Date nights can be about keeping the spark alive or simply having fun together. To help that along, we’ve got 10 dining ideas across the five boroughs. None is stodgy or superexpensive. In fact, some don’t even take reservations, so it’s best to go at odd hours or, in the spirit of romance, to be spontaneous. It’s not hard to kindle sparks either, as long as you don’t let the delicious food distract your attention too much from your dining companion. Regardless, these restaurants will make you fall in love with NYC all over again.
Want something old school but unstuffy? At the front lounge of the ‘21’ Club, the dress code is relaxed, no jacket required. The gentle lighting, fireplace and cushy seating arrangements make it a great place to unwind. Cocktails are always correctly mixed, and the wine list is extensive. Satisfying bar bites include hamburger sliders with Swiss cheese, pigs in a blanket with spicy brown mustard and lollipop chicken wings with blue cheese. ‘21’s storied Bar Room (the main dining area), with checkered tablecloths and a staggering array of toys suspended from the ceiling, is also delightful but requires more sartorial effort and a reservation.
Catching the free Staten Island Ferry from Manhattan is an inspired date in itself. Once ashore, try for a window table at Blue, about 2 miles from the St. George Ferry Terminal. The low-lit Mediterranean restaurant faces the Kill Van Kull, a tidal channel with nautical traffic and glittering views of New Jersey. Fittingly, seafood is the claim to fame here: try teriyaki-glazed salmon or linguine topped with shrimp, crabmeat and lobster butter sauce. Make time to linger over Nutella wontons and warm chocolate cake before catching the last ferry back to Manhattan at 11:30pm.
Bunker is a youthful, beachy Vietnamese hangout, a surprise to find in a warehouse area between East Williamsburg and Bushwick. Whoever leads the way gets immediate bonus points for being adventurous. A cool party vibe inside complements the food, which is complex and exciting. Try the pho, grilled lemongrass short ribs and summer rolls with wild prawns and roast heritage pork. Big, crunchy banh mi sandwiches (good for sharing) are filled with fried wild blue catfish, Vietnamese chicken sausage or, in a vegetarian version, mushrooms and basil-peanut pesto. Vegans will also find several options.
Dante is not quiet, which means lovebirds have to lean in to talk at the bar or nestle in a banquette where private conversation is not easily overheard. There’s such a pleasant hubbub in this revitalized, century-old West Village café that it’s hard not to feel happy, especially when tucking into smoky shishito peppers, saucy organic chicken parm bubbling in a skillet and lusty vegetarian lasagna. Those who like Negronis, take note: there are numerous iterations here—including a classic version on tap—which are discounted daily from 3pm to 6pm.
Marie-Aude Rose’s cuisine is such a love letter to France that you and your date can’t help but feel you’re in the city of love. Servers are attentive and yet know when to leave you alone, not interrupting. The Soho café/design emporium showcases exquisite ceramics, glassware, linens and furnishings by Roman and Williams, which means aspirational shopping can be combined with a meal. The all-day menu features excellent cocktails; spectacular buckwheat crêpes (actually only served till 5pm); crisp-skinned, juicy chicken; and luscious chocolate profiteroles. If buttery croissants haven’t sold out yet, pick up a couple for breakfast the next morning.
Tell your date you’re going to the best Thai place in Queens and that right there should induce butterflies. No matter that Lamoon is brightly lit, tiny and inexpensive—the flavors pop. Chef Arada Moonroj channels her Northern Thai heritage for khao tod (fried rice balls with curry paste) and kanom jeen nam ngeaw (a stew of pork ribs, vermicelli and shrimp paste). Its authenticity is ideal for gastro-explorers, and the place is user-friendly for all. Dishes are illustrated with photos, forks are provided instead of chopsticks and it’s BYOB.
Seating is tight at Pasquale Jones, a modern Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street at the edge of Little Italy. At the kitchen counter, opposite wood-fired ovens, you’ll be pressed shoulder to shoulder, making it easy to sweet talk and share airy clam pizza sharpened with garlic, broccoli rabe and lemon. Seasonal salads, pasta and pork shank for two are also wonderful. Since it’s so small and takes limited reservations, go early or expect a wait. Hospitality is included, so no need to leave a tip.
Rucola is a cozy Italian restaurant that Boerum Hill locals amble to for breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner, each menu reflecting the seasons. Out-of-town couples will similarly be seduced by its food as well as its beautiful residential setting and rustic interior of brick and weathered wood. Highlights include whole roasted brook trout and a salad of roasted cauliflower with mushrooms, porcini cream and a soft egg. A dessert of chocolate pudding with whipped cream, olive oil and sea salt is memorable.
Mellow out over a fine bottle of natural wine at Wildair, a small bistro on the Lower East Side. The list goes deep on French and Italian varietals, and the staff is ace at describing them in a non-snobby way. Inventive small plates come from co-chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske (also behind the Michelin-starred Contra, two doors down). Snack on oysters, confit bacon toast with ’nduja butter and the crispy grain salad with hearts of palm and tarragon. Some reservations are accepted, but high tables and counter seats are mostly first come, first served.
Zero Otto Nove
Feel like having a leisurely dinner in the piazza of an Italian village? Head to Zero Otto Nove in the Bronx’s Little Italy, where archways, a soaring ceiling and frescoed walls achieve that effect. Chef Robert Paciullo is from Salerno, and his Southern Italian specialties include thin-crust pies and pasta al forno, a brawny tangle of rigatoni baked with meatballs, soppressata, ricotta, mozzarella, sliced egg and tomato sauce. Its Arthur Avenue address makes purchasing creamy burrata, fresh pasta and cannoli from neighborhood mom-and-pop shops almost mandatory.