February 5, 2003

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In the mood for love
A Valentine's Day crash course for the cash-poor, the kinky, and the totally clueless.

By Alissa Chadburn

THREE MONTHS AGO your sweetie may have written off Valentine's Day as just another hetero-normative, Hallmark-tailored marketing ploy. Now, however, Valentine's Day is on the horizon, and it's possible, perhaps even likely, that your seemingly unsentimental sweetie has changed his or her unsentimental mind. The truth is, V-Day remains a paramount concern for some of us who have a valentine (or two) – 9 out of 10 of whom may secretly be hoping you've found them some token of your affection or a way to express your undying love.

So what's a pressed-for-time, stressed-out but ever dutiful paramour to do? Don't lose your head, don't plunk down too much money on an impersonal, meaningless gift to save face, and don't fret. With a little thought and some creative planning, you can put together a lovely, memorable date. It takes all kinds, as the saying goes, so below is some advice on the groundwork as well as a selection of plans, one of which just might suit you and your sweetie. With these suggestions, tailored as necessary to meet individual tastes, you'll be sure to get your honey in the mood for love.

The basic ingredients

Your sweetheart's needs are simple – all she wants for V-Day is a romantic, candlelit dinner for two – plus maybe some pretty flowers strewn across the bed and a box of the most delectable chocolates San Francisco has to offer. Easy, right? Well, pulling off even the most elementary of dates with style takes some ingenuity, especially when every other suitor in the city has the same plan in mind.

The language of flowers seems straightforward enough: pretty posies = romantic gesture. But before you reach for the nearest bunch of long-stemmed red roses, consider the person these flowers are destined for. Has she ever proved partial to a particular scent or color? Is there a certain bloom that somehow reflects his personality? You could also do as the Victorians did and offer a bouquet handpicked to convey a message in flowers. Violets, for example, signify faithfulness, irises spell passion, and forget-me-nots are the flower of true love.

While the city is filled with flower shops and stands, the truly fastidious might want to take a morning trip to the San Francisco Wholesale Flower Mart. With vendors from all over the Bay Area, the market offers the largest selection in the city. And because you're buying straight from the source, the flowers here are cheaper and fresher. Some vendors, like local Oak Hill Farm, offer organic products, so you can rest assured that the flowers you're about to bestow upon your dearest have not been treated with chemicals or pesticides. Once you've picked out your selection, arrange your bouquet, wrap it in butcher or tissue paper, and tie it up with a pretty ribbon, or perhaps a piece of colorful yarn or twine.

Chocolate is another Valentine's Day standard, popular for its connotations of indulgence and eroticism. You could go the mass-produced See's candy route, or you could buy your sweetheart a box of chocolates as divinely original as he or she is. Heart-shaped shells and boxed assortments by Recchiuti Confections, purveyor of handmade, small-batch gourmet chocolates, can be found at Bi-Rite and other local gourmet food retailers or ordered directly online. Or stop into RoCocoa's Faerie Queene in the Castro for a heart-shaped, pixie-dusted box of finely crafted chocolates fit for a queen.

San Francisco is overrun with fabulous, and fabulously romantic, restaurants. Finding a table in one of them on the most popular dining day of the year, however, is no mean feat. Since most places start taking reservations a month in advance, if you wait until the last minute, the only place you'll be finding an open table is your neighborhood pizzeria.

The challenging task of securing a romantic meal is made somewhat less complicated by OpenTable (www.opentable.com), a site that allows users to find restaurants all over the Bay Area by genre, price, and availability and make reservations instantly. You can also read the list of sold-out eateries and weep. My first choice for Valentine's Day, Millennium's famed Aphrodisiac Dinner – a sumptuous five-course gourmet vegan meal designed for the utmost in erotic stimulation – was booked weeks ago. (After consuming the delectable meal, complete with Chinese herbal love potions, diners can retire – or stay up all night – at the Savoy Hotel as part of a special package deal, something to keep in mind for next year.)

Whatever restaurant you score a table at, if you've never dined there, walking by to check it out beforehand is not a bad idea. This is no time for blind whimsy and adventurousness. Finding a restaurant is half the battle – the other half is averting date disasters, which could involve anything from transportation breakdowns to false advertising. Show your honey how smooth you can be.

