It's just about Valentine's Day, a time when we express our love for those who are closest to us. Personally, I'm not one for red and pink and flowers and heart-shaped things, but I do love a romantic evening (and an excuse to splurge a little) with my sweetheart.
Augusta and Aiken have several restaurant options that would offer a unique Valentine's Day dining experience, be it with your significant other, your man-hating girlfriends or any other combination of folks who are special to you.
No matter where you decide to have a special evening, I recommend calling ahead to see whether you can reserve a spot. Here's a sampling of some of my top picks.
For any super-special occasion when I want to dress up, I always think of Augustino's.
Located downtown in Augusta Marriott Hotel & Suites, Augustino's specializes in Italian cuisine and certified Angus steaks.
Why is Italian food the first type of cuisine we think of when it comes to romantic dinners? Maybe it's the passionate red of marinara sauce, maybe it's just that sense of amoré we feel while sharing a nice meal. I think it's the wine.
Augustino's has an award-winning wine list to perfectly accompany menu items that range from pasta with mussels to veal milanese and filet mignon.
The quality of service is unmatched. The uniformed servers are attentive, accommodating and well-versed in the menu.
They also have something special up their sleeves when it comes to the salad menu. If you order the tableside Caesar for two to start your meal, you won't be disappointed.
The server's masterful construction of a Caesar salad and dressing from scratch is exciting and entertaining to watch. Also, you can't get a fresher salad than one that comes directly from the mixing bowl onto your plate. The service itself will heighten the experience to make you and your date feel like the only folks there. And who doesn't love special treatment on a special occasion?
Although the food here is elegant, the atmosphere doesn't feel stuffy or pretentious. Large potted plants, comfortable booths and roomy tables offer a nice sense of privacy for a date, but they also make for a relaxed setting. It encourages a leisurely meal where you can take your time to enjoy good company and relish the romance.
Just because you can't skip town for a Valentine's Day excursion at a fancy hotel doesn't mean you can't have dinner at one. Visiting Augustino's feels like a romantic getaway minus the long car ride. Tuesday is a work day after all.
Normally, Bee's Knees Tapas Restaurant and Lounge is closed on Mondays, but they have decided to open their doors on Valentine's Day for hungry and thirsty lovebirds.
I consider Bee's Knees to be downtown Augusta's mix-and-mingle central, where people come to socialize casually or canoodle romantically. And what are two important components of any romance? Candlelight and sharing.
Bee's Knees glimmers almost every night with one and strongly encourages the other. This restaurant offers a glowing ambiance, softly illuminating a space ornamented with a melding of different styles and tastes.
Exposed brick, walls saturated in mustard color, floors covered in terra cotta tiles and other elements instantly set a soothing mood. More bold colors from curtains and wall hangings pop off the wall and bring the place to life.
This eclectic atmosphere begets an equally mingled array of small and big plates of tapas, a Spanish word for appetizer meant to be shared at the table. Sometimes, I do prefer filling up on a bite of this and a bite of that to committing to one main dish or even one type of cuisine.
And there's plenty to choose from. How about vegetable tempura and tequila-lime guacamole in one sitting? Or maybe hand-cut sweet potato fries with dill feta sauce and Louisiana crab cakes? Any combination of dishes is sure to please.
The bartenders at Bee's Knees are serving up their own alluring combinations over ice. These specialty concoctions make going out for drinks an exceptional event.
Draught blends, such as the appropriately named bumblebee -- which layers lighter Allagash Belgian-style brew and dark Guinness stout -- will take your beer experience to a whole new level.
If you're into more fruity drinks, don't pass up the sangria, which combines red wine, rum, fruit juice and chopped citrus fruits for a light and refreshing libation. It's at once sweet, tart and a little bit tingly.
Whether you've got love or you're looking for it, Bee's Knees presents a one-of-a-kind local drinking and dining experience.
One of Augusta's most famed restaurants, Luigi's has been serving authentic Italian and Greek dishes downtown since 1949. Passed down through a couple generations, this restaurant is as much of an institution here as golf.
I love the Old World style of Luigi's. It's like stepping into a time machine and being spit out into a classic Italian restaurant from the movies. Luigi's could have been the spot where Michael Corleone killed Sollozzo and the crooked cop in The Godfather . Or perhaps one of the most romantic scenes in animated film history could have taken place there where two dogs' lips lock while sharing a spaghetti dinner in Lady and the Tramp .
