Image: The River Café
The River Café
A restaurant Gershwin might have used to inspire him to write “Rhapsody in Blue,” River Café’s view of the Manhattan cityscape and its rep for fine cuisine goes back to 1977.
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updated 2/10/2009 1:36:47 PM ET 2009-02-10T18:36:47

According to Rodgers and Hart:

My romance doesn’t have to have a moon in the sky
My romance doesn’t need a blue lagoon standing by
No month of May, no twinkling stars
No hideaway, no soft guitars.

Lovely lyrics, but let’s face it, dinner with fine Champagne gains measurably in the romance department when you add in the moon, a lagoon and starlight.

Still, the idea of a romantic dinner has changed over the last few decades; at the very least it’s become more casual and more dependent on landscape than interior design, although the two are not mutually exclusive.

Here’s a rule: The food must be at least the equal of the atmosphere, whether it’s a table at New York’s River Café, with its spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline, or at the ultra-posh Alex in Wynn Las Vegas.

Since opening in 1977, The River Café in Brooklyn has been just as renowned for its food and winelist as for its panorama on the East River, and I suspect more marriage proposals have been made at a window table here over the chocolate marquise Brooklyn Bridge dessert (which just might conceal a diamond ring) than anywhere in America.

Indoor elegance
At Alex, with two Michelin stars, the romance is all indoors, down a grand staircase, leading to a drop-dead-gorgeous dining room lit by chandeliers, draped with silks and satins, and set with the finest linens and silverware. It's a place for a dramatic entrance, and for the superb and sumptuous cuisine of Chef Alessandro Stratta, like his Wagyu beef with caramelized onion custard, Black Mission figs, and red wine sauce.

Image: The English Grill
The Brown Hotel
With its lovely wood-paneling and stained glass windows and a menu that reflects modern American and European cuisine with flair, the English Grill has for decades been the place to propose or to celebrate an anniversary.
In the same way, though in a very different style, the English Grill in The Brown Hotel in Louisville has a romantic, wonderfully spacious setting ideal for the intimacy of a couple. With an AAA Four-Diamond award, the restaurant does indeed have the sophisticated, warm, wood-paneled, stained-glass charm of a Noël Coward salon, and a new chef from Montreal has crafted one of the most delectably festive menus in the city, with specials like a seared veal chop with garlic, local corn, sorghum syrup and a lick of Buffalo Trace bourbon. The coffee-rubbed venison loin with wild mushrooms and blackberries is absolutely irresistible.

Atmospheric conditions
Restaurants that take full advantage of their setting while seeming to be a significant part of it create a romantic atmosphere by allowing Nature to work its wiles. This is clearly the case at Azul in Miami, which has a wrap-around view of the sparkling blue ocean waters, soaking up the extraordinary Florida sunlight during the day and the soft rainbow colors of sunset at dinner.

The menu at Azul partakes of both the bounty of seafood from the Gulf and ideas and ingredients from the Orient, in sensual dishes like “A Study in Tuna,” with crabmeat, tempura avocado, caviar, and Asians seasonings, and a “Rainbow of Oysters,” wrapped in beef, tuna, salmon and hamachi carpaccios.

In the brand new Encantado Resort in Tesuque, ten miles outside of Santa Fe, the stone-marble-wood dressed restaurant Terra has been impeccably fit into the desert landscape so that it takes full romantic advantage of the sunsets over the majestic mesas and mountains. The view alone will take your breath away, but so will Chef Charles, with dishes like ravioli stuffed with greens and graced with a pistachio pesto in a tomato broth. There is whimsy here too, as with his quickly seared foie gras with a duck tamale splashed with a cherry Coke sauce.

Who can forget wine country?
Few people would argue with the romantic beauty of California’s Napa Valley wine country, in which Domaine Chandon, famous for its sparkling wines, was one of the first wineries to open a restaurant within its vineyards. From late spring through late fall, this is very beautiful territory. At lunch visitors pack the restaurant Étoile before or after touring the wineries. At dinner it becomes more a place where people in love can really appreciate the quiet, the moonlight, and the wonderful aromas of both the vineyards and the kitchen here, which sets a refined California-style menu; the seven-course, $105 tasting menu is the way to go, all buoyed by one of the finest winelists in America.

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Unique in every sense of the word is Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico, New York, along the Hudson River. Well it should be — the restaurant, run by Dan Barber, is on a vast Rockefeller estate now devoted to sustainable food, and much of what is served here is from the farm itself. Beyond that, this is an exceptionally beautiful restaurant, whose rustic barns, with wooden beams and fine Hudson Valley art, have been restored to a 21st century sheen. Dining here is a romantic revelation by soft candlelight, quiet, civilized, and very rich in American tradition and hospitality — all good reasons it earned three stars from the New York Times.

When it comes to romance, height does matter and always has. Once upon a time, most hotels in the U.S. had rooftop dining and dancing — both still possible at New York’s fabulous Rainbow Room atop Rockefeller Center, where big bands still play and the dance floor still revolves. Food, however, is usually not the focus in restaurants that sell their eagle aerie view. A rare few do put as much effort into the cooking as into the atmosphere: A case in point, in a city with a few skyscraper restaurants, is Everest, on the 40th floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange.

Chicago's finest
The Chicago-Tribune has pronounced Everest the city’s “most romantic restaurant.” Here, for two decades, Chef Jean Joho has been mounting elegant tasting menus for lovers, which might begin with butter-poached King crabmeat with artichokes, move on to sautéed foie gras with pineapple and mango, and, over ten courses, end with petits fours and chocolates. You can imagine the number of bookings for Valentine’s Day.

The expanse of windows over the Dallas landscape on the 27th floor of the Hilton Anatole has made Nana, with five stars from The Dallas Morning News and honored as one of the top 50 restaurants in the U.S. by Gourmet magazine, a very celebratory place, starting at the shadowy, swank Asian bar and moving into the broad dining room where the stars of Texas are definitely upon lovers who dine here.

Yet, while grandeur does have its romantic charms, sometimes small is not only beautiful but better. Case in point is Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich, Conn., whose tiny dining room has the look and feel of a fine restaurant in Provence. The ebullient personalities of Jean-Louis — picked by the James Beard Foundation as the “Best Chef, Northeast” — and his wife Linda Gérin have made this a long-time favorite for people who want to take an entire evening to feast, drink good wine, and fall in love for either the first time or all over again.

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