Food and Fun go Pop

In the spirit of Valentine's Day, let me recommend a few personal favorites culled from hundreds of restaurants and bars I traipse through every year on my professional dining missions. With The Day only a week away, I hope it inspires contemplation of your beloved's most attractive traits as well as serious thought about how to please that special person as well. For those who like to dress up and have an expensive, elegant meal while ensconced in the low-lit grace of a historic mansion, may I suggest Chateau France in downtown St. Petersburg. It makes for a lovely evening, all rich wood paneling and creaky old stairs, big bay windows with filmy lace curtains. Illuminated at night by candles, you might ponder the menu with a flashlight, but other things can happen in the dark too.

Featuring beautiful cutlery and china, polished wine goblets and water glasses, a waiter in starched uniform awaits your every whim — from a discreet distance. Once the excellent classical French food arrives, you are left alone for long, secluded stretches of time, perfect for popping the question, offering a ring, or even sipping wine in meditative silence, holding hands.

The place is not cheap: It'll set you back $100 or more for dinner with all the trimmings. If you're short on cash, go there for dessert and order the excellent crepes Suzette — a thin French pancake topped with a buttery, orange-flavored sauce ($8 per person), which owner Antoine Louro prepares himself with much fanfare at your table. Finish with espresso ($3).

For a more casual atmosphere, try CevicheTapas Bar & Restaurant, off Bayshore Boulevard, in Tampa. One of the few decent restaurants open late late, it's perfect for those who like to hit the clubs and still eat well. It's open till 3 a.m. weekend nights, and spotlights the Spanish specialty called tapas — hot and cold hors d'oeuvres. The kitchen does them extremely well.

The restaurant draws a lively and effusive crowd, and you feel almost as if you're visiting someone's home. There's a tiny, jammed bar, where people schmooze and smooch and throw down drinks. Late at night, it gets noisy with laughter and a little lurid. With everyone so closely packed, it becomes necessary to cozy up just a little in order to remain standing. Oh, well.

Order Sangria ($4.50 per glass or $15 for a pitcher), and a cold plate with a selection of nine appetizers, like marinated scallops and grilled salmon ($15-18).

Romantic in a different way is the new Pop City entertainment complex at downtown Tampa's Channelside development. With a hip, youngish crowd, a waterfront location on a shipping channel near the port, and 6,000 square feet that includes a restaurant, night club, rock climbing wall, pool tables, and the latest video games, it supplies lots of fun diversions.

Pop City's full-service restaurant, G. Elliott's Restaurant & Raw Bar, sits on the waterfront side of the building. Inside, it's glitzy and noisy, with a gorgeous oval bar dominating the middle of the dining room, and big-screen TVs blaring sports events.

If the crowds and noise become too much, step out to the patio facing the water, where it's quieter, with a well-chosen selection of background blues and jazz tunes piped in. Settle into one of the comfy chairs, order drinks and hang out.

Across the water is a gritty industrial tract with a big TECO plant, a dry dock, a ship repair facility and various commercial outlets of the port. At night, you can see the welders repairing a massive ship's hull, the arc of their torches crackling like sparklers over the water.

If you get hungry, order the hot hors d'oeuvre called Jamaican jerk shrimp ($8), fresh spiced shrimp served atop Cuban bread with a Cajun-inspired sauce. The patio itself is too bright for impromptu kissing, but, necessity being the mother of invention, the desperately besotted among us use a gated stairwell at its far end for such time-honored purposes.

If a stairwell isn't exactly your idea of a class encounter, make a reservation at a lovely place tucked anonymously in a shopping center near USF called Ristorante Francesco. Its flamboyant owner, Francesco Marchsini, pampers his guests with personal, attentive service, sometimes even entertaining them with tunes on the harmonica. The food is especially creative northern Italian fare.

You can dress up if you like; the restaurant is formal in crisp linen, spotless china and glowing silver, but people show up in casual wear too. Order anything — Francesco's expert kitchen does it all — but I like surprises, so I tend to go with the daily special, generally priced at $15-$18. Some entrees are priced as low as $10. For dessert, try the profiteroles ($4), French-style pastry enclosing luscious filling.

As far as I'm concerned, the most romantic setting anywhere in the Bay area is the ever-fabulous Don CeSar Beach Resort & Spa, the historic 1928 architectural wonder whose big pink towers are a familiar sight where St. Pete Beach curves sharply away from the mainland. Presiding over the blue-green gulf, the Don is a local treasure that has always inspired lovers with its magic.

You don't need to break the bank to dine with your Val Pal: Go before sunset to the hotel's casual Sea Porch Cafe, set among a thicket of sea oats overlooking the beach. Sit at a table on the open deck, listening to the gentle music of wind and wave. Order drinks, and, if you're hungry, try one of the dinner pasta dishes served with the "fish of the day" ($22). They change daily, depending upon what the chef considers the freshest.

Together, you can bid the sun adieu as its slinks into the sea. Walk afterward on the beach for a truly memorable evening.

Happy Valentine's Day to all.

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