Know anyone who only goes out to dinner -- a "nice dinner" -- on prescribed nights of the year, such as New Year's Eve, a birthday, anniversary or Valentine's Day? In restaurants, these infrequent diners are quaintly known as "amateurs" and can be spotted as easily as a Hawaiian-shirted tourist with a Nikon dangling around his neck -- or a dining neophyte with a tip card.
Alas for the other person in that relationship. These prescribed nights may be the only times she (I'm guessing) gets to go out. That person wants candlelight, wandering violinists (and, no, we do not have a Hungarian restaurant where these are core elements), a romantic table for two in a place that would flatter a vampire's complexion, dishes worthy of a lengthy blog or a tweet, and bragging rights for the water cooler. The other person would argue this is all contrivance and obligatory romance. Why not grill a steak out back, honey?
A guy who falls in the latter category told me that if his girlfriend would agree to go to the Penguin on Valentine's Day, he would marry her.
So here are some ideas that might appeal to those in need of a compromise.
This year, Valentine's Day falls on a Sunday, and predictably, restaurants that are not typically open on this day will open. But Feb. 14 is also the beginning of Chinese New Year -- the Year of the Tiger -- and two days away from Mardi Gras. While Charlotte may be in need of a romantic Cajun-Chinese eatery, you can find one or the other in town.
The Cajun Queen, 1800 East 7th St., an Elizabeth mainstay celebrating its 25th year, is located in a historic house with an alligator -- drinking, of course -- carved from an oak tree in the middle of the front lawn. They are open for Sunday brunch and dinner, and have live jazz nightly. Managing Partner Tim Freer says, "It's hard to be special when every day is special"; however, he will be offering a Valentine's dinner special. Their drink list includes the Hurricane and Sazerac, and the dinner menu is offered all day Sunday. Since this has always been a child-friendly establishment, take the rug rats with you. Besides, it's never too early to get your kids to eat mudbug étouffée.
Or you can celebrate the Year of the Tiger. Arguably, some of the best Chinese food in town is found at Dragon Court, 4520 N. Tryon St. in the Asian Corner Mall. However, ambiance is lacking. In the parking lot, you will dodge shattered auto glass and potholes -- this probably won't impress a date. But owner Tony Koos puts out an awesome dim sum trolley (like the kind I enjoyed in Hong Kong) on weekends from 11 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Koos is the guy who opened Dim Sum on Central in the early 1990s, but sold that and opened Dragon Court in 2000. If you stay for a meal, order from the authentic side of the menu.
For a more romantic Asian vibe, try Wan Fu, 10719 Kettering Drive in south Charlotte. You can't miss the building -- it's a pagoda. Wan Fu opened in 1989 and changed hands in 2006, but Chef Chan Tran has been there since 2002 and is known for his steamed whole fish and use of top-quality ingredients -- including some locally sourced foods. Wan Fu will not be doing a special Year of the Tiger celebration (well, they do for their employees, but evidently, even though I pleaded, we are not invited), but they do have over 100 items on their menu, which features a roundup of several Chinese cuisines including Sichuan, Cantonese and Hunan.
If the idea of any restaurant seems too predictable, you could enjoy a bottle of wine and some food at your local wine shop. Or if you stay in and grill, at least get a box of locally made artisan chocolates to share. You can order a box of wickedly delicious chocolates from Barking Dog Chocolatiers (www.WoofWoofWoofWoof.org). Husband and wife Drs. Joal Fischer and Debbie Langsam have been passionate about chocolates for a lifetime and have been in business in Dilworth for 10 years -- a hobby turned avocation (he's a retired pediatrician, she's a retired biology professor at UNCC). To order, call 704-333-1595 Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. Their profits are donated to charities.
Or visit Kristen Bou Zeidan, a graduate of the Le Cordon Bleu Paris, who is making extraordinary chocolates in her recently opened Cornelius shop: La Parisienne Fine Chocolate: Chocolate, Coffee and Wine, 20700 North Main St.
Besides, we'll always have the Penguin.
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