Naff cards, teddy bears, chocolates, anything heart-shaped and – above all – an intense pressure to book somewhere à deux for an unforgettable special dinner have come to define Valentine’s Day. But there are ways to enjoy food and drink on the prescribed day of love without succumbing to clichés, breaking the bank or developing some kind of romantic PTSD. Whether you’re loved-up with your boo, flying solo or just want to hang out with some pals, here are savvy ways to eat out – or in – this February 14 in London and make sure it’s memorable for all the right reasons.
Have a really great breakfast instead of a mediocre dinner
Being ‘romantic’ doesn’t have to mean a low-lit evening and an impossible-to-find 8pm table.
Start your day with a visit to Soho stalwart Koya. There are no bookings here, but if you can, try and nab a spot at the bar and order the oh-so-satisfying english-breakfast udon noodles. Slurping from the same bowl to re-enact the famous ‘Lady and the Tramp’ spaghetti scene is optional. For a fancier affair, Mayfair’s The Wolseley is the place to break your fast. Opt for the fried duck egg with bubble-and-squeak and mushrooms, or the decadent signature fishcake with poached egg and hollandaise. For a taste of the Middle East, treat yourself to a big breakfast at Honey & Co in Warren Street. Choose from a selection of mezze, eggs, pastries and cakes. Then show you really care and pick up one of its special Valentine’s treats hampers while you’re at it. (I mean, not while you’re actually AT IT.)
Pretend you're on holiday
Nothing says romance like sun, sea and sand. London, sadly, generally has none of these things. But a restaurant terrace can make you feel like you’ve jetted off. Lambeth’s Garden Museum Café (winner of the city’s best outdoor dining spot in our 2021 Best of the City Awards, FYI) is a brilliant place for a lunch of seasonal British fare. Or get that dolce vita feel at Circolo Popolare. Yes, the interiors and food are OTT, with pasta, pizza and giant puds, but head to the garden terrace for peace and quiet, and picture yourself lounging by Lake Garda.
Skip the basic chocolates and shop indie
Want some sweets for your sweet? Put down that synthetic supermarket selection and opt for something thoughtful, ethically sourced and independent. The award-winning Pump Street produces sublime handmade chocolate using traditional methods and all-natural ingredients. Its bestselling Ecuador 60 percent dark milk with caramelised hazelnuts is the stuff of dreams. Hackney brand Land Chocolate specialises in bean-to-bar single-origin chocolate in pretty pastel packaging.
Go more original than bubbly
Broaden your fizzy horizons with alternatives that get less of a look-in. Try a crémant d’alsace from Noble Fine Liquor, a lively sparkling wine from north-eastern France with tangy lemon and quince notes. For something a little closer to home, English sparkling wines are having (another) moment. Ridgeview Bloomsbury organic Bloomsbury bottle has hints of peach and honey and is an ideal with seafood. If you want to go leftfield, dive into Awa for a crisp, clean citrus, melon-and-muscat drink.
Don’t book somewhere wack, try your luck at a walk-in
Left it too late to book somewhere with your beau or besties? No stress. Noodle & Beer near Spitalfields, which specialises in Chongqing flavours, has plenty of space for walk-ins. For those double dating or in a big group, Shoreditch’s barbecue haven Smokestak has indoor and outdoor seating where walk-ins are always welcome. The very unorganised can head to Chinatown and rock up to Plum Valley, Four Seasons or Food House: they’re all open on a Monday night and usually have plenty of space.
Try a set menu that’s, er, good
Valentine’s Day – like the horrific Christmas work meal – is notorious for the ‘special menu’, designed to cause the kitchen minimum fuss, as you’re regaled with ‘aphrodisiac’ asparagus tips and strawberries with melted chocolate. Instead, opt for Ombra in Bethnal Green’s extravagant seven-course dinner for £80 from 8pm to 9pm. Expect dishes such as gnocco fritto, pumpkin tortelli and aged turbot with sea urchin and artichoke. A later dinner means you’ll skip the mad rush of once-a-year romantics, too. Noble Rot Soho and Noble Rot Lamb’s Conduit’s bargain lunch set menus (two courses for £18, three for £22) should get a look in too. The menu features wonderful dishes like ricotta and turnip top, toast and roast sardines, or lentils and salsa verde.
Don’t go out at all. Stay in
Can’t be arsed with leaving the house? Okay, maybe don’t phrase it exactly like that. Impress your loved one with a delicious home-cooked dinner, i.e. a meal kit that will do all the hard work for you. The good people at Hawksmoor do a steak box containing the full works: the meat, sides, sauces, champers and the option to add more booze. All you Cyranos out there should go for the Pancakes and poetry kit from Where The Pancakes Are: guaranteed to score brownie points with your significant other. Both offer nationwide delivery, so you really don’t have any excuse.
Fall in love with London’s most romantic restaurants.
Order a romantic date night in with these Valentine’s day meal kits.