If you hate Valentine’s Day, the experience can mean anything from a simple headache to salt in the wound of recent heart break. Those lucky in love tend to spend the day with their significant others, with displays of love ranging from low-key affirmations to grand extravagant gestures. And then there are the happy singles, who might spend the day sending love to friends and celebrating life with chocolate and wine.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum, Valentine’s Day can be a great excuse to get out and have some fun.
My husband, Yousef, and I have spent our short time in the area seeking out fun activities we can do together. For Valentine’s Day, we thought we would compile our (limited) expertise and offer some suggestions for those facing the dilemma of what to do come February 14.
1. Indulge your inner child in DUMBO
Now, this is going to be controversial, but Yousef and I have not been very impressed by New York pizza. However, as we are always looking to find the best foods in any given category, we are determined to find the best slice in New York.
In search of fulfilling this goal, we made our way out to DUMBO, where two rival pizza places battle to determine who offers the best pies.
Since 1990, this corner has been home to Grimaldi’s Pizzeria, a coal-fire joint where Patsy Grimaldi originally sold his popular pies. Eight years later, he sold his establishment and brand name to a customer and went into retirement, only to change his mind in 2011. Since the original restaurant still carried his family name, he decided to name his new place Juliana’s Pizza, after his mother.
Where did he open? Right next door.
Though Grimaldi’s is located in a big old building decorated in a grungy New York style, Yousef and I decided to stick with the establishment’s original owner and try out Juliana’s pizza.
We ordered a simple Margherita pizza to share and found ourselves thoroughly impressed. The pizza had a well-balanced flavor, hints of oregano, and copious amounts of fresh mozzarella. We vowed to try Grimaldi’s another day and make our own judgments about which pizza is best. At the moment, Juliana’s holds the title of the best pizza we’ve tried in the big apple.
After stuffing ourselves with pizza, we decided to stop by Jacques Torres, a well-known artisanal chocolaterie located less than two minutes away from the rival pizza places. There, we bought a hot chocolate to share, which is supposed to be one of the best in the city.
Drinking thick, rich hot chocolate, Yousef and I wandered around DUMBO, exploring the tiny neighborhood nestled between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.
It’s an incredibly unique location, transformed from its industrial past to a center of art and design. With tall buildings, grand architectural details, cobbled streets, and the quiet roar of traffic from above, DUMBO will leave you feeling like you’re in a bubble separate from the outside world.
I would advise anyone looking to impress a date to check out Jane’s Carousel located just three minutes away from Jacques Torres. Only $2 per person, the carousel offers couples a romantic way to make their childhood selves jealous, while taking in views of the two bridges, East River, and the Manhattan skyline. The carousel is only open Friday – Sunday from 11 am – 6 pm.
Things to Keep in Mind: Juliana’s and Grimaldi’s do not take reservations. Expect to wait in line outside for quite a while. It’s worth it, but only if you dress for the weather.
2. Play it low-key in Cobble Hill
Some of the best dates Yousef and I have planned involved little more than cooking together at home. And with fantastic local shops everywhere, Cobble Hill is the perfect place to buy ingredients to wow your date.
Our favorite butcher shop is Paisanos, located at 162 Smith Street. With fantastic cuts of every variety of meat I can think of, Paisanos has something for everyone. And if you’re a vegetarian, don’t fear. They also offer a wide selection of homemade pastas and raviolis.
If you want to splurge for the occasion, pick up a large ribeye steak to share and cook it in a butter bath. If you’ve never given a steak a butter bath, I recommend you go out and buy a steak right now. After Yousef made me steak for the first time, there was no going back. I’ll take his steak over restaurant fare any day.
For those of you new to the world of steak or looking for a new cooking method, I recommend seasoning heavily with salt and pepper, searing both sides on high heat, and cooking to desired doneness while repeatedly spooning melted butter over the top. You can add herbs and fresh garlic to the butter and, when the steak is done, cook onions in the liquid leftover in the pan.
But of course, even the biggest carnivores will need a little something to go with it. Stop by K&Y, a family-run produce shop to pick up the fresh herbs and garlic for your steak. I also recommend green beans or mashed potatoes (or both) as side dishes. K&Y brings fresh ingredients of a really high caliber to your kitchen table. Since Yousef and I moved in, we have bought all of our produce here. They never disappoint.
Because no dinner would be complete without dessert, I recommend you stop by Mazzola Bakery for their fresh cannoli. If you don’t see any on display, you’re in luck. The best way to get a cannoli is fresh from the back.
Of all the Italian pastries Yousef and I have tried in the area, Mazzola’s are our favorites. However, if coconut is your thing, consider stopping by Court Street Pastry. Their coconut cannoli puts a unique touch on the Italian classic.
When you’ve finished your shopping, take your loot home and see how you work together in the kitchen. Open a bottle of wine (red to pair with the steak), try your hand at a few dishes, and order Chinese food if all else fails. There’s no shame in chicken lo mein.
3. Do dinner and a movie in Carroll Gardens
As a rule, Yousef and I do not eat at a restaurant more than once. That is, unless we can’t stop ourselves from coming back. In the case of Gersi, a recently-opened Italian place, we’ve made an exception to the rule.
