Dating is daunting, and never more so than under the microscopic gaze of Valentine’s Day: is that love in the air, or just the palpable tension of bickering couples? Not to play the heartbreaker here, but with just under a week until February 14 — it’s next Tuesday, mate — those planning a night of romance are in for a tough time of it. Petrol stations are running low on flowers and restaurants are all but booked out. Fortunately, all hope is not lost and help is to hand: from food to drink to plain great dates, this is your Valentine’s survival guide, whether you’re long-term loved up or just starting out.
Last minute table for two
Saint Valentine was a 3rd-century Roman whose martyrdom involved being beaten with clubs and stones before having his head chopped off: a gruesome fate that will feel decidedly softcore compared to the mauling that awaits the absent-minded partner who fails to arrange a cosy dinner à deux. Here are some spots with last-minute tables still available.
Le Pont de la Tour
This classic French restaurant has a particularly special feature up its sleeves — breathtaking views of Tower Bridge and the Thames, which will fill even the most cynical of partners with the giddy thrill of starring in a Visit London-sponsored romcom.
36D Shad Thames, SE1, lepontdelatour.co.uk
The Prince Regent
Happy to set sail for romance at 6pm? Then hop aboard the Prince Regent, which still has availability for its early-evening dinner cruise from Paddington Basin to Camden Lock. It sounds horribly cheesy but the reality is charming and the fish-focused cooking — not from the canal, thankfully — is top notch.
Sheldon Square, W2, londonshellco.com
Fourteen floors above Southwark at the very top of the Hoxton hotel, Seabird has views to take the breath away as well as eight varieties of aphrodisiac oysters. Try and bag a cosy corner table to ensure intimacy and that everyone gets a glimpse of that skyline.
40 Blackfriars Road, SE1, seabirdlondon.com
Charlie’s at Browns
Want to go all-in on Valentine’s? Then Charlie’s at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair is the spot for you. Timeless, stylish and decadent are all three words that can be used to describe both the atmosphere and the food. And to mark the occasion, the restaurant is hosting an ultra-romantic candle-lit evening with a specially designed menu. To top it all off, a live jazz trio will play amorous music to accompany the meal. If that doesn’t make the night end in a proposal, God knows what will.
33 Albemarle Street, W1, roccofortehotels.com
Helix at the Gherkin
Just as with Seabird, the views here bring joy, and it helps that this restaurant sits at the top of one of London’s most famous buildings. As the night draws dark, the city blinks into life around it. Champagne is Searcy’s thing, but the restaurant is going all out for Valentine’s, and still has space available for its four-course special, which includes a venison terrine, Norfolk mussels with a celeriac, cavolo nero, lemon and chive butter sauce, and a milk chocolate ganache to share for pudding.
The Gherkin, 30 St Mary Axe, EC3A 8BF, searcysatthegherkin.co.uk
…but cut the schmaltz
The lights are low. The candles flicker. The music — Michael Bublé, perhaps — plays softly in the background. Gazing into each other’s eyes over a flower-strewn table and clinking glasses, one feels… an intense pressure to perform. Forget the spots forcing a feeling of being loved up and head to one of these instead, where the romance is effortless.
Unvarnished wood floors, flickering candles, tableclothed tables, a striped awning, white curtains — and it’s Italian.Trullo has it all. And yet somehow, it’s not cringy, or even that couply. Such is the quality of the handmade pasta (rolled minutes before service) and lovingly-sourced produce it comes with, there could be two newly-weds making out in a corner and it would still feel legant. Trullo is what few people are — a reliably great date.
300 – 302 St Paul’s Road, N1, trullorestaurant.com
The dining room is soft, slung with paper lanterns and hanging ferns. The rusty pink terracotta walls beckon with bright ornaments and candlelit corners. There could be romance in the air; there’s certainly the aroma of charcoal, braising beans and soft maize tortillas waiting to be filled with chargrilled octopus, or chicken with bright green mole. This is a restaurant to delight in — serving food to devour, not shoot on your phone.
