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There's something smug and even a bit embarrassing about going out to celebrate Valentine's Day as a couple: you're in public with all of the other twosomes, participating in an orgy of self-satisfaction.
But being a twosome is rarely a definite "you are" or "you aren't" thing. It isn't a static state but a constantly evolving condition. Going out on Valentine's Day announces to both yourselves and those around you the current status of "the two of you," making it the perfect impetus to assess what stage of development you've reached so you can celebrate accordingly.
As a rule, never begin dating in January. At one month, the relationship has a heartbeat but is too nebulous and vulnerable to endure a holiday based around the act of coupling. If you do find yourself in a new relationship when Feb. 14 rolls around, it's probably a good idea to just ignore Valentine's Day completely but that, of course, is impossible. The next best thing is dining at a place where you can celebrate the day while not having to acknowledge the fact that you're doing so. Emmy's Spaghetti Shack (18 Virginia, SF; 415-206-2086), the funky, cozy Bernal Heights eatery, is dimly lit enough to encourage playful flirtation but doesn't smack you in the face with romanticism. The well-crafted Italian comfort food is as flavorful as the decor. And the übercool, jeans-clad staff aren't likely to ask "Aww, how long have you guys been together?"
At this point the relationship is still in the novelty phase. You've formed rituals pizza and American Idol on Tuesdays, harassing the tigers at the zoo on Sundays you e-mail each other pictures from stuffonmycat.com, and you have yet to have a dull conversation. Why ruin the fun with a stilted, overly formal Valentine's Day dinner? Instead, try Cha Cha Cha (www.cha3.com ) in either the Haight (1801 Haight, SF; 415-386-7670) or the Mission (2327 Mission, SF; 415-648-0504). The Spanish-Cuban small-plates menu means there is no timetable: tapas encourage lingering. Twenty-dollar pitchers of sangria inspire the disclosure of fascinating new tidbits ("You lived in a pygmy village?"), and the collaborative selection of each dish mimics the sense of shared adventure you still enjoy.
Congratulations! You're officially a couple. No need to keep giving noncommittal answers to your friends' questions about your status you are now together. Time to make your grand debut at Luna Park (694 Valencia, SF; 415-553-8584, www.lunaparksf.com ), a favorite V Day convergence point for other young, hip, hot couples in the city. Nod to them as you nosh on highbrow reinventions of American classics. Take note of their knowing expressions as you're led to one of the curtained booths in the back (ask for it when you make reservations). These are your peers now. Welcome to the club.
You haven't seen each other wearing anything but pajamas for months. You haven't shared a meal that doesn't involve Tostinos Pizza Rolls in who knows how long. Engaging conversations and lusty sex alike have dissolved into Seinfeld reruns and holey underwear. Whereas last year Valentine's Day was just another night out, now it is the night out. Dinner at Absinthe (398 Hayes, SF; 415-551-1590, www.absinthe.com ) should inspire you to dress up, while the selection of classic rare cocktails such as the Sazerac and the French '75 will give you the feeling of having traveled back to a more romantic era. Plus, imbibing a bit of the establishment's namesake elixir can bring danger back to any relationship. Imagine how close you'll feel after you've both thrown up in the cab on the ride home.
You know when you're there: Your significant other's adorable half snore becomes your every sleepless night. You've heard all the stories a million times ("Enough with the fucking pygmies!"). You know it. Your SO knows it. It's over. But neither of you has the heart to put your doomed union out of its misery on the most romantic day of the year. Ryoko's Japanese Restaurant (619 Taylor, SF; 415-775-1028) in Nob Hill provides the perfect distraction from your imploding relationship. When a DJ isn't spinning, there's loud '80s music. The sake bombs offer a satisfying outlet for aggression. And if you need something even stronger, you're in luck: Ryoko's is one of the few sushi joints in town to also feature a full bar.
When engaged in an illicit affair, road-trip! Put a bridge, a tunnel, or any of the Bay Area's other engineering obstacles between your significant other and your significant other. "Baby, I'm not embarrassed by you I just know this great little Italian place in Crockett." Try Barolo (404 San Pedro, Pacifica; 650-355-5980, www.barolopacifica.com ) for private pasta, Graffiti (101 Second St., Petaluma; 707-765-4567, www.graffitipetaluma.com ) for surreptitious seafood, or Petals (639 First St., Benicia; 707-748-5695, www.petalsrestaurant.com ) for furtive Asian fusion.
When having an antiValentine's Day dinner with another recently single friend, you need tequila! Nothing says "I'm so over it" more than shrimp tacos and Cazadores with a totally platonic friend. Playa Azul (3318 Mission, SF; 415-282-4554) has a wide enough selection to keep the shots flowing all night. And if your hands meet, for an instant, in the chip bowl, well ...