Pictured above are dishes from Cache in Little Rock, left, and Cypress Social in North Little Rock.

 

Legendary cartoonist, Peanuts creator and cultural touchstone Charles M. Schulz once said, “All you need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Truer words may never have been spoken, and the sentiment is particularly apt in February, when all the world turns its attention to heart-shaped boxes, red roses and a holiday devoted to love.

 

Valentine’s Day has long been a holiday to warm the heart during the coldest months of the year, when couples express their fondness for one another through gifts and romantic outings. It is also very big business: According to the National Retail Federation, total spending on Valentine’s Day is expected to approach $26 billion, a little more than $190 per person. This makes Feb. 14 the third most expensive holiday of the year in the U.S.

 

Such statistics tend to feed the cynic in a lot of people and make it easy to paint the holiday as nothing more than an expensive tradition fueled by the retail industry and appealing to the most basic and primal urges humans have. Stoking the never-ending drive to drum up a little hanky panky by plying a potential lover with gifts has, after all, resulted in $235 spent per person for U.S. men, the NRF states, compared to $119 per person for women on average.

 

While the retail world’s modern exploitation of Valentine’s Day is prima fascie accurate, it is also true that the holiday we now know has a surprisingly long lineage underpinned in love and sex. Historians are not unified in the origins of the holiday, but many point to the ancient pagan fertility festival, Lupercalia, as a likely predecessor, per National Geographic. This annual February blowout featured plenty of non-PG traditions, including more nudity than a 1970s pool party at the Playboy Mansion.

 

The festival was so popular, it continued even as Christianity spread its way throughout the European continent. Naturally, the Church was not wild about a party of such lasciviousness, so under Pope Gelasius I, it declared Feb. 14 a day of feasting in honor of the martyred St. Valentine in the late fifth century, National Geographic reported. Even though — interesting side note — there are more than 30 St. Valentines (as well as a couple of Valentinas), which makes it hard to tell exactly which one the holiday is celebrating, thus did Rome sanitize the holiday enough to be safe for modern-day audiences from first-grade classrooms to retirement homes.

 

Other traditions related to the day have similarly interesting origins: Per the Farmer’s Almanac, the first recorded Valentine’s Day card (archived today in the British Library in London) was sent by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife whilst the duke was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Noted 14th century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who penned the scandalous-in-its-day Canterbury Tales, is credited with the first Valentine’s poem. According to the University of North Carolina College of Arts and Sciences, Chaucer’s 699-line Parliament of Fowls, written to honor the marriage of King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia, is the first to connect St. Valentine with romantic love.

 

That brings the discussion of Valentine’s Day traditions to food. Every year, millions of couples observe the holiday over a delicious meal at a favorite restaurant, an act that psychologists say is more scientific than mere ritual. Behaviorists have written at length about what food represents in human relationships, as well as how it nourishes the physical self. For example, in a 2014 study published by the National Library of Medicine, food is noted as one of the earliest symbolisms of love and attachment. An infant, whose primary drivers in life are eating and sleeping, will develop affinity with the mother, who provides food, and that later translates as love.

 

Later on, food is an equally compelling part of the complicated process of human relationship building. What seems like mere good manners in sharing a bowl of popcorn, for example, can actually carry deeper signals of trust and intimacy, per the University of Kansas. Similarly, food can work into a power dynamic; Psychology Today reported in 2019 that during the earlier stages of relationships, females tend to be more influenced by males in their dining habits, a dynamic that tended to flip later on, especially once a couple cohabitates. While this effect may be lessening as traditional gender roles evolve, relationship experts say couples of every description report more marital satisfaction from joint activities, especially cooking.

 

That is before the physiological effects of certain foods kick in, from the supposed aphrodisiacal properties of oysters to the endorphin hormones released by spicy foods and the warmth and comfort of dopamine-releasing sweet flavors, as outlined by an article by flavor and fragrance manufacturer Norex.

 

While most of the physical and behavioral science at work in food is mere background music for the average couple on Valentine’s Day, there is no doubt that what people prepare, consume and enjoy together is foundational to who they are as individuals and what they bring to their relationships. Whether put delicately, as Virginia Woolf did when she said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well,” or more homespun as with the age-old adage, “The way to man’s heart is through his stomach,” the fact remains food can be anyone’s love language at any time of year.

 

With that in mind, those making plans to treat loved ones to a night out this Valentine’s Day can start with one of the following favorites:

The Preacher’s Son in Bentonville provides a fresh vibe.

THE PREACHER’S SON

Bentonville

thepreachersson.com

 

One of northwest Arkansas’ best-loved restaurants, the Preachers’ Son in Bentonville offers an unforgettable night out. Ben Elstein, director of new concept development at Ropeswing Hospitality Group, the restaurant’s ownership group, said the overall effect comes from a masterful combination of ambiance and food.

 

“The Preacher’s Son dining room — constructed within a 1904 church — contains elements of ethereal, minimalist beauty in its design, along with show-stopping, soaring art glass,” he said. “Executive chef Neal Gray’s cuisine reflects a combination of subtlety and opulence. Combined with attentive but unfussy service, an evening here is remarkable, intimate and unpretentious.”

romantic restaurants

The Preacher’s Son

Elstein recommended opening with the very popular old fashioned made with pistachio-washed bourbon and velvet falernum. For Valentine’s Day, he also recommended the restaurant’s selection of French wines, including premier cru bordeaux and vintage champagnes, as well as more esoteric American pinot noir and chardonnay selections.

 

Elstein would not disclose the Valentine’s Day menu in the works but did say several menu selections are popular for any date night, starting with the charred baby carrots with cilantro yogurt and wheat berry risotto with sauteed shrimp, butternut squash and pecans.

