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On Valentine's Day take the path less traveled

Three weeks ago when the Melting Pot page on opentable.com listed "Availability for Feb. 14: 6:30 p.m. or 8 p.m.," I imagined myself in a packed restaurant, leaning over a boiling pot of Cosmic Karamel fondue just to be able to hear my boyfriend wish me a happy Valentine's Day.

While they promised to "make this Valentine's Day go from 'Hun' to 'Honey Schnookums Bear' in four courses flat," I couldn't help but wonder if there were a better way to reach "Schnookums" status without weathering the crowded restaurant scene. After all, not only is Valentine's Day already a busy night for big-name restaurants, but the fact that it also falls on a Friday this year means there will be little to no elbow room while you're trying to impress your date or just enjoy your meal together.

Instead of struggling to hear yourself think over the main course, try something a little more creative (and memorable) this Valentine's Day.

Homemade Parisian picnic

All this takes is silverware, a blanket, Christmas lights and a trip to the grocery store — no cooking required. Find a spot in the house where you can hang up plain white Christmas lights for ambience. Then set out the desired number of plates and silverware on a blanket or quilt. Organize your meal within the allotted picnic space. For bread, a baguette is a must; for cheeses, Brie, blue and Camembert are good choices. Fruits, vegetables and dips/spreads are fair game, though hummus, baba ghanouj and tzatziki go well with just about anything you'll be sampling. For your main course, try a lemon and thyme rotisserie chicken, already prepared at most grocery stores. Preserves, caramel sauce and melted chocolate are essential for dessert, which can be sweet accompaniment for fruit, traditional Valentine's Day chocolates, loaves, dates and petits fours. When you have positioned everything (and taste tested — you know, just to be sure), light a few tea candles and dim the lights for a romantic evening. Bonus points for playing the La Vie En Rose radio station on Pandora.

Lonely (or maybe not-so-lonely) Hearts Potluck

If you're not interested in a romantic one-on-one date, you're not alone. Invite over people who share the same sentiment for a Lonely Hearts Potluck, though, yes, dates are allowed. You can theme it: Hawaiian luau with fruity drinks and tangy flavor accents, or 1960s Flower Power featuring all of the comfort food you can handle; we're talking meatloaf, mashed potatoes and homemade apple pie. You could even try Child Stars Gone Wrong theme with whatever tasty-but-atrocious-looking delicacies you can think up. If you're not feeling that daring, you can embrace the theme of the day. Everyone must bring over one dish — appetizer, entree, side, desert or drink — and prepare for a night of good food and even better company.

Florida State Fair

Rides, games and all the deep-fried, sugar-coated goodness you could ask for could be yours on the sweetest day of the year. If you have a sweet tooth or a need for speed, satiate both for as low as $11 per person (or $30 each for an all-day armband). Couples can enter to win a free cruise for two. Some of the featured fair foods this year include Cotton Candy Funnel Cake, Tornado Dogs and the 3B's Burger (bacon, beef and brisket, of course). This is great for a date or for you and a friend; the mentality is that if the night gets awkward, there's always an insane carnival ride or a ginormous plate of Maple Bacon Funnel Cake to keep you entertained. For more information, go to floridastatefair.com.

Find a hole in the wall

If all else fails or you're really intent on dining out somewhere where there's no prepping, no cooking and absolutely no cleanup (yes, we hear you loud and clear), try a restaurant that isn't a part of a big, brand-name franchise. Zante Cafe in Tarpon Springs and Casa Tina's in Dunedin both pride themselves on their unique atmosphere and interior design elements that make them vibrant and fun while still affordable, even for young couples. Zante serves New Orleans-style French soul food and has a loyal fan base that can't seem to get enough of this treasure. Casa Tina's features authentic Mexican cuisine (delicious food), and the employees are incredibly enthusiastic. If you're not up for the drive, use tampabay.com/things-to-do to find a restaurant closer to you.

Lena Schwallenberg is a senior at Palm Harbor University High and on the staff of tb-two*, the Times' high school weekly.

On Valentine's Day take the path less traveled 02/10/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 10, 2014 6:13pm]

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