It's less than a week before Valentine's Day, and you haven't thought about where to have dinner yet. You despair of getting in at your favorite - or perhaps any - restaurant. Baby sitters are booked. And who can muster much energy for a big dinner out on a Tuesday night?
This year, consider invoking the L-word. Not love. Lunch.
Perhaps you remember lunch. That meal you used to eat out, more than occasionally, during the week. You semi-lingered to catch up with old friends, to deepen relationships with clients, even to grab a few relaxing minutes with the one you love.
These days, if you're like many of us, you give lunch short shrift. The American Dietetic Association reports that 75 percent of office workers consume the noon meal at their desks two to three times a week.
The NPD Group, which monitors eating trends, says that in general we're less likely than we were 20 years ago to sit down in a restaurant, and more likely than we were then to wolf down a takeout order in the car.
But we do like to go out on Valentine's Day, when 35 percent of us typically visit a restaurant, according to the National Restaurant Association. Mostly, though, it's for dinner, local restaurateurs say.
So if you're willing to demand a lunch hour - or, better yet, two hours - for yourself this year, you still may be able to arrange a dining experience at a popular romantic spot that rivals the one that will cost up to a third more after dark.
The Milton Inn in Sparks (14833 York Road, 410-771-4366), for example, plans to have the fireplaces roaring at lunchtime and to offer some of the same items available at dinner. But Valentine's lunch traffic is typically much lighter than at night, said executive chef Brian Boston.
"For some reason, lunch is just not as in demand as dinner," Boston said. "It's a beautiful atmosphere, and you can have almost the same amount of food while spending less."
The rack of lamb with sweet potato mousse and a rosemary lamb glace, for example, is $21 on the Milton Inn's regular lunch menu, which is being offered on Valentine's Day. A similar Valentine's dinner entree, with asparagus with hollandaise sauce, is $40.
A veal scaloppine is slated for lunch that day at $16; the dinner version, topped with jumbo lump crab, will cost $36. For dessert, diners will be able to order some of the Valentine's sweets being offered at dinner, such as a raspberry tart and an almond tuile with berries and ice cream.
Tersiguel's, the Ellicott City French restaurant, has expanded lunch to stretch from noon into dinner on Valentine's Day, with the same a la carte menu for both and no breaks in service through 10 p.m. This will be the third year the restaurant (8293 Main St., 410-465-4004) has offered continuous seatings.
"We have a lot of people requesting that we do it," said general manager Ken Lurie. Among the planned offerings: Fresh steamed Maine lobster salad with avocado mousse and chilled tomato salad; pan-seared duck magret and leg of duck confit with pureed sweet potatoes and fig vinegar gastrique; and a "Romeo and Juliet" combination of chocolate mousse and chocolate cake.
In downtown Baltimore, the Capital Grille steakhouse (500 E. Pratt St., 443-703-4064) is offering a special lunchtime Valentine's menu Monday through Friday. You can get a soup or salad, entree (including 8-ounce filet mignon, shrimp scampi or fresh seared salmon) and a chef's selection of small dessert samples for $20.06 per person. If you'd like more choices and don't mind paying for them, the regular lunch menu also will be available.
If you and your sweetheart are adventurous eaters, Valentine's Day lunch might be the right time to try something new at a new restaurant, such as the frog legs sauteed in hazelnut brown butter ($9) at Brasserie Tatin (105 W. 39th St., 443-278-9110).
Other offerings include market-price oysters on the half shell with sauce mignonette and single-serving brick-oven pizzas ($7.50) topped with duck breast or roasted shrimp. Gayle Brier, one of the restaurant's owners, says dessert for Valentine's Day lunch will include heart-shaped meringues with fresh fruit and a heart-shaped genoise with chocolate ganache and raspberry or passion-fruit mousse.
At Linwood's in Owings Mills (25 Crossroads Drive, 410-356-3030), the Valentine's dinner menu is to feature a grilled 6-ounce beef tenderloin with truffle-infused pommes frites, jumbo asparagus and black pepper steak sauce for $29. At lunch, you can get a 6-ounce tenderloin with daily vegetable and potato - likely not as fancy, but tenderloin still - for $22. If it's lobster you crave, you can order it at lunch on a three-cheese omelette with grilled potatoes and seasonal vegetables for $20.
Many restaurants will accommodate lunchtime requests for dinner items. The Italian restaurant Cafe Troia in Towson (28 W. Allegheny Ave., 410-337-0133) will offer its regular lunch and dinner menus on Valentine's Day, and will also make half-size portions of dinner offerings for lunch.