Every time Yousef and I eat at Gersi, we fall a little more in love than before. The chef’s simple, high-quality ingredients create dishes that are sure to wow and excite. And unlike many nice restaurants in the area, Gersi won’t necessarily break the bank.
During the course of our many visits, Yousef and I have eaten dishes that range from about $10 – $20. On the more affordable end of the scale, you can order Spaghetti al Limone. The light lemon sauce and parmesan cheese create a well-defined flavor profile that Yousef loved. Of the higher dollar meat options, Yousef recommends the roasted chicken with fennel, rosemary, roast tomatoes, and mashed potatoes.
My favorite, the dish I have ordered every time I’ve gone to Gersi, is the Strozzapreti. The thick spiral noodles hold up the fresh marinara with a generous serving of creamy ricotta. Every time I try it, I want to melt into the floor and die of happiness. It’s that good.
The restaurant is popular and it can take a while to get a table, so be sure to get in your reservations well in advance.
After dinner, take in a movie at Cobble Hill Cinema, an old-timey movie theater with a lot of personality. The small screening room makes for an intimate movie watching experience. Be sure to book your tickets in advance. Between the limited seating and the popularity of movies on Valentine’s Day, movies are sure to be sold out soon.
After the show, if you’re not ready for your date to end, take a walk over to Mia’s Bakery. Yousef and I love to sit in the back of the bakery, sharing a dessert and sipping tea or hot chocolate while we lose track of time. The options at Mia’s are seemingly endless and everything we’ve had there has been fantastic. It won’t disappoint.
4. Get a dose of culture in Gowanus
In my previous position as a theater reviewer in Philadelphia, I spent a lot of time going out to shows and I dragged Yousef along every chance I got. There’s something that feels so eventful about going out all dressed up and taking in a live performance.
At The Bell House, a theater in Gowanus, they are showing Your Love, Our Musical on Sunday, February 12. This award-winning musical improv show involves two stars, Evan Kaufman and Rebecca Vigil, interviewing a couple from the audience and turning their love story into a fully improvised musical.
The show costs $15 a person. Doors open at 7 pm, while the show begins at 8 pm. You can book your tickets in advance online. The New York Times says they are brilliant and the Village Voice calls them hysterical, so it’s likely to be a really good time.
When you’re done at the theater, take your partner to Ample Hills Creamery on Nevins Street. This ice cream spot, which draws people from all over New York City, offers creamy confections in all sorts of wild varieties—from ooey gooey butter bar (my favorite) to salted crack caramel (Yousef’s favorite).
If you and your date, like Yousef and I, have a hard time deciding between flavors, Ample Hills has a special deal – 6 mini-scoops for around $8.
And if ice cream in the winter isn’t your thing, check out Four & Twenty Blackbirds, a pie shop on 3rd Ave that offers incredible pie flavors like salted caramel apple, apple rose, salty honey, and chocolate pecan. Though Yousef and I haven’t been able to stop by yet, we’ve heard great things and we are very eager to check it out.
Four & Twenty Blackbirds closes at 7 pm on Sundays, so if you are planning to attend the show, you’ll have to get your pie in advance.
5. Appeal to your senses in Red Hook
In Red Hook, there are a whole host of fabulous restaurants and fun activities to try out. Yousef and I love getting Brunch at Hope & Anchor, fishing off of Valentino Pier, and getting barbecue at Hometown.
But, in doing some research on hidden gems in Red Hook, I came across Raaka Co. Virgin Chocolate, a bean to bar chocolate factory located on Seabring Street. They offer tours and classes for those ready to take their love of chocolate to the next level.
In a 45-minute tour, you will be able to explore the Raaka factory and watch cocoa beans become chocolate bars. Afterwards, you can sample their chocolate and see if you can resist buying a few (or many) bars.
If a tour is not enough, schedule a chocolate making class. They are offered on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm and 5 pm. Each class lasts two hours and brings you through the entire chocolate making process, from cracking cacao beans to eating your creations.
Tours are $10 per person and they occur Fridays at 6 pm, and Saturday and Sunday at noon. They must be booked in advance. Though tours for February 10-12 are currently booked up, try and schedule a tour the following weekend or simply stop by to pick up free samples and shop around. Their chocolate comes in a variety of exciting flavors – from pink sea salt to ghost pepper.
When you’re finished tickling your tastebuds at Raaka, make your way to the water for a nice view of the sunset over the bay (the sun sets around 5:30 on the days around Valentine’s Day). Take a picnic to Valentino Pier if the weather is nice, or hide behind the plastic of Fairway’s climate controlled back patio. It’s a simple meal, but one framed by one of the most beautiful views I’ve found in Brooklyn.
If you don’t want the evening to end, you can round out your date by dipping into the local music scene. I’ve been told that Sunny’s Bar on Conover Street offers fun music sets throughout the week.
On Friday, February 10 at 10 pm, they will be hosting Roy Williams & The Human Hands, whose instrumental music calls to mind soft jazzy tunes. On Saturday, February 11, the bar will hold a bluegrass/folk and country jam starting at 9 pm.
Whether you’re toting around your kids for a family date, going on friend dates, or spending time with your partner, I’m a firm believer that any excuse for celebration should be taken full advantage of.
Whether you take these ideas and run with them, mix and match, add on your own elements, or get inspired to create a unique itinerary, be sure to find a way to enjoy the holiday and take the chance to celebrate you.