A Look at the Most Romantic Places to Dine in the Gables
What makes a restaurant romantic? What transforms it from just a place to dine – even with excellent food — to a magical setting where you can charm your date? Is it the service? Is it the ambience? Should it be exotic or cozy or both?
With these question in mind we walked the streets of Coral Gables and dined in a variety of places. We asked scores of people what they thought. And the answer comes down to not one, but to a combination, of amorous elements.
First, the restaurant must feel intimate. This means a relatively small place – or at least one that has a diminutive nook for you and your partner. No food halls need apply.
Next, it must be relatively quiet. You have to be able to hear the person across from you without yelling. So, nix all noisy, boisterous places.
Third, it must have muted lighting. Hemmingway may have liked a well-lit place, but that was for drinking. For romance, you need the half-light that makes everyone look attractive.
Finally, it must have something inexpressible that makes it special, something that transports you from the mundane world of the ordinary to someplace different, someplace special.
Using these guidelines, we chose the following establishments as the most romantic dining spots in the Gables. See if you agree.
The Most Romantic of All
The Fontana’s Setting Wins the Ring
For anyone who has not entered the courtyard of the 1926 Biltmore Hotel, the first experience will wow you. At the center is a large Venetian fountain in an octagonal reflecting pool, which fills the courtyard with the pleasant sound of sprinkling water. You are surrounded by tropical foliage, palms in great terracotta urns and alexanders soaring from the corners; above and around you are the elegant arches and columns of the Mediterranean architecture.
Is this Europe? Is this Italy? Is this even in this century? The outdoor setting of the Fontana immediately transports you to a distant place, and it’s almost impossible to beat as a romantic destination in Coral Gables. You can also eat inside, but if weather permits, there is nothing quite as pleasant as sitting outside. The chairs are metal but with good cushions, the circular tables covered with linen.
Chef Beppe Galazzi prepares a well-rounded variety of Italian dishes, leaning toward seafood combined with organic, locally sourced ingredients and a few creative twists. Among the antipasti are some real standouts, including a perfect Fiori di Zucca – zucchini blossom stuffed with ricotta and goat cheese – fried to a delicate golden crisp crust outside to balance the warm, soft inside. His bruschetta, with a nod to Millenials, adds a base of avocado under the diced plum tomatoes; it sounds forced but produces a perfect mix of crunchy toast, creamy ‘cado and garlicy basil tomato. Yum.
In the fish and meat realm, you can’t wrong with the roasted boneless rack of lamb, done just right and served along with the ribs if you are inclined to nibble. But the stars are from the sea: a flavorful wood-roasted Spanish octopus, roasted prawns with spicy aioli sauce, and a salt-crusted branzino that is served table side so your wait staff can remove the salt layer and debone the delicate filet; at $48 it easily serves two, and is light and delicious (the salt somehow sweetens the fish with an alchemy we don’t understand.)
Pasta, as you’d expect, is second nature to Chef Galazzi, and he prepares his al dente, which gives it a proper resistance to the bite, rather than the soft, overdone pasta that Americans seem to prefer. There are daily pasta specials; we tried a fusilli cooked with eggplant and red sauce that was as close to Italian comfort food as you can get. We also tried a spectacular risotto pascatore, with a rich mix of calamari, scallops, clams, mussels, shrimp and lobster in a tomato broth. Creamy and delicious.
For desserts, Fontana serves a top-notch tiramisu, and a delightfully refreshing ‘frutti de bosco al limone” – fresh berries marinated in lemon juice and whipped cream – but we went with their signature devil chocolate cake with chocolate ganache icing and vanilla ice cream.
Fontana also has a substantial wine list, and staff will suggest good pairings. We started the evening with a chilled Chateau Saint-Maur French rosé from Provencal ($50) and ended it with a Briccotondo Barbera, an Italian red from the Piemonte region ($55) recommended by Chef Galazzi. Both were excellent and both lulled us, along with the just-right background of Italian operettas and accordion music, the sound of the fountain, and the taste of the succulent food, into a most agreeable evening of amore.
1200 Anastasia Ave. (Biltmore Hotel)
Romantic dining in Coral Gables does not end at the Biltmore. The city has other romantic gems in its crown of fine dining
Nino Pernetti’s ever-popular Abbracci restaurant on Aragon Street is an icon. It has reigned as the power lunch locale for decades, attracting a who’s who list of local business and community luminaries as well as visiting presidents, Congressional leaders, and celebrities.