The extravagant romantic

Dinner and flowers are always lovely, but those with a little cash to burn might be looking for something slightly more decadent, something just a little Pretty Woman, something that's sure to take your date's breath away?

The token of affection Lingerie is always nice, but a corset, fitted to suit and enhance your sweetie's shape, takes sexy decadence to the next level. Lucky for Bay Area residents, we have a world-renowned corsetier, Dark Garden, in our very own Hayes Valley. (Perhaps you noticed pinup queen Dita von Teese on the cover of the December Playboy in a stunning custom corset from Dark Garden?) Take your honey to the charming shop to be fitted for a handmade silk, brocade, satin, or leather creation of his or her choice (ranging from $375 for fabric to $650 for patent leather). Or you can opt for a ready-to-wear piece ($125 and up) your lady or man can wear home.

The excursion If you have the funds and an adventurous spirit, sweep your date off his or her feet with a ride around the bay – on a plane, that is. Seaplane Tours offers short flights that leave from Sausalito and San Francisco's Pier 39 every day. Up in the blue, you and your love can share spectacular panoramic views of the city and the beautiful bay while flying over the Golden Gate Bridge, Muir Woods, the Marin Headlands, and the Pacific coast. For even more airborne romance, Seaplane offers a champagne tour that takes off half an hour before sunset, carrying you out to the coast to toast the sun as it dips below the horizon, then over the city's twinkling lights and back to earth as twilight falls.

If your date is plane-wary, you can experience the beauty of the bay from the water – in a little sailboat, with the San Francisco skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge as your backdrop. There are many local fleets to choose from (San Francisco Bay Adventures and Cass' Marina among others), as well as skippered cruises ranging from one hour to a weekend stay on the water. Sausalito Waterfront Tours offers a trip in its smooth-sailing catamaran that takes you and your lover out to the coast a few hours before sunset and back as night falls.

The meal Keep your sweetie from floating back to earth with an otherworldly culinary experience. The Mission District's La Traviata is an intimate Italian restaurant with an opera-house atmosphere. Arias are always in the air, and opera divas adorn the walls. In the Richmond District, the blue-and-white-tiled Aziza is a modern, elegant take on a Morrocan palace, complete with belly dancing and a hand-washing urn that's brought to your table. A refurbished apothecary with hundreds of little drawers lining the walls, the Meetinghouse is a cozy Hayes Valley gem with a warm, nostalgic feel. Though the food could be better, Dalla Torre is a romantic multilevel villa perched high on Telegraph Hill and offering a sweeping view of the city (ask to be seated on the top floor).

The holistic approach

Valentine's Day need not be a day of consumption – it can afford a way to reconnect with your lover emotionally, physically, and spiritually. A holistic approach might be just what you and your sweetie need.

The token of affection Instead of showering your sweetie with diamonds and pearls, pamper him with your own at-home day spa. Start with a candlelit soak – Currents, a store dedicated to the art of bathing, has all the makings for a sensuous bath. Then give him the attention he deserves with a relaxing full-body rub-down, elevated to perfection on earth by aromatherapeutic massage oil or cream from Scarlet Sage Herb Co., just down the street from Currents.

The excursion Escape the stress of the city and commune with nature at Costanoa Coastal Lodge and Camp, a California paradise on Highway 1, 55 miles south of San Francisco. Surrounded by four state parks and thousands of acres of hiking trails, Costanoa looks down over pristine dunes and beaches. Whether you prefer to pitch your own tent, stay in a canvas-covered cabin, or rest in the palatial lodge, you can take advantage of all the camp and the surrounding area have to offer, including yoga classes, guided hiking with a resident naturalist, aromatherapy and massage, saunas, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Cabin and tent dwellers share luxurious "comfort stations": bathroom facilities with heated floors, indoor and outdoor showers, a sauna, and a lounge with a fireplace. There's also a general store and a café with homemade goodies and picnic lunches for those long hikes.

The meal If you decide to dine in the city, Greens will satisfy your appetite for healthy gourmet vegetarian fare, and you can enjoy the beautiful view of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Gary Danko's elegant yet simple crystal and blond-wood interior, excellent food, and superior service offer a dining experience of perfect harmony and balance.

Getting the kinks out

Perhaps you've done all the sweet, romantic stuff before and this year want to have some steamy new adventures with your lover. Or maybe the two of you are avid kinksters looking for some fun outside the dungeon. The "V" in V-Day does not have to stand for "vanilla." It's the perfect day to show your heartthrob that he or she is hot stuff.