60 Wigmore Street, W1U 2RZ, cavitarestaurant.com
A seafood restaurant inspired by Scotland’s Western Isles, however busy Orasay becomes, it remains as calm and clear-sighted as a bothy. The fried haddock bun with tartare sauce is a seaside dream of romance; the oyster with sea buckthorn and lime leaf, a very Notting Hill one. Get their revelatory olives, served with thyme and orange zest, then crack on; it’s a well-curated and concise menu, courtesy of acclaimed chef Jackson Boxer.
31 Kensington Park Road, W11, orasay.london
Left it too late to book a restaurant to prove to your partner how much you love them? Never fear, London’s top chefs are here to play Cupid by revealing the easy-to-prepare dishes that get them in the mood for love at home. For extra brownie points, insist on doing the washing up afterwards.
Pip Lacey, Hicce Hart
“Never mind Valentine’s Day, risotto will secure marriage if you get it right. Mushroom and sweetcorn are my go-to ingredients as my partner is vegetarian. Risotto might be time consuming to make but the process is simple and all good things come to those who wait. Always make a purée, in this case a mushroom or sweetcorn one, by boiling and blending the veg. And mix your butter and cheese into the rice off the heat before serving.”
Mike Reid, Gaucho and M Restaurants
“Beef Wellington is the perfect dish to share, presented as a beautiful pastry which opens up to reveal a perfectly cooked fillet wrapped in glorious pancetta and mushroom duxelles. And, of course, it tastes as good as it looks. To nail the dish, simply use the best beef you can source.”
Sally Abé, The Pem Restaurant
“I’d always go for a melt-in-the-middle chocolate pudding with extra-thick crème fraiche. It’s really easy to prepare but impressive to serve. The batter can be made ahead of time, so it can be ready to go before your loved one comes over, and then just popped in the oven for 8-10 minutes. Make sure you take the pudding out of the oven before it’s fully cooked all the way through – you still want it wobbly in the middle.”
Sam White, 45 Jermyn St
“Oysters are a great starter for Valentine’s Day. They’re quick, easy and delicious, with minimal cleaning up afterwards and also, of course, they are natural aphrodisiacs. My go-to favourite oysters are Carlingford natives from Carlingford Lough in Ireland. I buy mine from Wright Brothers but try any good fishmongers and ask them for a bed of seaweed and crushed ice to serve the oysters on.”
Adam Handling, Frog by Adam Handling
“Lobster is easy to cook at home and although it’s really simple to prepare it feels incredibly luxurious. All you do is cut a fresh lobster in half lengthways, remove the intestinal tract, add garlic butter to both halves, and cook under a hot grill for about five minutes. I serve it with a simple salad and some boiled potatoes, covered in fresh chopped herbs. And of course, Champagne.”
If in doubt, drink
Dry dating is an admirable pursuit, but few things bring couples closer than spilling a few secrets over a glass or five of house something or other. For early-days types, a good strong cocktail has much the same effect as a sledgehammer for breaking down barriers, too. And, well, if it’s all going wrong, it’s a lot easy to down a drink than it is to leave a plateful.
Wun’s Tea Room & Bar
An basement bar in Soho is either the sexiest thing going or the start of a Netflix true crime series, depending on how you look at it, but this neon-lit bar is a sure-fire hit. There’s enough novelty to oil any dry chat — menus come as a newspaper, they serve candy cigarettes — and the drinks are inventive and fair at about £13 a go. There’s a tea service, too, for those with an early start the next morning.
23 Greek Street, W1, tearoom.bar
A dream from a different time, Le Beaujolais is a wine bar untouched in decades and all the better for it. Though always busy with its regulars, there’s usually room to squeeze in at the bar, nuzzle over Cremant, and slowly get tipsy together. Cosy barely covers it.
25 Litchfield Street, WC2, lebeaujolais.london
A bar, undoubtedly — there is booze, can confirm — but this spot in the railway arches by Maltby Street Market is one for those who want more than a cocktail to keep occupied with. As the name suggests, the conceit here is that drinkers are encouraged to pick up chalk and scribble across the walls (writing your beloved’s name in a heart is not a chill look). There’s often live music, and the place always has the air of a party about it.
60 Druid Street, SE1, thedoodlebar.com
In a ‘situationship’?
