Raising the bar on romance for Valentine’s Day can be a tall order — especially when the bar floats as high in walking-on-air territory as it does at Geja’s Café. Recently named the #1 spot for Best Romantic Dining in Chicago on CitySearch.com and as one of the top 100 most romantic restaurants in the U.S. by OpenTable diners reviewing 15,000 eateries across the country, Geja’s (pronounced GAY-hah’s) has racked up some impressive dating data in its 47 years in Chicago. The labyrinthine wine cellar/cafe has been the site of 132,736 first dates and 16,033 engagements.
Even so, the restaurant’s managers cum matchmakers can’t resist ratcheting up the romance for Valentine’s Day, stretching the celebration across eight days from Sunday, February 10 through Sunday, February 17, with special dinner packages that include flower arrangements, couples massages and more as well a double anniversary discount on Monday and “Love Note Tuesday.”
But really, every day is Valentine’s Day at Geja’s, thanks to its cozy, Moroccan-inspired décor — try for a booth — live classical or Spanish guitar music, an extensive list of fine, moderately priced wines and its all-fondue menu. What is it about fondue that fans the flames of romance? Besides the actual Sterno-fueled flame warming each pot of melted cheese, bubbling cooking oil or liquid chocolate, there’s the collaborative, “we’re in this together” aspect of fondue dining. No awkward pauses waiting for the kitchen to prepare the meal, because the diners become the chefs as they dunk the food chunks whisked to the table by solicitous servers, many of whom have worked at Geja’s for decades, their loyalty perhaps inspiring some of the long-term relationships sparked at the restaurant.
In addition to keeping first dates busy as they fish items out of the pots or try to decipher whose color-coded fondue fork is whose in the intimately lit space, Geja’s fondue menu offers a blessedly simple system of ordering. Diners choose an entrée — from among 20 types, ranging from seafood to meat and poultry to vegetarian and combinations in between — and the rest of the meal — salad, cheese fondue appetizer, chocolate fondue dessert and coffee — magically appears before them, nicely paced, with no additional fumbling with menus required.
The Valentine’s menu offers the regular choices but highlights “The Connoisseur,” ($51.95 on the regular menu, including all courses) featuring aged beef tenderloin, Gulf shrimp and chunks of lobster tail meat. I made a pre-Valentine’s trip to the near north side restaurant to test it out.
Arriving a little early, we waited at the bar, where my Valentine ordered a glass ($11.50) of Malbec (Cedre Heritage, Cahors, France), full-flavored and a little oakier than an Argentine Malbec. When Geja’s opened at its original location in Old Town in 1965, it was Chicago’s first wine bar, and that oeno-centric philosophy continues, with an extensive list of wines from all over the world available by the glass and bottle, three private reserve wines, and wine festivals throughout the year. The Lanson (Reims, France) Champagne festival features a Black Label Brut for Valentine’s Day. I sipped a flute of it with my meal and found it to be a fine accompaniment, nicely balanced and not too dry.
We threaded our way to a booth — the space is tight, but that is part of the charm — and chose our entrees. Moments later our salads arrived, fresh and tasty, but I wish I had asked for the dressing on the side or in half the usual amount. The cheese fondue appetizer — inspired by Swiss shepherds who dipped crusty bread into cheese warmed over a fire — consisted of a pot of melted Swiss and Gruyère cheeses blended with white wine, Kirsch (cherry brandy), garlic and nutmeg with a basket of pumpernickel and baguette chunks, apple slices and grapes. I popped the un-dunked grapes into my mouth as a palate cleanser between bites of the cheese-dipped bread and apples. A word of warning: know when it’s time to put down your fondue fork. There will be plenty of food to come and no need to fill up prematurely.
Entrée fondues are cooked in oil, a practice that began when French grape harvesters paused for a quick meal in the vineyard. Diners choose a few items at a time from a large platter, cook them in the oil — servers will suggest cooking times — and then accent them with one of eight dipping sauces: dill (nice with seafood), teriyaki (tasty with vegetables), horseradish (wonderful with beef), barbecue, lemon butter (a natural with lobster chunks, although I preferred a squeeze of the fresh lemon provided), apricot, “dragon sauce” (mayo with sriracha and spices) and chili.
With such simple preparation, freshness of ingredients is everything, and Geja’s scores well. Each of the “The Connoisseur” entrees included several chunks of tender beef, pristine shrimp and fresh lobster — I once lived in Maine and am picky about that — as well as a nice assortment of vegetables: mushrooms, squares of red and yellow bell papers, broccoli (10 seconds cooking time), rings of onions, and potato chunks. The amount of food will satisfy hearty appetites without overwhelming smaller ones.
That said, we didn’t have much room left for dessert and were content to eat some of the ingredients for the dessert fondue — cubes of pound cake and crispy rice; ripe pineapple, strawberries, cherries, apples and bananas — without dipping them into the pot of melted chocolate. (Chocolate fondue was the invention of a Swiss chef working in the U.S. in the 1960s.) But we couldn’t resist the opportunity to roast marshmallows when the server flamed the chocolate with orange liqueur. The roasted marshmallows can be dipped into the chocolate and then into graham cracker crumbs to create gentrified s'mores.
Geja’s coffee, offered with a cloud of whipped cream, makes a pleasant finish to the meal. But our enthusiastic server insisted that we try the “Frangelicoccino” featured for Valentine’s Day, cappuccino poured into a snifter of Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur) for a “perfect ending.” He was right.
The servers at Geja’s seem to delight in playing Cupid, and on its website the restaurant promotes its role in staging marriage proposals and putting new couples at ease. But even if the date disappoints, you’ll always have fondue.
340 West Armitage, Chicago
Reservations: http://www.gejascafe.com/reservations.html or (773) 281-9101
Monday through Thursday, 5–10 pm; Friday 5–11 pm; Saturday 5–11:30 pm; Sunday 4:30–9:30 pm
Valet and metered parking
Valentine’s Festival Feb. 10–17, 2013, special packages and activities including:
Double Anniversary Discount (with proof of years married) on Feb. 11
Love Note Tuesday on Feb. 12: Writers of the most romantic and heartwarming love letters can win dinners and gift certificates
For info, go to gejascafe.com.
Photos: Leanne Star