 

“One mainstay of the dinner menu is perfect for a couple’s night out: the 24-ounce ribeye for two with creamed spinach, onion rings and bordelaise,” he said. “Another dish, the whole branzino with grilled asparagus and beurre blanc, is fragrant with fresh herbs and walks a fine line between light and decadent.

 

“For dessert, the almond sponge cake with strawberry ice cream and Fruity Pebbles adds an unexpected dose of whimsy to the grand setting. Our chocolate coffee pudding with streusel and toasted meringue is also aimed squarely at the Valentine’s Day traditionalist with deep, lingering cocoa richness.”

Cache

CACHE

Little Rock

cachelittlerock.com

 

Located in the River Market area of Little Rock, Cache offers a memorable dining experience. The sleek, stylish dining room is encased in windows, giving the setting a jewel-box feeling that somehow still feels intimate. Impeccable service, an outstanding bar and creative dishes round out a sumptuous evening in the heart of downtown.

 

“At Cache, we strive to be the best and give customers that wow experience every day at every visit, but Valentine’s Day is one of our favorites because we get to do a little something special,” said Courtney Wellborn, general manager.

“Cache will offer a prix fixe menu on Valentines Day made especially for lovers. It gives our wonderful guests the opportunity to try new items that we don’t have on our normal menu. We love decking the restaurant out with roses and candles to set off the perfect romantic evening for you and your partner.”

 

Wellborn was tight-lipped about what the Valentine’s Day offering would be but did suggest a signature cocktail to begin the evening.

 

“Our #9 cocktail is the perfect choice for Valentine’s Day dinner,” she said. “Named after the song ‘Love Potion No. 9,’ this cocktail is the perfect balance of citrus and fruit and is sure to get your night going in the right direction.”

Red Oak Steakhouse at Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff offers sumptious meals.

RED OAK STEAKHOUSE

Saracen Casino Resort, Pine Bluff

saracenresort.com/dining/red-oak-steakhouse

 

Offering low lighting, unique decor and out-of-this-world food, Red Oak Steakhouse at Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff provides a romantic and intimate ambiance for any occasion and especially on Valentine’s Day.

 

“The combination of romantic ambiance, exceptional service, delectable cuisine, along with special touches tailored to each guest, makes Red Oak Steakhouse Arkansas’ premiere choice for the perfect romantic Valentine’s Day dinner,” said Todd Gold, senior director of hospitality at Saracen. “As the South’s only certified provider of genuine Japanese Kobe beef, Red Oak offers a one-of-a-kind experience.”

A dish from Red Oak Steakhouse showcases luxurious fare.

Gold recommended from the bar the Cupid’s Martini, Flame of Love, Pink Lady, Dark Chocolate Old Fashioned, Cupid’s Arrow and, sexiest of all, the Kir Royale, which is made with champagne and creme de cassis with a lemon twist.

 

Start the memorable meal with an appetizer of fried oysters on a bed of grits and the showstopping burrata salad, a classic caprese with a twist. The presentation is stunning and, with Italian flavors of mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil and balsamic pearls, as delicious as it is elegant.

romantic restaurants

Offerings from Red Oak Steakhouse are sure to impress dates.

“For those with a tender heart, Red Oak always has a unique entree selection of tenderloins,” said Executive Chef Matías de Matthaeis. “The six-ounce prime filet, the eight-ounce prime filet, bone-in filet, bison tenderloin and A5 Kobe beef tenderloin, together with a plethora of sides and enhancements, are some of Arkansas’ most respected steak offerings.

 

“Diver scallops with broiled polenta cakes over a celery root puree are also sure to wow you and your date. Roasted tomatoes and Spanish saffron beurre blanc sauce are the perfect partners for this appealing main course.”

 

Finally, save room for the signature Black Forest cake, which features robust cherry, chocolate and pistachio flavors.

Cypress Social

CYPRESS SOCIAL

North Little Rock

cypresssocial.com

 

Hidden in private woods off Maumelle Boulevard in North Little Rock, Cypress Social offers romantic views, while the softly lit and cozy dining room and private parlor feature vintage cypress wood walls and original art. Attentive, friendly and knowledgeable servers guide guests through an exceptional, award-winning dining experience.

 

Tyler Lenners, director of special events for Cypress Social and its sister restaurant, Petit & Keet in Little Rock, played coy when asked about the forthcoming Valentine’s Day selections but said the menu can make any date night special.

 

“While we’ll be offering a special prix fixe menu only on Valentine’s Day, Cypress Social can be your romantic date night spot any day of the week with our regular dinner menu,” he said.

Cypress Social

For starters, Lenners recommends a selection from Cypress Social’s acclaimed wine list, artfully curated by in-house sommelier, Susie Long. Those seeking something spicy should try a Hissy Fit specialty cocktail made with Rancho tequila, Rock Town triple sec and dragon-fire jalapeno syrup.

 

After an appetizer of fresh Gulf oysters on the half shell and Fowler’s Folly, the house seasonal charcuterie and pickle board to share, it is time to select an entree.

 

“Our six-ounce filet is sous vide to be as tender as the feelings for your special someone,” Lenners said. “We also offer a pan-seared salmon on a bed of creamy gnocchi to warm you up, topped with a kiss of Southern-squash-relish sweetness on the finish. Another popular selection, shrimp, pork belly and grits, switches up an old favorite with a new twist.”

 

Finally, couples will enjoy a robust dessert selection, highlighted by several house specialties.

 

“We encourage inducing a chocolate coma via a coffee toffee [chocolate] tres leches, followed closely by our carrot cake featuring bacon and pecan toffee sauce,” Lenners said. “Chef Sara [Horton]’s desserts will knock your socks off.”

 

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