Where good value pairs with warmth

Neighborhood spots that know how to charm

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The thing that gets people in trouble on Valentine's Day (besides forgetting the day entirely) is the unreasonable expectation. People book into restaurants they don't know, with prices they're not accustomed to paying, and expect some undefined, magical experience.

When you're anticipating perfection — when one service misstep can ruin your evening — it may be time to take a deep breath.

Consider swimming in more familiar waters.

Dine at a known quantity, a charming neighborhood place that consistently performs at a high level, and leave the stratosphere to others. You want to make a splash? Double your wine budget for the night:

Autre Monde: One of the best new restaurants of 2011, this Berwyn restaurant offers superior food in laid-back, albeit noisy, surroundings. On Valentine's Day (the restaurant's first, as it happens), there will be a five-course chef's menu for $45, which includes dishes such as foie gras pate with apple saba and spicy-sweet marcona almonds, blue-cheese cappellacci with black-truffle gratinee and cooked-to-order bomboloni (tiny doughnuts) in warm chocolate sauce. One couple, chosen at random, will receive a $1,000 necklace from Hurst's Jewelers, and all couples will receive a $100 gift certificate from Hurst's. 6727 W. Roosevelt Road, Berwyn; 708-775-8122

Francesca's restaurants: Pick any neighborhood and suburb, and chances are there's a Francesca's not too far away. OK, that's an exaggeration, but there are 20 of them in the Chicago area, and they're all celebrating Valentine's Day from Friday through Tuesday with a la carte specials such as heart-shaped cheese ravioli with garlic-Parmesan sauce ($16.99). Individual restaurants have special deals, such as the four-course menu with bottle of wine for $103.99 per couple at Francesca's on Chestnut, and the personalized box of truffles ($10 option) at Francesca's Tavola in Arlington Heights. Find locations and phone numbers (reservations required at some locations) at miafrancesca.com.

Geja's Cafe: The bad news is that this darkly romantic fondue specialist is extremely popular on Valentine's Day. The good is that the Lincoln Park restaurant is decorated for the occasion, and offering its sparkling-wine features, every day through Wednesday. On the big day itself, Geja's offers its Valentine's package — which includes cheese fondue, salad, entree fondue, flaming-chocolate fondue and a glass of Champagne — for $105; regular-menu prices are in force all other days. 340 W. Armitage Ave.; 773-281-9101

Lawry's the Prime Rib: You can't get much more retro these days than carved-to-order beef and a spinning salad bowl, and these table-side service touches seem especially appropriate for Valentine's Day. Lawry's will feature a three-course Valentine's menu priced at $99 per couple that includes the spinning-bowl salad (which everybody should experience once), choice of entree (prime rib with Yorkshire pudding, roasted salmon with cannellini-bean ragout, vegetarian pasta with mushrooms, artichokes and herbed ricotta), dessert (chocolate-raspberry Linzer torte) and a jar of hot-fudge sauce to take home. Menu is available Friday through Tuesday. 100 E. Ontario St.; 312-787-5000

Nana: No fixed-price packages at this Bridgeport restaurant; just a wave of a la carte, romantic specials from chef Guy Meikle. Among the many: dry-aged rib-eye steak for two with lobster-chorizo-sweet potato hash ($45), mushroom and huitlacoche quesadillas with baby artichokes ($16), duck and rabbit-liver pate with black trumpet mushroom duxelles ($10) and chocolate macaroons with Black Dog salted-peanut gelato ($8). Available through Valentine's Day; breakfast/brunch specials also available each day. 3267 S. Halsted St.; 312-929-2486

pvettel@tribune.com
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