Black Tie Optional

by Jacob Trowbridge, Dining and Nightlife Editor

It’s movie perfect.

The low lighting brings out the deepest colors of the restaurant’s burgundy and olive accents. The cozy booth allows for intimate conversation, making it feel like the whole world is somewhere else and that, for tonight, it’s just the two of you.

The way you’re dressed makes you feel like either a member of The Rat Pack or like Audrey Hepburn reincarnated. As far as you’re concerned, this booth has never seated such impeccably-dressed diners as it has this evening.

You look across the table at your significant other, stunning in the glow of soft light, and share a moment of complete intoxication with one another as Frank Sinatra romances your ears, crooning about how the best is yet to come.

The waiter returns with your entrées, as well as two glasses of wine, one a crisp chardonnay and the other a rich merlot. You spend the rest of the night laughing and feeding each other across the table, hesitant to leave but excited to do this all again.

It’s not until the bill arrives at the end of the night that you realize this wasn’t a scene from a romantic comedy, because you’re not Matthew McConaughey, she isn’t Jennifer Aniston, and the total bill is less than $30.

No, you were, in fact, in one of the many Madison restaurants that offer the option of fancying up your evening as much or as little as you’d like to. Downtown Madison offers a few of these hidden gems, where the ambiance is enough to warrant a dinner jacket or a string of pearls, but the prices won’t necessitate you selling those accessories for extra cash once you’ve finished your evening.

Gino’s Italian Restaurant on State St. is one such diamond in the rough. The atmosphere is romantic and the food is delicious, but there’s no fanciness required on your part. So if you don’t want to strap that tie on for a romantic evening, feel free to gorge yourself on Ravioli Capriccio and slurp down Sangria while a single, overhead lamp illuminates the disgusted look on your roommate’s face and punctuates the marinara stains on your favorite t-shirt. Don’t worry, the staff won’t judge you.

You could also venture to Porta Bella, located on N. Frances St., which has been voted “Most Romantic and Best Italian Restaurant” of Madison for 15 consecutive years. Sure, a multi-course dinner at Bella can be a bit pricey, but if you want to take someone out on a cozy lunch date, there may not be a better place to go.

Both restaurants feature a wide array of specialty pasta dishes and truly mouthwatering deep dish pizzas, which makes it difficult to remember what the word “leftover” means.

I suppose the bottom line here is that atmosphere is all in the eye of the beholder. So if you’re looking to impress your date—either with your keen fashion sense or your ability to fit an entire piece of lasagna in your mouth at once—these restaurants can accommodate you.