Yup, it's about that time again: When throngs of couples head to fancy restaurants in the name of love. Sure, we're not saying that a yummy meal with your honey isn't nice. But if you're craving some quality twosome time that'll stand out from your typical February 14th fodder, consider one of these more off-the-beaten-path ideas in or around San Francisco that'll win you points for originality as well as romance.
Toast tea for two
Have a romantic Memoirs of a Geisha moment by taking a romantic stroll through the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park (415-752-4227, just east of Stow Lake, between JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. Drives; get there before sundown). Without the throngs of tourists that often crowd it on the weekends, you'll find some privacy as you follow the winding paths through five acres of ponds, sculptures and bonsai, then stop for tea and a traditional Japanese cookie at the teahouse to top things off.
Explore the dark side
The city's Exploratorium science museum (3601 Lyon St, 415-397-5673, exploratorium.edu) may be mostly for kids, but grownups looking to get closer will love the museum's main attraction: The Tactile Dome, a pitch-black maze that visitors walk (and bump and slide) through in total darkness, using their hands to interpret hundreds of different textures and shapes. The idea is that by robbing you of your sense of sight, your sense of touch will be heightened—the perfect prelude to hand-holding, caressing, or whatever you might have planned to cap off your evening.
Jazz things up
Get old-school sophisticated at Pearl’s, a classic North Beach jazz club (256 Columbus Ave., 415-291-8255, jazzatpearls.com). The dimly lit ambience, well-dressed staff and sultry live music will make you feel like you took a trip back in time to a more elegant era. You can either grab a spot at the bar or reserve a table on the floor to listen to the tunes of crooner Kim Nalley.
There’s nothing like knowing you’re soft and supple allover to make you feel primed for pairing up, so take that date to a P.M. spa appointment. Sign up for the Couples Wet Body Treatment at Tru Spa (750 Kearny Street, 415-399-9700, truspa.com; open until 9 pm on weekdays), where they’ll leave you alone in the “tropical rain forest room” (note: if this is a “we just started seeing each other” date, you can wear bathing suits). After you take turns being scrubbed down and masque-ed up, the room fills with steam to let the masques soak in, then it “rains” for ten minutes before a waterfall gushes from the wall to rinse you off. Once you pat dry and massage shea butter into every inch of each other’s skin, you’ll be the proverbial putty in each other’s hands. If you’d prefer a straight up massage, try the Yin and Yang couples massage at Spa Bar (246 Second Street, 415-975-0888, spa-bar.com).
Head off into the wild yonder
Take the afternoon off work, and head about 30 minutes north of the city to explore Point Reyes National Seashore (nps.gov/pore), 70,000+ acres of protected oceanside land teeming with wildlife and surrounded by stunning vistas. There are 19 hiking trails to choose from, including the Earthquake Trail, which explores the notorious San Andreas Fault zone. During February you might see elephant seals cavorting on the beach (it’s their breeding season) or gray whales migrating past, or you can catch a glimpse of the park’s herd of 400 Tule Elk, a native California species, at the preserve at the north end of the park.
Frolic in flowers
Flowers and V-day go hand in hand, but rather than bringing (or receiving) a bouquet this year, head to the Golden Gate Park’s Garden of Shakespeare’s Flowers, which is filled with more than 100 plants and flowers referenced in the Bard’s work. Stroll and sniff the blooms at Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Middle Drive East.
You know what they say about oysters . . and what better time to test that theory for yourselves than on Valentine’s Day? You don’t need to visit a stuffy restaurant to find quality bivalves, just sidle up to the bar at the Hog Island Oyster Company (1 Ferry Plaza, 415-391-7117). Their Kumamotos and Sweetwaters are as fresh as you’ll find anywhere, because Hog Island farms them just a few miles up the coast. Sip a locally brewed beer while watching ferries come and go enjoying a front-row view of the bay.
Join the tourists
Yes, the pedestrian walkway of the Golden Gate Bridge (goldengatebridge.org) is one of the most tourist-trafficked stretches of cement in the world, but don’t let that overshadow why it’s such an attraction: the view! Where else can you gaze upon the ocean, the bay, the mountains, landmark architecture, world-class boats and a dramatic mix of sun and clouds all at once? So if you’ve forgotten that you live this close to a panorama that people travel from around the world to see, Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to get reacquainted with it. And at 1.7 miles long, the bridge is certain to provide a semi-private spot where you and your sweetie can drink in the surrounding beauty without being asked to take a fanny-packed couple’s picture.
Try a surf-and-turf secret address
There are a few waterfront restaurants that everybody and his brother’s-wife’s-cousin will be crowding into for Valentine’s Day dinner—but if the thought of joining them makes you break out in hives, you still have a seaside option. Just drive 45 minutes south of the city (take Highway One for prime sunset viewing) to Sam’s Chowder House ( 4210 North Cabrillo Highway, Half Moon Bay, 650-712-0245, samschowderhouse.com) , a relatively undiscovered spot (it opened last fall) with ample seating and 180-degree ocean views. You can dine outside in Adirondack chairs, snuggled under a blanket next to a fire pit, or stay even warmer inside.
Make dessert the main course
“Sweets for the sweet” is a Valentine’s mandate, but if your sweetheart is too discerning for red foil-wrapped candy, head to Citizen Cake (399 Grove Street, 415-861-2228, citizencake.com), the Hayes Valley temple to sugar’s sophisticated side. Skip dinner (or grab a burrito en route), and then make an entrée out of buttermilk panna cotta with blood orange sorbet, rose petal crème brulee with saffron cookies, or amber-soft chocolate with malt sabayon and cocoa-nib crispies. To underscore the fact that these sugary treats are thoroughly grown up, each is paired with a non-virgin beverage, such as tawny port, late harvest Riesling or sparkling Gamay.
Celeste Perron is the author of Playing House: A Starter Guide To Being A Grown-up.