The token of affection Whether you're kinky or just horny, Good Vibrations, now with three locations to choose from, always has something in store for you and your hottie. You can't go wrong with Valentine's Day kits for couples like the Devilish Delight Kit ($26), complete with a snappy edible whip, a tiger-striped vibe, batteries, lube, and a copy of The Little Bit Naughty Book of Sex, just to get you started. While you're buying your toys, consider picking up a box of Valentine's candies with a racy twist – with Hot Hearts, you can tell your lover to "Seduce Me" or "Lick Me"; S&M Candies sends kinky messages like "Shut up and Beg!" For one-stop kinky shopping, head to Stormy Leather for S-M implements and lingerie-like fetish wear in leather and PVC. Leave an impression – on your lover's behind, that is – with the Heart Throb (S59.95), a heart-shaped paddle with patent leather on one side and clustered metal prickers on the other.

The excursion Do you or your sweetie have fantasies of the dominance and submission variety? Perhaps she would love to be bound and whipped. Or maybe you want to be tortured while he watches. Or maybe you've done all that and are looking to experience a new sensation you just can't create yourself (like intricate Japanese rope bondage and suspension or play piercing). Why not leave it to a skilled professional? Most pro-doms welcome couples into their dungeons to explore their kinky fantasies. Check out Eros Guide (www.eros-guide.com), the Bay Area's largest listing of escorts, sensual masseuses, BDSM providers, and other adult services, and find a dom who appeals to both of you. For some cheaper voyeuristic thrills, you and your mate can cram into a Lusty Lady peep-show booth and get your freak on or play out more intimate fantasies with your own private dancer in the "private pleasures" booth.

The meal You can steam up any culinary experience without the waiters or the other patrons even batting an eyelash. A blindfolded trip to your dining destination can easily get your captive sweetheart's mind racing and heart pounding. A dirty note on a napkin (telling him what you're going to do to him later, of course) will keep him in anticipation. When choosing a restaurant, keep in mind that dark corners and plush seating will certainly set the mood. Absinthe Brasserie and Bar has a more intimate back room, with velvet-covered seats, as well as aphrodisiacs like oysters on the menu. Bruno's offers sexy dark red booths and a back parking lot for discreet access. South of Market eateries like Hawthorne Lane and Manora's Thai Cuisine offer heavenly fare and convenient proximity to dark alleys. Faves like Mecca and 2223, in the queer and kink-friendly Castro, are places where you might be able to get away with plenty.

Love crafts

So you're strapped for cash and depressed that you can't shower your darling with gifts or go out for an outlandish meal. Well, luckily for you, the sweetest way to show your sincere devotion does not involve parting with too much of the green stuff – it involves your own two hands. Making something with them, that is.

The token of affection A handmade gift doesn't have to be a massive labor of love. For instance, it doesn't take a craft wizard to make a scrapbook. Gather up all of your best photos, ticket stubs of movies or shows you saw together, love notes, and any other mementos you've saved because that's the kind of sentimental fool you are, and start pasting. Flax Art and Design has an incredible selection of scrapbooks and photo albums, ranging from simple and old-fashioned to handmade and cloth- and leather-bound.

The excursion After you've reminisced together, go out and add to your scrapbook. What, after all, is more romantic, cheap, and fun than cuddling up together in a photo booth? For just a few dollars, you can immortalize your love. Sadly, few of the city's black-and-white, strip-style photo booths remain, and most are housed in bars and clubs (Annie's Cocktail Lounge, Elbo Room, and a color booth in Lucky 13). My favorite photo booth was in the now defunct Uncle Mame's, where a supply of silly hats and costumes was always on hand to add some theatrical flair. Sticker machines are easier to come by, though they may not have the same thrill for old-fashioned types. The most romantic photo booth spot, hands down, is the Musée Méchanique, newly located at Pier 45. Though the Musée's new location doesn't have the romantic, nostalgic cachet of its former home out at Sutro Baths, it still has two photo booths, and while you're there, you can play the old-time games, have your fortunes read, and watch naughty nickelodeon movies.

