Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

Heart Smart: Valentine's Day is the restaurant industry's second-biggest day, right after Mother's Day. (It makes sense: Everyone has a mother; not everyone has a sweetheart.)

But if my e-mails, letters and telephone calls are any indication, Valentine's Day is number one when it comes to generating customer complaints.

What's the problem? Restaurants often scrap their regular menu for a special Valentine's Day menu. That means the ahi tuna or rack of lamb that you always order at your favorite place may not be available. Instead, you might be forced to choose between stuffed breast of chicken and a T-bone steak.

Some restaurant owners, looking to make a killing, jack up prices. That $50 dinner for two that you saved up for may turn into a $75 splurge.

Getting a reservation for Valentine's Day is like getting an airline ticket for the day before Thanksgiving. You can get bumped. Just because you reserved an 8 o'clock seating doesn't mean you'll be eating promptly at 8. Some restaurants overbook, hoping to squeeze more money out of you by shuffling you to the bar. And they may try to squeeze an extra seating out of the evening. Instead of pacing the meal at an hour and a half, they may try to get you out as if you're at LensCrafters, in about an hour. That means you'll be rushed.

Do the smart thing. When you call for a reservation, check on the menu, check on the prices and check on how long you can expect to linger. Better yet, if you have the courage, celebrate Valentine's Day on February 13 or 15. Your sweetie will appreciate your good sense.

Restaurant Romance: You don't have to be a trained restaurant critic to suggest places like Mary Elaine's, Top of the Rock and Different Pointe of View for a Valentine's Day dinner. For a big-bucks romantic splurge, complete with deep wine list, they're everything Cupid could want.

One way to keep the Valentine's Day tab down, however, is to eat at a BYOB place. That $50 Burgundy the sommelier is sure madame will love might cost you only 20 dollars retail.

The Valley has a few standout BYOB places. One is Gregory's Grill, in Papago Plaza, at 7049 East McDowell in Scottsdale. The menu changes frequently, but I've never been disappointed. Grilled shrimp in a fennel-saffron broth is a riveting appetizer. You may want to start a relationship with the beer-marinated beef tenderloin or apple-crusted salmon. Call 946-8700.

Coup des Tartes, 4626 North 16th Street, has a setting as charming as the fare. It's housed in a former antiques store, but there's nothing antique about the Mediterranean-themed fare. The menu changes weekly, but if the lamb shank with dried fruit is on it, you needn't look any further. Desserts are especially compelling, particularly the signature banana brulee tart. Call 212-1082.

And though I haven't been there, Restaurant Hapa, 6204 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale, sounds promising. The menu features Asian-accented dishes like skillet-roasted mussels in a Thai coconut broth, and five-spice crusted rack of lamb. Call 998-8220.

--Howard Seftel

Suggestions? Write me at [email protected] or New Times, P.O. Box 2510, Phoenix,