On the Cheap thinks you should take your honey out to a fabulous dinner in February. But fine dining on Valentine's Day, with its overpriced prix fixes, cheap Champagne, and harried servers is a rookie choice, like clubbing on New Year's Eve. Avoid the Saturday-to-Tuesday-night scrum by choosing a modest place with great food but no Cupid-themed tarting-up, and save the fancy joints for the following week. Here are a few of our current favorites:
STRIP-T'S | 93 School St, Watertown | Our "Modest Restaurant of the Year" for 2011 is such a secret food-nerd destination that it is quickly losing its stealth status. It doesn't look like much, but the dinner menu under gifted young chef Tim Maslow offers stunning richness and creativity in its small plates (like grilled romaine salad with oxtail and poached egg, $9) and beautiful but less-challenging entrées (like P.E.I. scorpion mussels with frîtes and lentils, $10/small, $14/large).
DUMPLING CAFÉ | 695 Washington St, Boston | | We love Chinatown on big Western holidays: great food, no nonsense. Dumpling Café is Taiwanese and newish (so still fresh-looking), serving an eclectic, region-hopping menu with specialties from Guangzhou, Sichuan, Beijing, and Shanghai, notably the best soup dumplings (mini steamed buns with pork, $5.95) in the neighborhood. The seafood-focused three-course set meals ($37–$41 for two people) are an exceptional bargain.
BARAKA CAFÉ | 80 1/2 Pearl St, Cambridge | A sublime slice of home-style Algerian and Tunisian cooking in a casual setting with an open kitchen, Baraka is another off-the-track spot favored by knowing food geeks. Beautiful meze both cold (like bedenjal mechoui, a smoky eggplant spread, $3.95) and hot (like karentika, a savory chickpea custard, $3.50) make for a delightful sharable meal. But for something truly memorable, call a day ahead and pre-order the bastilla (market price), a slightly sweet filo torte filled with almonds, figs, fresh herbs, sweet spices, and rich, dark squab.
EL ORIENTAL DE CUBA | 416 Centre St, Jamaica Plain | Budget-minded gourmands have long known El Oriental as the place for Boston's best traditional Cuban sandwich (roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and yellow mustard on baguette-like bread, $7.95), but its menu contains many fine, equally hearty alternatives, like heaping plates of churrasco (grilled skirt steak, $16.95) or shrimp in garlic sauce ($15.95), both rounded out with rice, beans, and maduros or tostones.
DOSA TEMPLE | 447 Somerville Ave, Somerville | If your companion is vegetarian, this mostly undiscovered South Indian venue is an ideal destination: humble, friendly, and featuring a menu of gorgeous dosas (gigantic, crisp-edged rice-and-lentil-flour crêpes rolled around savory fillings with sublime coconut chutney on the side, $6.50–$8.50), eye-catching legume and vegetable curries ($8.95–$9.95), and made-for-grazing snacks like idli (steamed rice cakes, $4.50), medhu vada (lentil fritters, $3.95), and chili badji (fiery banana-pepper fritters, $4.95).