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Love, sweet love 

As you can see from the listings at the bottom of the page, which represent just a small sample of the options for Valentine's dinners in the Triangle, there's no shortage of things to do on Valentine's Day, of ways to spend money in order to show you care. I am a little conflicted about the Valentine's dinner--on the one hand, some of the year's best deals and most innovative menus take place. On the other hand, Valentine's Day can be the busiest night of the year for many restaurants, and it can feel a little like a madhouse.

There are some good alternatives this year to braving the crowds of lovers on the 14th. Many restaurants are offering their Valentine's menus the entire weekend before the big love day, which falls on a Monday this year. A couple of places are offering romantic dinners for two to go, ready to be served up at home. Or you could get a box of chocolates and be done with it.

Luckily, for those of us who go with the chocolate option, this year there's an interesting new opportunity in Cary. Renaissance Chocolatier in the Waverly Place shopping center (near Whole Foods) is turning out some amazing handcrafted chocolates, made in-house and slightly less expensive than Godiva and other national brands. Storeowner Katharine Shaw is completely self-taught, but she'll pit her chocolates against the famous brands any day. In fact, she does just that on the last Friday of each month, when the store hosts a chocolate showdown, inviting customers to compare her chocolates with a leading gourmet brand. So far, Shaw's chocolates have won hands down. (I must add here that the tastings are not blind and voting not anonymous--so not the most scientific of polls. But this is chocolate, not science.)

For Valentine's Day, Renaissance Chocolatier has a number of gifts available that are sure to impress your beloved. There's the hand-painted heart-shaped box made completely of chocolate and filled with truffles, which is a steal at $30 (and must be pre-ordered). There are a number of pretty red and gold fabric boxes filled with chocolates, which range in price from $30 for a half-pound of chocolates to $90 for two pounds. There's $3 chocolate heart pops, or choose from the large selection of chocolates behind the counter. Or just take your love in to Renaissance for a cup of their hot chocolate, made with real Belgian chocolate.

You might find some things here you weren't expecting. I was blown away by the passion fruit chocolate, a white passion fruit ganache covered in bittersweet chocolate. It captured the exotic flavor of that fruit perfectly, without being cloying at all--in fact, I'd call the flavor refreshing. You might choose a blackberry-filled chocolate swan, or an artist's pallet-shaped amaretto chocolate. Also incredibly tempting and different are the whole figs, stuffed with Glenliviet-infused dark chocolate ganache and coated in dark chocolate. The store even carries sugar-free truffles to satisfy your dieting or diabetic valentine.

I'm not one to think of a shopping center in Cary as the most romantic place in the world, but throw a little whipped cream on top and you might convince me otherwise.

Some Valentine's dinner options

Wake County
Bloomsbury Bistro will be serving a special Valentine's Day prix fixe menu for $85 per person. The cost includes a four-course dinner and a glass of sparkling wine. Vegetarian options will be available. For reservations, call 834-9011.

Enoteca Vin will be serving a three-course Valentine's Day dinner with paired wines for $55 per person. For reservations, call 834-3070.

Frazier's will offer a four-course Valentine's Day dinner and a glass of rose for $50 per person. For reservations, call 828-6699.

La ShiSh-Greek & Lebanese Cafe will have four-course Valentine's Day dinner for $29.95 per couple.

Tavola Rossa will be serving a three-course dinner with wine for $69 per couple. The restaurant provides strolling musicians and a rose for your love. For reservations, call 787-4105.

Underground ( under Charlie Goodnight's Comedy Club) will be serving a three-course Valentine's Day menu for $25 per person. For reservations, call 664-8704.

Xios Authentic Greek Cuisine in Apex will be serving a Valentine's dinner for two that includes soup or salad, choice of appetizer, choice of entree and a bottle of wine or two glasses of champagne for $40 per couple (that's not a misprint: $40 covers both people and the wine). The special will run from Saturday, Feb. 12 through Valentine's. Call 636-5288 for reservations.

Orange County
Aurora will be serving a four-course Valentine's Day dinner for $58 per person. For reservations, call 942-2400.

Carolina Crossroads at the Carolina Inn will be serving a four-course Valentine's Day menu. The cost is $85 per person plus tax and gratuity, and it include a glass of champagne, chocolate truffles and a single red rose. Call 918-2777 for reservations.

Crook's Corner will be serving a special a la carte Valentine's Day dinner. Each couple will receive a minuet rose as they leave. For reservations, call 929-7643.

Elaine's on Franklin will be serving a Valentine's Day prix fixe menu. The menu will include four courses and a glass of sparkling wine for $55 per person. For reservations, call 960-2770.

The Fearrington House Restaurant will be open for Valentine's Day, serving their regular six-course prix fixe menu for $79 per person. For reservations, call 542-2121.

Il Palio at the Siena Hotel is offering a five-course Valentine's Day tasting menu for $85 per person. The special menu will be offered on the three evenings preceding Valentine's Day also. The Siena is also offering special Valentine's packages. For more information, go to www.ilpalio.com. For reservations, call 918-2545.

Panzanella will be serving a special a la carte Valentine's menu Feb. 11 through Feb. 14. For reservations, call 929-6626.

The Weathervane at A Southern Season is having a four-course Valentine's Day meal for $50 per person. There will also be live music and drink specials in the bar. Call 929-9466 for reservations.

Durham County
Bakus tapas and wine bar will be serving a four-course Spanish Countryside Tapas Sampler for $45 per person. The price includes a glass of rose champagne. For reservations, call 286-0777.

Four Square will offer a special Valentine's Day prix fixe dinner that includes three courses and costs $58 per person. For reservations, call 401-9877.

Mad Hatter's Bake Shop is offering a romantic dinner for two to take home (dinners must be picked up by 5 p.m. on the 14th). The cost is $54 per couple, and it includes three courses. Stop by Mad Hatter's to fill out an order form.

Nana's will celebrate Valentine's Day on Saturday, Feb. 12 and Monday, Feb. 14. Five courses and a glass of sparkling wine will cost $75 per person. Call 493-8545 for reservations.

Pop's will be serving a four-course meal for Valentine's Day for $44.95 per person. The cost includes a glass of Prosecco. Vegetarian options on each course. Call 956-7677 for reservations.

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