Valentine’s Day is Wednesday, and if you haven’t thought to make a dinner reservation somewhere, all is not lost. There are always the places that don’t take reservations — where it’s first-come, first-served — and where the spontaneous among us might still get in.
Showing up early or late might be a good strategy, or else be prepared to spend time at the bar waiting for a table, or loitering awkwardly in the restaurant’s entryway or waiting area.
Valentine’s Day is the second most popular holiday to dine out — sandwiched between Mother’s Day (first) and Father’s Day (third), according to the National Restaurant Association. A quarter of Americans are expected to eat in a restaurant on Feb. 14, the association says.
If a home-cooked meal is more your style, there are still spots left for a Valentine’s pop-up dinner hosted by Big Mouth Pasta and held in a Madison residence overlooking Lake Mendota.
Kelly and Damian Messori started their pop-up business last year and have hosted events at La Kitchenette, Macha Tea Company, Estrellón, Robin Room, Gib’s and at Amilinda in Milwaukee.
The Wednesday dinner is their eighth pop-up and their first on Valentine’s Day. Seating for 12 will be at a communal table, “so it’s both intimate and welcoming at the same time,” Kelly Messori said.
Wine pairings will come with each of four courses, including the couple’s signature homemade pasta. The main dish Wednesday is a choice between giant egg yolk ravioli with prosciutto, kale and Romesco sauce, or slow-braised beef ragu with Malbec wine sauce and hand-cut pappardelle.
Messori calls herself a marketer turned pastry chef turned pasta chef, while her husband has a background in art and design. They both have restaurant backgrounds.
No-reservation Valentine’s restaurant dining ideas include:
Alchemy, 1980 Atwood Ave. This casual, cash-only pub elevates bar food with a kitchen that uses lots of good, local ingredients and puts out creative, and often health-conscious food. There’s not a dud in sight. Co-owner Michael Randall said the bar’s Valentine’s Day can be fairly busy, but not overly so.
Canteen, 111 S. Hamilton St. This highly- stylized, but inexpensive taco shop on the Capitol Square has a fun and funky atmosphere and great cocktails, including Down the Rabbit Hole with reposado tequila — aged in oak barrels — spiced orange liqueur, carrot, grapefruit and fennel bitters. Canteen’s tacos are equally creative.
Swad, 6007 Monona Dr, Monona. Swad means “tasty” in Sanskrit, Hindi and Nepali, and this Indian restaurant is certainly that. Can’t-miss dishes include masala grilled fish, vegetable biryani and tender lamb vindaloo curry.
Brasserie V, 1923 Monroe St. Brasserie V offers a calm, relaxing setting and frites that are impossible to improve upon. The menu is filled with fantastic choices, many of them healthy. If you or your significant other is a lover of Belgian beers, all the better. Co-owner Matt Van Nest said Valentine’s Day is fairly busy, but not “crazy busy.”
Himal Chuli, 318 State St. A reliably good State Street standby, serving Nepalese food in a warm, cozy, casual setting. The tarkari, a traditional vegetable stew and staple of a Nepalese diet, will never let you down. There are usually two to choose from.
Greenbush Bar, 914 Regent St. Tucked away in the basement of the Italian Workmen’s Club, the charming restaurant serves some of the best pizza in town, as well as solid Italian pastas, appetizers and salads. It’s a favorite of many. Owner Anna Alberici said Valentine’s Day is often one of the restaurant’s busiest nights, but not always.
Buraka, 1210 Williamson St. The treasured East African restaurant can spice up Valentine’s Day with its popular dorowot, a reddish-orange, slow-cooked stew with chicken and carrots and a blend of chilis and other spices common to Ethiopian food. The restaurant will offer a special cocktail and appetizers for Valentine’s Day, said owner Markos Regassa.
These spots are taking reservations, and still had room as of Thursday:
Jardin, 829 E. Washington Ave. Jardin is one of the finest, but least appreciated restaurants in Madison. Mysteriously, it’s rarely crowded even though the braised lamb over pappardelle pasta is perfection. It drew well for Restaurant Week in January, but has been slow otherwise. It’s not expected to fill up Feb. 14, said Jon Reske, who runs the restaurant.
Mint Mark, 1929 Winnebago St. This newcomer has a talented chef at the helm. Valentine’s Day calls for a sensational dessert, and Mint Mark comes through with its molten gourmet cookie and buttery basque cake. The restaurant doesn’t normally take reservations, but is making an exception for Feb. 14.
DelecTable in vomFASS, 3248 University Ave., hosts dining events in an elegant yet unpretentious space in the rear of the store. The Valentine’s Day “Culinary Dinner Theater” called “A Feast for Love,” has room for 42 people. It’s is a six-course meal that includes oysters Rockefeller, pork ragu and a porterhouse steak with cherry maletti reduction. Dinner for two with drink pairings is $150. Visit delectablexp.com to make reservations.