes, drive 35 miles southwest, to pretty Lockport, said to be the Midwest’s best-preserved canal town. Your destination: Tallgrass (named for the tall grass prairie). This classic restaurant, located in a handsomely restored stone-and-brick building in the town’s historic district, still uses the building’s original gas chandeliers. The linens are perfect, the silver glistens, and the fireplace really works. Chef Robert Burcenski serves classic French fare, paired with an extraordinary wine selection. Guests can choose a three-, four- or five-course menu—perhaps the roasted Australian lamb rack followed by a chocolate quintet?