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Where to go to dine, Valentine?

Love makes people do silly things: Every February, people who complain about the commercialization of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Arbor Day find a holiday hype they like.

If you don't know what I mean, wake up and smell the chocolates. Today is it: Valentine's Day. Maybe you can excuse your way out of forgetting an anniversary, but this is one holiday the entire retail and advertising industry and food service establishment tries to keep firmly in your mind.

And that the only appropriate food of love is an elaborate dinner in a dark, swank restaurant with chateaubriand for two, brand-name bubbly and desserts flambe.

Asking a restaurant critic an honest recommendation of where to go for a romantic dinner on Valentine's Day can turn a Nibbler into a Grinch. Valentine's Day is one of the busiest nights of the year in restaurants (although there are more kids on Mother's Day and more drunks on New Year's Eve). When Valentine's Day falls on a Friday, already an Official Date Night, the traffic count gets worse.

My advice: Don't.

Not a blanket "don't do it," just don't think you're the only couple who have decided to have a quiet intimate dinner tonight, don't expect it to be flawless, and, most of all, don't count on getting a table at your first choice if you haven't already made reservations. (Heck, why not take the day off and have breakfast in bed and go some place nice for lunch?)

Actually, if you and your beloved have a sense of adventure and humor, there are plenty of places to go, herewith:

My funky Valentine meals

State Fair: What's more romantic than cotton candy, sweet, pink and frothy? Or spice your lovelife with a sausage sandwich. Afterwards, win your darling a Kewpie doll, walk down the midway hand-in-hand and smooch your way around the Ferris wheel.

Going steady: If you met in high school (or didn't and missed all that stuff), do some time-travel. Hang some fuzzy dice from our mirror and head off for a cheeseburger and a malt at a Steak 'n' Shake or Biff-Burger or go back to the parking lot of the Colonnade.

Grecian delights: Stroll down Dodecanese Boulevard by the Tarpon Springs docks and pretend you're on a honeymoon cruise. Stop in an open-air shop for souvlaki or octopus and ouzo, buy each other cheap souvenirs and finish the evening with Greek coffee and honeyed baklava.

Tampa Bay hay ride: Put on your cowboy hats and kick up your heels for once. Have a steak and a longneck at Joyland and then hit the dance floor to swirl your honey in a two-step all night long.

The beach: Any beach, from Hudson to Gandy, and any blanket. Pack your own tunes, some pizza or takeout Thai.

Still, even at my grinchiest, the Nibbler knows plenty of pretty and fancy places, but the key is atmosphere, specifically dark, and some do have the right quality of food (high), lights (low) and price (he/she must be crazy for me). For the next romantic dinner on your calendar, file away these:

Loverly dinners with frills

Armani's (6200 Courtney Campbell Parkway, Tampa; 874-1234) : Make the twinkle of the Tampa skyline and the bayscape your personal candelabra; antipasto and pasta have matching glitter.

Basta's (1625 Fourth St. S, St. Petersburg; 894-7880): You want your gilded columns, your waiters with accented savoir faire, your tableside everything and good Italian food, this is it.

Clearwater Beach Hotel (500 Mandalay, Clearwater; 441-2425): Return to the gilded age in this Victorian jewel of a hotel for a gourmet dinner and a postprandial walk on the beach.

Lobster Pot (17614 Gulf Blvd., Redington Shores; 391-8592): Find a nook or cranny here that's just your size and indulge in the longtime staple of lover's diets: oysters and lobsters.

Sabals (315 Main St., Dunedin; 734-3463) : For the chic in cheek-to-cheek, this place is sleek and intime; food is uptown and original.

Best bet, plain or fancy, however, may be your place, his place or her place. If you can't get reservations, stay home and fix anything you want _ with candles, music of your choice and probably a better bottle of wine than you could afford in a restaurant.

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