$25-and-under date ideas

By Virginia Miller

Overpriced tasting menus, impossible-to-snag reservations, obnoxious crowds—making plans for Valentine’s Day can easily spoil anyone’s amorous mood. Thankfully, every other day of the year is ripe for romance, too—and even preferable for avoiding the expensive prix fixe. Here are eight restaurants in the Bay Area where you can have a delicious but affordable date night—that means under $25 per person (not including drinks, tax, and tip)—whether your after festive, casual, hip, intimate, or playful.

Slip into something festive at The Bywater
For a New Orleans-style escape as nearby as the South Bay, a trek to Los Gatos is in order, where the brand new The Bywater was just opened in January by famed chef David Kinch of nearby three Michelin–starred Manresa. Rather than the fine-dining experience of Manresa, intimate Bywater offers a cozy but festive Nola party, set to a Zydeco and Dixieland soundtrack, as oysters and Hurricanes flow. Excellent gumbo, red beans and rice, and po’ boys are filling and delicious—and pair perfectly with a clarified Ramos gin fizz or Bywater Gibson (gin, dry vermouth, fino sherry, and pickled okra). Prepare accordingly: They don’t take reservations, and lines form before the restaurant opens, so a wait list starts up after that first seating.

Telefèric—the trip to authentic Spanish cuisine is shorter than you think
The first offshoot of this Spanish destination to hit the states—the original location is actually in Barcelona—Walnut Creek’s Telefèric Barcelona is the suburban destination restaurant worth hopping on BART. Opened in January, this bustling party whisks you to Spain with pinxtos (bite-sized tapas) carts rolling by, proper Spanish-style gin and tonics (served in massive wine glasses with an array of produce), and an open-air rooftop bar. The menu offers a range of options running from $14 paella (again, dished out from a passing cart) to a wide selection of bites and shared plates. Think of it as your affordable getaway for a night.

Enjoy modern Italian any way you want it at Nostra Spaghetteria
With four entrées hovering at or near $25, and nearly 15 dishes priced in the teens, this recent opening from chef Alexander Alioto is your go-to for Italian food in a modern, cool setting. The best deal—and the most engaging date option—is the custom pasta menu. Choose a house-made pasta ($10) and a sauce ($4), then add vegetables ($4) or proteins ($5). A showstopper, and veritable conversation piece, is the Nostra cheese burger ($20), decadently topped with American cheese, fried onion rings, truffle oil, and Alioto’s famed egg raviolo, oozing silky egg yolk over the burger.

Hog & Rocks guarantees a good-time—and great cocktails
At the end of 2015, chef Pierre Tumlin—formerly of RN74 and Aqua in SF, and Spago and Scarpetta in LA—took over the kitchen at the ever-popular ham and oyster Mission favorite Hog & Rocks. With its quality cocktails, it’s a great place for a fun, buzzy date night. To clinch it, most of the menu ranges from $7 to $18, with only three larger plates priced over $20. Sharing Korean-style wings, squid ink spaghetti, and Southern ham and pimento cheese with whiskey cocktails quickly opens up any conversation.

Sip and smile in style at Maven
With longtime bartender Tim Hagney moving into the role of bar manager, Maven remains an ideal date night for casual yet sophisticated cocktail and food pairings in an intimate but lofty space. Head upstairs to the mezzanine for the most romantic perch in the house, and ogle the list of dishes that run from $7 to $29, with only two coming in over $25. The albacore tataki salad ($14) is just right for sharing—bright with lime, coconut, pickled peaches, and curry vinaigrette. It also pairs nicely with a John’s Shandy ($12), an invigorating blend of Bourbon, quince, lemon, mint, and IPA.

Barcha promises refined Mediterranean
Opened in late October, Barcha serves Mediterranean food in a striking space with more than a little touch of North Africa—the exotic, glowing lighting—and an outdoor patio revealing a view of SoMa high-rises. Proprietor Kais Bouzidi, who also runs Sens on the Embarcadero, combines his Parisian roots with cultural influences from his French mother and Tunisian father. This airy, Mediterranean feel is captured in executive chef Michel Adams’ mezzes (small plates), most of which run a reasonable $3 to $14. Only a few entrées even crack the $20 mark, with highlights including ratatouille, harissa-glazed chicken, and the house flatbread, bazlama.

A down-home date night beckons at Black Bark BBQ
Opened mid-January by the owners of 1300 on Fillmore across the street, Black Bark BBQ is the sports lovers all-day casual date for Southern BBQ, complete with beer and games on numerous flat screens. High points come via the South Carolina route, given chef David Lawrence’s deft hand with Low Country cuisine, namely the combo of tender pulled pork and South Carolina mustard sauce. But on a menu created with Texas BBQ vet Edith Cheadle, juicy sausage links and Memphis-style BBQ sauce also delight—and pair well with the local beers and wines on tap.

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