The meal Continue the theme of working with your hands by making your own picnic lunch and snuggling up with your sweetie in some idyllic outdoor locale. Bi-Rite, a short stroll from Dolores Park, offers a delicious deli selection. Or, if you'd rather hide away in Golden Gate Park, Park Chow is an affordable and tasty destination. And just down the street, Arizmendi Bakery has delectable breads and sweet treats. Take your lunch to go, explore Strybing Arboretum, and wind your way through the Botanical Garden to find a secluded spot for your thriftily romantic picnic.

Alissa Chadburn is a writer and paramour extraordinaire. She lives and plays in San Francisco.

The lowdown

Flowers

San Francisco Wholesale Flower Mart Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-3 p.m., 640 Brannan, S.F. (415) 392-7944, www.sfflmart.com.

Chocolate

Recchiuti Confections Available online, at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market, and at fine gourmet and retail locations locally, including Real Foods, Whole Foods, Dandelion, Sue Fisher King, and Bi-Rite. www.recchiuticonfections.com.

RoCocoa's Faerie Queene Tues.-Fri., 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun., 1-6 p.m., 415 Castro, S.F. (415) 252-5814, www.faeriequeene.com.

By air and by sea

Cass' Marina (415) 322-6789, www.cassmarina.com.

San Francisco Bay Adventures www.sfbayadventures.com.

Sausalito Waterfront Tours (415) 331-8730, www.apparition.com.

Seaplane Tours Tours depart from Pier 39, S.F. $129-$159 a person. (415) 332-4843, www.seaplane.com.

Kinky stuff

Dark Garden Mon.-Wed. and Fri.-Sat., noon-6 p.m.; Thurs., noon-7 p.m., 321 Linden, S.F. (415) 431-7684, www.darkgarden.com.

Eros Guide www.eros-guide.com.

Good Vibrations Sun.-Wed., noon-7 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m., 1210 Valencia, S.F. (415) 974-8980; Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m., 1620 Polk, S.F. (415) 345-0400; Sun.-Thurs., 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m., 2504 San Pablo, Berk. (510) 841-8987. www.goodvibes.com.

Lusty Lady Live-show hours Mon.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-3 a.m.; Fri.-Sat., 10 a.m.-4 a.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-2:30 a.m., 1033 Kearny, S.F. (415) 399-3991.

Stormy Leather Daily, noon-7 p.m., 1158 Howard, S.F. (415) 626-1672, www.stormyleather.com.

The holistic approach

Costanoa Coastal Lodge and Camp 2001 Rossi Road, off Hwy. 1, Pescadero. (650) 879-1100 or 1-800-738-7477, www.costanoa.com.

Currents Tues.-Sun., noon-8 p.m., 911 Valencia, S.F. (415) 648-2015.

Scarlet Sage Herb Co. Daily, 11 a.m.-6:30 p.m., 1173 Valencia, S.F. (415) 821-0997.

Love crafts

Flax Art and Design Mon.-Sat., 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-5 p.m., 1699 Market, S.F. (415) 552-2355.

Musée Méchanique Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Pier 45, Shed A, Fisherman's Wharf, S.F. (415) 346-2000.

The meals

Absinthe Brasserie and Bar 398 Hayes, S.F. (415) 551-1590.

Arizmendi Bakery Tues.-Fri., 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sat., 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m- 4 p.m., 1331 Ninth Ave., S.F. (415) 566-3117.

Aziza 5800 Geary, S.F. (415) 752-2222.

Bi-Rite Mon.-Fri, 9 a.m.-9 p.m., 3639 18th St., S.F. (415) 241-9760.

Bruno's 2389 Mission, S.F. (415) 550-7455.

Dalla Torre 1541 Montgomery, S.F. (415) 296-1111.

Gary Danko 800 North Point, S.F. (415) 749-2060.

Greens Fort Mason Center, Marina at Laguna, S.F. (415) 771-6222.

Hawthorne Lane 22 Hawthorne Lane, S.F. (415) 777-9779.

Manora's Thai Cuisine 1600 Folsom, S.F. (415) 861-6224.

Mecca 2029 Market, S.F. (415) 621-7000.

Meetinghouse 1701 Octavia, S.F. (415) 922-6733.

Millennium 246 McAllister, S.F. 487-9800.

OpenTable www.opentable.com.

Park Chow 1240 Ninth Ave., S.F. (415) 665-9912.

La Traviata 2854 Mission, S.F. (415) 282-0500.

2223 2223 Market, S.F. (415) 431-0692.

A.C.