The history of Valentine's Day is less than lovely, since the date was originally intended to commemorate the beheading of a man variously considered to be the patron saint of epileptics, lovers, beekeepers, travelers and young people. These days, it's become an excuse to separate people from their money and release a flood of chalky chocolates into the marketplace.
If a traditional Valentine's celebration filled with roses and multi-course meals is your jam, Denver restaurants have you covered. But if you'd rather avoid one of the busiest times of the year at the city's finer dining establishments, you can still mark the day and treat a friend (with or without benefits) to a memorable meal.
Consider these options (no reservations needed):
A hole-in-the-wall Korean restaurant next to H Mart, Funny Plus (2779 South Parker Road, Aurora) is rarely crowded on Valentine's Day. I know that for a fact, because I've stopped in on February 14 for several years, happily noshing on a heaping plate of Korean fried chicken. Served with or without a sticky, sweet sauce (pro tip: Opt to get it on the side), the fried chicken comes with a smattering of banchan, or small dishes that traditionally accompany Korean meals. Basically, you're getting a small feast for two (or one: This place is fun solo, too) for a hell of a deal — $23.99. Bonus points: Funny Plus has a pop-heavy playlist that adds to the party vibe, and it's open until 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday, 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and midnight on Sunday.
The tiny Garibaldi Mexican Bistro may be attached to a Conoco gas station at 3298 South Broadway in Englewood, but the food it's serving is nothing like what you find sitting sadly in the case at 7-Eleven. This family-run spot is churning out some of the best Mexican eats in town, from tacos to enormous tlayudas (which are perfect for sharing). On Valentine's Day, it also includes a special dessert with every purchase. Plus, if you're bringing a date, you can quickly find out if they're adventurous or not (read: maybe a little judgy).
Nothing says romance like a bag full of carbs — and empanadas taste a hell of a lot better than any bouquet. Our recommendation: Order ahead from Maria Empanada, a longtime staple on South Broadway that offers a wide variety of fillings to choose from. Pro tip: Add on a few of its decadent alfajores, too, Maria's signature shortbread cookie with dulce de leche and milk chocolate.
Casa Crobu is cooking up some of the best Italian in Denver — and then packaging it so that you can serve it at home. The company, which launched in the summer of 2020, is owned by Mario Crobu, who is originally from Sardinia, Italy, and his wife, Kelly. It offers options like a stellar lasagna Bolognese and culurgiones, a stuffed pasta from a tiny region in Sardinia that is filled with a potato purée, pecorino cheese and a touch of mint. Plus, skipping the dishes leaves plenty of opportunity for some post-meal canoodling.
You know what's way better than a box of chocolates? A box (er — cardboard tray) of fried food. Yorkshire Fish & Chips at 7572 Pecos Street is a low-key, counter-service spot that's specialized in fish and chips for over fifty years. While its fluorescent lighting may not exactly scream romance, you can take your grub to go and make like teenagers having date night in your car. Just be sure to grab extra napkins on your way out.
You know that feeling when your hand casually brushes against someone else's when you both reach for the rice paper rolls at the same time? No? Well, you should. Rolling up a meal is a great way to bond over your lack of skills with the thin and sometimes unruly rice paper that you stuff with veggies, herbs and meats that arrive on giant platters. Our favorite spots for this experience: Savory Vietnam at 2200 West Alameda Avenue, New Saigon at 630 South Federal Boulevard, and Viet's Restaurant at 333 South Federal Boulevard.
Picture that famous Lady and the Tramp scene, but substitute a loaded sandwich on fresh-baked bread. The sandwiches at Carmine Lonardo's (7585 West Florida Avenue in Lakewood) are legendary, especially the one loaded with Italian sausage, which is made in-house, just as it has been since 1976. Be sure to hit this place early, though: Lonardo's has been known to sell out before closing time.
Candlelight Tavern, that is. This dimly lit dive bar at 383 South Pearl Street is a low-key place to escape and enjoy some cold, cheap drinks over burgers served in a basket with a bag of Lay's on the side — which means you can totally crack a "you're all that and a bag of chips" joke in order to fill the Valentine's Day lameness quota.
Forget chicken tenders and onion rings. Take yourself and that garlic lover in your life down to Gyros Town at 2276 South Colorado Boulevard, and order a plate loaded with Syrian specialties that's big enough to split (but also good enough that you may not want to). The $12.99 plate comes loaded with hummus, baba ganoush, falafel, dolma, rice, super-garlickly Syrian green beans and an even more garlicky dip called toum. Still hungry? Ask for the off-menu Syrian shwarma, which comes on thinner flatbread than the standard pita.
It's warm, comforting and cheap — and you can also figure out potential compatibility depending on where your dining companion's pho loyalty lies: Pho 95 (1401 South Federal Boulevard) or Pho Duy (925 South Federal).