What better way to show your love (or your desire to get some) than a lovely dinner out? Skip the overpriced fondue and take your honey somewhere swanky. Wine and dine with a real meal made by some of the area’s best chefs (some of whom have won national and international honors). These restaurants don’t scrimp when it comes to, well, anything. These menus will induce soft yelps, and potentially roaring moans, all good sounds to hear from your loved one before heading home.—Arielle Stevenson
ARMANI’S RESTAURANT 2900 Bayport Drive, Tampa, 813-207-6800. High atop the Grand Hyatt with the Bay area’s best view is Armani’s, whose gourmet Italian fare screams indulgence. The classic start is the antipasto misto. With over 30 specialties such as balsamic glazed meatballs, clams with sambucca vinaigrette, fresh hearts of palm with citrus dressing, plus a sampling of cheese and cured meats fresh from Italia, you can’t go wrong. Then, opt for the seven-course Presidential Dinner paired with matching wines and try to secure the four-top that sits in an intimate corner of the restaurant for a multi-directional panoramic view of sunset over the Bay.—Jon Palmer Claridge
BERN’S STEAK HOUSE 1208 S. Howard Ave., Tampa, 813-251-2421, bernssteakhouse.com. Bern's is an iconic Tampa spot, but unless you’re planning on dropping some serious dough (or asking for extra work in the kitchen), aim for the dessert room this Valentine’s Day. Get a good bottle of wine (the cellar is seriously impressive) and pick your sweet.
BLACK PEARL 315 Main St., Dunedin, 727-734-3463, theblackpearlrestaurant.com. Located in “delightful Dunedin” is a fine dining treasure where fried green tomatoes achieve infamy. In a candle-lit corner you can dine on a menu that seems like a martini-induced hallucination — succulent garlicky escargot in puff pastry; tender, rosy rack of baby New Zealand lamb in brandied demi-glace, and a nostalgic, warm and golden tarte tatin.—JPC
CAFÉ PONTE 13505 Icot Blvd., Clearwater, 727-538-5768, cafeponte.com. Don’t let the strip mall exterior fool you. Chef Chris Ponte and his team of wizards perennially turn out some of the Bay area’s most sophisticated and delicious food. Give yourself over to the 24-hour braised short ribs with a creamy parsnip puree, sautéed baby spinach, and a slightly sweet, caramelized shallot red wine sauce. —JPC
CIRO’S SPEAKEASY AND SUPPER CLUB 2109 Bayshore Blvd., Tampa, 813-251-0022, cirostampa.com. Make a reservation, wait for a password, knock at the door and say the word. While Ciro’s dinner offerings are Valentine’s Day worthy, so are the drinks. If you’ve got other plans in mind for food, make sure to stop by Ciro’s for some of the best cocktails in the area. The extremely dim red lights, velvet, and beautiful people set a mood that is hard to replicate.
EDISON FOOD + DRINK LAB 912 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, 813-254-7111, edison-tampa.com. Jeannie Pierola’s brainchild in action is all about inventive food and drinks. Pierola has worked in some of the finest restaurants including a stint building Sidebern's kitchen and menu in its early days. Small plates (hot or cold) tantalize the senses. Keep an open mind and palate.
FORLINI’S 435 Mandalay Ave., Clearwater Beach, 727-445-1155. Located just steps from the ocean is a beautiful dining spot you may have missed. The hordes of tourists that shuffle through Clearwater Beach’s strip pass by Forlini’s everyday. Inside is a classy and romantic setting, where piano keys twinkle and low lights flicker softly. The menu does traditional Italian well, and the wine list has some great offerings.
MARITANA GRILLE 3400 Gulf Blvd., St Pete Beach, 727-360-1882. The saltwater aquarium-lined Maritana Grille and its succulent Floribbean seafood inhabit The Don Cesar, fondly known as the “Pink Palace.” Don’t be so totally smitten by the 1928 Mediterranean-style castle facing the white sands of the Gulf that you forget the food. Try exciting appetizers like tuna tartare, beef carpaccio and gulf prawn. Follow up with your choice of the freshest fish imaginable cooked in the lush “sous vide” style or opt for cast iron-grilled crispiness with eggplant gnocchi or caramelized Brussels sprouts accompaniment.—JPC
MISE EN PLACE 442 W. Kennedy Blvd. #110, Tampa, 813-254-5373, miseonline.com. Welcome to chef Marty Blitz’s playground. We are lucky indeed that his current passion is a house-cured charcuterie plate that takes us on a world tour: duck andouille, dried cured chorizo, foie gras rillettes, lomo crudo, paper-thin coppa, tasso ham, and “groovy” continents. It is jaw-droppingly good. As is the “Get Blitzed Tasting Menu” — under $90, even if you include cheese and matching wines. It’d be an appropriate way for the GOP to help the restaurant celebrate 25 years elevating the tastes of the Bay.—JPC
PRIMI’S RISTORANTE ITALIANO27 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg, 727- 895-4909, primiristoranteitaliano.com. New Year’s Eve 2012, my beau and I had to catch a quick bite between gigs and wanted a good meal. Without a reservation, we walked up to our favorite authentic Italian restaurant not expecting to get a table. But we did, and our plates of Tuscan steak and wine came out promptly. Primi’s makes you feel at home between the wine, food, and very accommodating and friendly staff.
SIDEBERN’S 2208 W. Morrison Ave., Tampa, 813-258-2233, sideberns.com. Welcome to the yin to Bern’s yang with stunning degustation menus reflecting trends in modernist cuisine. Chef Chad Johnson was CL’s Best of the Bay for 2011 and 2012, and deservedly so. Go with an adventuresome friend and share both tasting menu options — that’s 12 courses with 12 matching wines. My tongue still remembers the surprise of the rye fettuccini with a heady combination of merguez sausage, octopus, ramps and bright, fresh mint.—JPC
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