At night, however, the mood shifts to a more romantic air, especially on the weekends. Abbracci has most of the important requisites for a romantic venue: It is small and intimate, it has solicitous service, the lighting is low, and the food is superb. It also has a secret weapon: the walls and ceilings are lined with the same sound-proofing material that’s used in recording studios. So, no matter how rambunctious the room chatter, you can hear the person you are with.
For Pernetti, the romance of Abbracci is about attitude. “In order to make a restaurant romantic, it has to be for the ladies, from the bathrooms to the menu,” he says. “Our bathroom is magnificent, with flowers and a painted ceiling. And the food is geared toward the ladies, because she is one who will decide.” What does that mean? At least one special chocolate dessert with gold flakes.
318 Aragon Ave.
One of the tongue-and-cheek responses as to what makes a restaurant truly romantic is the ability to retire to a room upstairs. That’s certainly the case with Zucca, which occupies the ground floor of the old St. Michel Hotel.
But the restaurant deserves the accolade of romantic all by itself. It has great down lighting, with a baby spotlight on each table. The design is very chic, with an urban and sophisticated flair that comes from the northern Italian area (can you say Milan?) where much of the world’s great design in fashion (and food) originates.
The cooking itself also provides a special experience; it is artisanal food from the Lombardy region of Italy that specializes in slow braising and stewing, and where rice and polenta are the dominant starches rather than pasta. Overall, with its forest green velvet curtains and smoky brown walls, Zucca has attitude, but quiet attitude, with just the right amount of noise from diners’ chatter – some of it in Italian, always a romantic sound.
162 Alcazar Ave.
It’s dark, with red paneled walls and lots of woodwork. Each table has its own shaded lamp, with shaded lamps spaced on the walls. And it’s out of the way, just off the beaten path, with a rich past and peerless service delivered by deft, veteran servers. So, what’s not romantic about Christy’s, the historic steak house on Ponce just south of the circle? Not much.
The only question is, can a good steak be sexy? Yes, says managing partner Chris Klaic, especially if your date is a carnivore and especially if he or she is a fan of Christy’s legendary Caesar salad and their ever-popular escargot. And if you wash it down with a Manhattan from the glowing bar, you can take a page right out of Mad Men. “I don’t remember the last time I took a date out in the Gables, but if I did…” We know the answer. Just make it the weekend. “It’s a very business oriented crowd during the week,” says Klaic. “During the weekend it’s more couples, more young people.”
3101 Ponce de Leon Blvd.
According to manager Antonio Acevedo, there have been at least three proposals at Mesa del Mar in the last year. And we are not talking real estate contracts. Their main room, aka The Library, has muted lighting and white table clothes, and there is a separate smaller room for even more intimate dining. “We do have families come in, but we get a lot of couples,” says Antonio.
There are two things in particular we like about Mesa del Mar. The first is the interior. The back glow from the set-back book and display cases of the Library casts a surreal, dreamy glow to the dining area. The second is the menu. Despite our proximity to the ocean, we have surprisingly few restaurants dedicated to seafood (their name literally means sea table). From their creamy lobster bisque and blue soft shell crab, to calamari with garlic butter and grilled corvina with homemade rum sauce, this is the place to win the heat of any mermaid (or merman) you have eyes for.
MesaMar Seafood Table
264 Giralda Ave.
Where Power is the Aphrodisiac
The space is a little too cavernous to be truly romantic, but if power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, then Fiola is the place to go. Air dropped straight from the streets of Washington DC, this is the new elitist hangout, with exquisite silver wear, china, and food plating – and every detail perfect. 1500 San Ignacio Ave. 305.912.2639
Somewhere on the Gables/Paris Border
What, no French restaurants made the list? Okay, if you want to feel the romance of sitting at a café in Paris, go to Le Provençal on Miracle Mile. Even their chairs are the type used in cafes on the Boulevard San Michel. If you want a more intimate interior, try Pascal’s on Ponce, a perennial favorite for couples in the Gables. 266 Miracle Mile. 305.448.8984. // 2611 Ponce de Leon Blvd. 305.444.2024
And for Something Completely Different
If romance means mystery and a trip to a less familiar world, Bangkok Bangkok II’s special cushioned dining area deserves mention. It’s only for the young and flexible – you must remove your shoes, cross your legs and sit against a cushion – but your date will never forget the experience. 157 Giralda Ave. 305.444.2397