The charm of the architecture that includes columns and archways and decor that has seemingly been left unchanged for decades awakens your imagination. High-backed booths, cozy round tables and long family-style tables are lit by twinkling chandeliers and glowing candelabras. It feels like the home of a big Italian family, enticing patrons with spice-filled aromas and bottles of Chianti on each table.
But where one would find family photos adorning the walls of someone's home, here you can see the love and appreciation the owners have of golf, especially the Masters Tournament. Their extensive display includes posters, articles and badges from tournaments past. And by the looks of all the autographed photos from Arnold Palmer and Ben Crenshaw, Luigi's is getting some of that love right back.
And, of course, there's the food. They seem to operate under the 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' school of thought, and it's clearly working for them. Italian favorites as simple as spaghetti and meat sauce are expertly prepared with such robust flavors that you might not want to make spaghetti at home ever again. The recipes are tried and true, so it's no wonder Luigi's has been around for more than 60 years.
There's lots of passion here -- passion for authentic food, golf and the rich history Luigi's has already established. To capture some of that for yourself, all you have to bring is your appetite and someone special.
Now we cross the river into South Carolina for a truly unique experience in a tiny restaurant called Soiree. Soiree, of course, is a swanky term for a party. And when you walk into this place, the first word that comes to mind is swanky.
Located in the Alley in downtown Aiken, the restaurant really is tiny and intimate, but some structural elements boast an industrial style that you might normally see in a much bigger space -- exposed ventilation, lots of black, a concrete floor and faux exposed brick. One wall is lined with cushioned benches and assorted pillows in different colors. Intermittent track lighting sets a very sultry and romantic mood. It is definitely a welcome change of atmosphere from other restaurants.
The menu here is small, but what could be considered a limited selection is made up for by the quality of the dishes that are offered. They also have a nice representation of culturally different types of cuisine, from Asian lettuce wraps to shrimp and grits to tilapia tacos.
On the appetizer list, you should try the House blue cheese potato chips. Homemade potato chips, where some come out thick and crispy and others end up softer like a baked potato, are made fresh. They are topped with creamy dressing, blue cheese crumbles and scallions. They are served hot and the cheese and dressing melt along the chips and sink into them, creating a luscious creaminess that is jolted by bright, crisp scallion. This plate is absolutely irresistible, and I don't even like blue cheese.
Of course, you need something to wash all that down. Soiree has a good selection of wine and beer, but they really make some killer martinis.
It just so happens that Valentine's Day coincides with Martini Monday, where all the martinis are $5. The Zen-tini combines white zinfandel and chambord to make a refreshing and crisp punch-like drink. The Sweet Tea-ni is a combination of Firefly sweet tea vodka and lemonade served in a sugar-rimmed glass, a classic Southern mix.
Aiken residents are lucky to have this cozy establishment so close, but it's definitely worth the trip for the rest of us, too.
FUJIYAMA'S JAPANESE STEAKHOUSE
You might be wondering why I would include a hibachi-style restaurant, where you literally rub elbows with strangers throughout the meal, in a collection of Valentine's Day options. That's easy; because it's fun.
Fujiyama's on Washington Road replaces candlelight with fiery flames, fine wine with sake bombs and soft music with clanging utensils on a flat top. Hibachi is such a unique experience that envelops a night out in elements of surprise, intrigue and, dare I say, a little danger.
There is a flutter of anticipation when you see the cook/entertainer for the evening wheel his cart to the table you are sharing with a dozen of your newest friends. From there, he regales his audience with all the tricks up his sleeve and even some from his hat. After all, who doesn't love a good egg roll and onion volcano?
You can partake in the playful side of romance with the perfect opportunity to show off a little and encourage some friendly competition. I'm always impressed by the cat-like reflexes my fiancé employs to catch a shrimp in his mouth. Not everyone has such talent; just ask the girl three seats down picking broccoli out of her hair.
But this show is not just for show. These talented cooks are making dinner right at your table. It's delicious stuff, and there's a lot of it.
Fujiyama's offers a Chef's Special, in which you get filet mignon, chicken, shrimp, sauteed vegetables, fried rice, soup, salad and noodles for two people for less than $40.
All of it, other than the soup and salad, is cooked right at the table and served with an assortment of sauces.
I love the ginger sauce so much I don't even fool with the others -- mainly because I'm not quite sure what they are. There's no mistaking the ginger sauce for anything else; it's a potent, flavorful concoction that brings the Asian flavors of the meat, vegetables and rice to life.
And don't forget to make room in your back seat for the to-go boxes, because there will be plenty for the next meal or two.
I recommend Fujiyama's whether it's just you and your sweetheart or you and your soccer team. You will leave full of food and fully entertained.