What does Valentine’s Day mean for couples who, well, aren’t yet properly couples? The best recourse here is to do something. Not necessarily a heart-to-heart; steady on. Instead, eat some food, drink some drinks, have a laugh. These are the places to have a good time in, whatever the situationship and however it is — or isn’t — resolved.
The music is loud, the flavours louder. There’s a pool table and a self-pour tower of Singha beer about three storeys high. For confused couples looking to do anything other than discuss where they are going, Speedboat Bar is go. Book upstairs, if possible, in the restaurant-cum-bar filled with Doraemon, boat pictures, and happy, shining people slurping tom yam. Drink some lurid, lime-chilli cocktails, stay until closing time — 1am, even on school nights — and have fun.
30 Rupert Street, W1, speedboatbar.co.uk
Tequila is often the answer to life’s awkward questions. So are tacos, topped with cool cubes of tuna, crisp cheesy mushroom or pork shoulder slow roasted for 24 hours. At the Borough Market El Pastor, there, bright strings of lights are strung merrily across a railway arch stuffed with high tables, colourful murals, music, margaritas and floppy, nutty tortillas and toastadas. It feels like a holiday from all worries — and with tequila this pure, there’s little fear of them coming back with a vengeance at the end of the night.
7A Stoney Street, SE1, tacoselpastor.co.uk
Ciao Bella is fundamentally unserious. It is a loud and irreverent riposte to this city’s more recent generation of Italian restaurants, the ones serving food which is beautifully cooked and lovingly sourced. No, Ciao Bella is a party; an old school knees-up. Large portions, low prices, and a pianist willing to play any song you throw at him keeps the dining room busy, and the wine glasses full. In certain situations that, combined with a large, quivering slab of tiramisu, can be a joyful relief.
86-90 Lamb’s Conduit Street, WC1, ciaobellarestaurant.co.uk
Put eating out off the menu
Contrary to conventional wisdom — including rather a lot of it across these pages — not every dream date need be built on platters of oysters and Champagne in stupefying measures. Here are five date ideas without tablecloths and candlelight, but plenty of fun.
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Astonishingly, what’s arguably the hottest play in town still has tickets available — on Valentine’s Day itself, but also across the coming weeks too. Sam Steiner’s play is built around a horrorshow of an idea: speech, inexplicably, is limited to 140 words a day. Aidan Turner and Jenna Coleman star in the two-hander, which explores how a couple communicates without words, as well as with them. Lessons may be learnt.
Until March 18, Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, SW1, haroldpintertheatre.co.uk
Great art is sometimes said to be all in the framing, an idea this gallery rejects entirely — going so far to banish them entirely. Instead, it offers an immersive walk through titanic works by the world’s most celebrated artists; Canaletto, Cézanne, Dalí, Kandinsky, Klimt, Monet, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. For Valentine’s week, there is a room dedicated to an Instagram live-feed, where loved-up couple can share pictures of themselves.
6 Marble Arch, W1, frameless.com
Ballrooms are, for the most part, an extinct species in the capital, but the beautiful Rivoli is a south London favourite for its discos, Northern Soul nights and jive parties (all excellent dates, as it happens). For Valentine’s, though, it’s a double cinema screening: Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet, and the Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant classic, Roman Holiday.
350 Brockley Road, SE4, rivoliballroom.com
Want your relationship to take off? Get a little literal about at Battersea Power Station, where the newly-opened Lift 109 — a great glass elevator — offers an astonishing 360-degree view out over the capital, sky high (well, 109 metres up, hence the name). Romantic in its way anyhow, for Valentine’s the viewing deck has been decorated by London’s oldest florist, Moyses Stephens, there’s live music and the option of a butler pouring drinks, too.
Battersea Power Station, SW8, batterseapowerstation.co.uk
Tomb Raider: The Live Experience
Active sorts — both in mind and physically speaking — should head to Camden market for this computer game come to life. The immersive experience plunges guests into Lara Croft’s world; a series of challenges and puzzles follows. It’s exhausting but amusing and, for Valentine’s, there’s a special ticket offer on, and cocktails offered in the bar afterwards.
The Stables Market, NW1, tombraiderlive.co.uk