What makes a restaurant romantic? If you’re not sure, you probably ought to ask someone female. When I asked my husband for his suggestions for this article, he said, “Is Guzzle Pipes and Gutty Works open yet?” Having an excellent beer list is not usually high on the list of most women’s romance requirements.
When assembling this list, I kept a few factors in mind: noise level, mood lighting, formality of service and table proximity. First of all, the noise level shouldn’t be so high that you can’t have an intimate conversation. Lighting is very important, and so many restaurants get this one wrong. It doesn’t feel like fine dining if the lighting reminds you of Shoney’s. I give a restaurant romantic credibility when I see white tablecloths and flowers on the table. If the waitstaff has demonstrated a knack for making a special night even more special, they get high marks in my book. Finally, if the tables are so close to each other that the gentleman next to you asks for a bite of your dessert, they are too close. Simply having great food doesn’t get a restaurant on this list. There are a lot of great restaurants in town, but if they don’t have the proper mood for a get-lucky date, they didn’t make this list. Knowing that there are so many fine local places, I did not include any national chains on the list. I’m keeping it local.
I love Bistro Aix, so my personal bias is showing here. This has been a special occasion favorite of mine for a few years. One big thing in their favor is that they always offer a lagniappe on Valentine’s Day, like a chocolate covered strawberry. The food is fabulous too, and you can’t go wrong with the steak frites. To be honest, it can be a bit loud. The newly remodeled “Le Bar” is a lively happy hour spot with a DJ. The romantic vibe definitely depends on where you are seated. I always feel for the people in the booths next to the back door. Those booths, again, remind me of Shoney’s. When weather permits, white twinkle-lights make the patio area a romantic choice. Lastly, if you’re a newbie, don’t embarrass yourself in front of your date by mispronouncing the name. It’s Bistro “X.”
Bistro Aix 1440 San Marco Boulevard, Jacksonville (San Marco), (904) 398-1949
Black Sheep earned points with me when we dined with them on our anniversary. I made the reservation on Open Table, and specified that it was our anniversary. We were welcomed with anniversary greetings and given a complimentary glass of champagne as soon as we sat down. That’s how you do it, people. The noise level can get a little high, but the lighting is good. The food is fresh and creative, and they use local sources like Black Hog Farm for fresh, seasonal vegetables and melt-in-your-mouth pork belly. (wait–pork belly is not romantic…but it sure is delicious. Please forgive me, vegetarians). As a plus, Black Sheep has that awesome roof top terrace, where you can get a drink and watch the sunset.
Black Sheep Restaurant 1534 Oak Street Jacksonville (Five Points), (904) 380-3091
Where is this place? On 11th Ave. South, of course. This small, intimate restaurant is located in a converted house in Jacksonville Beach. There’s zero parking, so expect to valet. This is a special occasion place featuring white table cloths, wine service and entrees ranging in the $25-$40 range. Inside seating is very formal. My favorite romantic tables are outside. I like the terrace, with it’s twinkle lights and bubbling fountain. They offer specials on weekdays and Sunday night, so if your plans coincide with these offers, take advantage of them. A few of the deals include wine specials on Sunday, martini specials on Wednesday, and a three-course price fix menu on Wednesday for $34 per person. I’ll also give you a tip. They participate in the $5 for $25 gift certificate offers on Restaurant.com, but they only accept them Sunday through Thursday. See the Eleven South website or check their facebook page for a schedule of special offers.
Eleven South Bistro 216 11th Ave S, Jacksonville Beach, (904) 241-1112
On any evening you can walk past this Italian veteran located in the Beaches Town Center, and peek in the sometimes-steamy windows to see couples dining at tables for two. Something about Italian food is inherently romantic, possibly rooted in Disney-influenced dreams of sharing a plate of spaghetti. (But don’t actually nose that meatball to your Lady, Tramp.) Request a table in the front dining room for a quieter setting. The bar area features an open, wood-fired pizza oven where they let families with children make their own pizzas (children on a romantic evening=no-no). The beautifully landscaped patio is nice as well, with streaming muslin curtains dividing you from the hoi polloi. Parking can be tough in this area, but Mezza Luna offers free valet parking.
Mezza Luna 110 North First Street, Neptune Beach (904) 249-5573
Located on the square in San Marco, Taverna serves European cuisine with an emphasis on Spanish and Italian. It has a warm, rustic atmosphere, but is not too rustic as they still have those white tablecloths and flowers. Some of the tables are a little close together, but make your wishes known and perhaps choose an intimate wooden booth, shielded from the outside world. I once dined here with a large party of women, and felt deeply sorry for the cute couple unfortunately seated close enough to hear one woman’s lengthy account of potty training her daughter. Go for the booth. They also have a beautiful, dark, and cozy private dining room.
Taverna 1986 San Marco Boulevard Jacksonville (San Marco), (904) 398-3005
The intimate dining room at Orsay feels like you could be in the Provence region of France. Reservations are a must, as this highly-touted foodies paradise is always booked on weekends. They boast of offering a, “warm, genuine dining experience without pretense in a bustling, fun atmosphere with smiling, attentive service,” and I would agree. We also tried this on an anniversary, and received that glass of champagne (cheers, Orsay!). Orsay is probably the best place to find French cuisine in North Florida. French is also inherently romantic, oui?
Orsay 3630 Park Street Jacksonville (Avondale) (904) 381-0909
Azurea at One Ocean
Located on the beach, Azurea remains true to its local surroundings, providing an elegant, artfully inspired atmosphere, where a view of the ocean is accessible from any seat in the house. Azurea showcases the area’s cuisine movement with an eclectic tribute to the flavors of Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas. The menu changes with each season, representing the latest trends and finest ingredients. Azurea is located in the One Ocean Resort & Spa so you can turn a romantic dinner into a romantic weekend.
Azurea at One Ocean 1 Ocean Blvd, Atlantic Beach, (904) 249-7402
I actually hesitated to include Matthew’s on this list because of an encounter two years ago with a particularly snooty waiter. However, in the spirit of forgiveness, I must admit that our experience was possibly an exception to the rule. Matthew’s has an elegant, fine dining atmosphere with cozy tables and superior food. It was one of the first fine dining restaurants in the area, and has been in operation for over a decade. Chef Matthew Medure is at the helm of this San Marco mainstay. This is a four-diamond restaurant, so expect to pay $80-$100 per person.
Matthew’s Restaurant, 2107 Hendricks Avenue Jacksonville (San Marco), (904) 396-9922
The Wine Cellar
If you’re reading this list with Valentine’s Day in mind, forget about it, as this one booked up last month (if you are willing to wait until Saturday the 15th, you might have more luck). The Wine Cellar has been a Jacksonville institution since 1974. With a quiet elegance and a traditional feel, this restaurant provides an intimate setting for a special occasion. The menu is classic continental, and entrees range from $23 (Parmesan crusted chicken) to $56 (cold water lobster tail). Check out their prix fixe dinners which are around $35 per person for three courses.
The Wine Cellar 1314 Prudential Drive, Jacksonville (Downtown) 904-398-8989