One of my editors recently wanted to celebrate a special occasion with his wife at a new, stylish restaurant. So he made a reservation at one of our celebrated chef's outposts. But he was concerned about the noise level and the hustle and bustle. Perhaps, he asked me somewhat anxiously, I could recommend a hip place that also was romantic?
I couldn't. Not off the top of my head, and not even after some thought. I also don't foresee any places opening up where someone would feel inspired enough to, say, propose marriage. Other propositions? Yes, absolutely. But they'd run along the lines of “Would you like to get HIV tests together?”
Romance is passé, at least in terms of today's eateries. According to restaurant designer Peter Page, who has outfitted some of our most popular spots, including Tuscan Steak, it rarely crosses the minds of the restaurateurs who are opening the scenes in which to be seen. We live in an age of technology and information, not Fifties-style innocence. When you know a little too much perhaps a little too young, romance isn't cutting-edge, it's a rare commodity. Then there's the clientele to keep in mind. Couples rarely dine à deux anymore. Whether that's because their relationships are troubled or because many of our restaurants that offer family-size portions, like China Grill, are more appropriate for crowds is hard to say. But there is a reason that groups of customers are referred to as parties.
Finally consider the Miami mantra: instant gratification. Our physical desires, whether they be for good food or good drugs, are satisfied so readily down here in the Magic City we might as well call it Sin City. Now whatever gets you into the sack with your date fast enough -- be it caviar and champagne or Ecstasy and ice water -- is considered the appropriate romantic prop.
Hence the latest trend in our restaurants: B.E.D., Opium, Tantra, and Touch. All are designed with the sensual, even the decadent, Miamian in mind; when a restaurant posits that a bed really can be a table, the message is pretty clear. And some of these places are simply sumptuous. For instance Touch, which opened last week in the South Beach Brasserie space, has tufted silk on the walls, sheepskin seats, and palm trees growing out of the bar. None conforms to our traditional ideas of romantic décor. Amy Gardner, a New Yorker who dines frequently in South Florida, notes that such a place is “quiet, with cozy little nooks, muted lighting, and no ultramodern anything.” She can't remember the last time she dined in a recently opened eatery she'd label romantic. “I picture it but it's not there,” she admits.
“Everything now is hard-edged,” confirms Page. “What has replaced romance? The trendy and the fashionable. [The restaurants of] our parents' generation had that glaze of glamour. They were romantic. But now it's about sex, not romance.”
Other critics have noticed the shift in our dining goals, but some are enthusiastic. Bill St. John, reviewer for 5280 Magazine in Denver, opines that in his “politically correct health-crazed” city, “romantic restaurants are about the naughty: eating beef, lamb, or venison; drinking red wine under sexy low light; being pampered by the handsome and comely.”
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Frankly that's seduction, which is not nearly the same as romance. But there is something to be said for changing our working definition. Whereas romantic used to mean candles and crannies, perhaps now it really does imply “deconstructivist plywood paneling and lights like the antenna on a car,” says Page, who currently is designing a sophisticated vegetarian eatery in a house on Alton Road and Thirteenth Street in this manner. He insists that despite the neomodern feel, the décor can be construed as romantic.
Michael Bennett, executive chef of The Left Bank in Fort Lauderdale (a classically romantic restaurant, incidentally) argues that romance has to do with more than décor. “Service is a very important part of a charming dining experience,” he explains. “Maybe the fact that we can't get professional servers in our area has led restaurants to forgo trying to give a romantic evening a go!”
William Grimes, critic for the New York Times, agrees. He writes that a romantic restaurant is a place where “guests are greeted like beloved relatives who have unexpectedly turned up for a meal. For the next two hours, they are cosseted like babies, their every need anticipated, their desires fulfilled before they have been consciously formulated.” In this same 1998 article, he claims that romance is on the path to revival. But he admits the eateries he names, while enjoying newfound popularity, “know they live in a slightly different time from that of the rest of the city. Their edge is that they have no edge. In a restless city that reinvents itself by the hour, they are a refuge and a relief. It is entirely possible to enter the restaurant at the Carlyle, whose cuisine actually can be described as Continental, and channel the first Eisenhower years with almost no effort.” In other words these places transcend time and trends. But they're holdovers. We have some, too, such as Il Tulipano and The Forge. What we're missing out on are establishments that purposely open with romance, rather than sex appeal, in mind.
“Maybe [romance] is a goal that needs to be re-established with the local restaurant population,” suggests Bennett. “We as Americans are always redefining and retooling processes to make them more efficient. Being in a romantic restaurant means three hours of unproductive time being used up in one's life.” So if we change our attitude, we change our restaurants? Maybe not, but it's worth a try. Then when people ask me where all the romance has gone I won't have to say: to B.E.D.