Back in the boom years, many New Yorkers saw dating as a chance not just to woo but to wow -- dropping $200 at Nobu, $180 for a Broadway show, and more than they cared to remember at Spa. But excess isn't what it used to be, and the city is full of opportunities for the frugal romantic. Here are fifteen dates, from salsa lessons to steam baths -- all under $60 -- to prove it.
Monday Night Foot Ball
If you think you might need a few pointers (and a few drinks) before showing off your salsa moves, check out "La Tropica" salsa party and dance lesson at S.O.B.'s. The hourlong class draws an enthusiastic crowd of beginners almost every Monday night, so you'll feel comfortable even if it's your first time ($5 for men and free for women before 7:30). Once you've mastered the basics, cool off with a tropical drink ($8) and fuel up with jerk-chicken sticks and lobster empanadas -- or sit down for a dinner of "Latin soul food" (appetizers, $5-$9; entrées, $13-$20). The real party begins at 9 with performances from top-notch Latin musicians like Frankie Morales and Grupo Niche. (No extra cover if you've gone to the class; otherwise, shows usually cost $15. S.O.B.'s, 204 Varick Street; 212-243-4940 or www.sobs.com.)
Tokens of Affection
Into playing games with your significant other? Buy a few dollars' worth of arcade tokens at Chinatown Fair, home of old-school pinball machines, multiple Ms. Pac-Mans, and Dance Dance Revolution, a two-player game with a small stage on which you frantically imitate the moves flashing across the screen. (8 Mott Street; 212-964-1542.) Afterward, get all four of your left feet rubbed down at the Fishion Herb Center, a foot-massage parlor that looks like the Bliss of Shanghai. (169 Hester Street; 212-966-8771; $20 each for 30 minutes.) Finally, the nearby Nice Restaurant offers dim sum delicacies ($1.95-$3.95) -- pan-fried turnip cakes, shrimp-stuffed eggplant, silver-needle noodles -- that have been pleasing New Yorkers since the Year of the Ox. (35 East Broadway; 212-406-9510.)
Everyone knows that the view of Roosevelt Island can be romantic (remember Manhattan?) and that the view from the tram ($1.50) -- which may go back into service this month -- is spectacular. But getting there is only half the fun. The two-mile-long island (think "suburb"-meets-Swedish housing complex) has all the provisions you need for an intime barbecue. (After all, given this winter's wacky weather, spring may be imminent.) The Grog Shop (605 Main Street) offers inexpensive Cabernet Sauvignon ($6 and up), and the Island Fishmarket (530 Main Street) sells fresh salmon steaks ($4.99 per pound). Behind the late-1800s lighthouse are twelve charcoal grills facing the river -- and far enough apart so people have to shout to borrow your teriyaki sauce.
If you're both sweating and (practically) naked and your date has only just begun, you must be at the Tenth Street Baths and Health Club -- a charming, turn-of-the-century co-ed Russian-Turkish bathhouse ($22) that attracts nonthreatening clientele ranging from East Village hipsters to Gorbachev look-alikes. The three-story anti-spa has a Redwood Sauna, a bracing 45-degree bath, and a vast steam room where the scent of eucalyptus will clean out your sinuses for a month. After all that exertion, relax at the baths' restaurant with some delectable roast chicken ($5) and a cold Baltika beer ($4). (268 East 10th Street; 212-473-8806.)
Lovers Conquer All
No love story ever had a more appropriate stage than the Amato Opera Theatre. Tony and Sally Amato opened their doors in 1948, because, says Tony, "we were in love, and we loved opera -- what else was there to do?" Fifty-four years later, Tony still conducts almost every show; Sally, sadly, died in August 2000. On February 9, the Amato opens its spring season with L'Elisir d'Amore -- Donizetti's blissful romantic comedy about a proto-feminist landowner, the farmer who loves her, and Love Potion No. 9. (319 Bowery; 212-228-8200; $28.) After the not-so-fat lady sings, stop by Marion's Continental, the kitschy fifties restaurant and bar where -- over $6 dirty martinis and a Dean Martin song -- you can toast Tony and Sally and, of course, amore. (354 Bowery; 212-475-7621.)
Queens for a Day
Just a Mo Vaughn home run away from Shea, Flushing has a Chinatown perfect for Saturday-afternoon strolling, with vendors selling miniature Buddhas and almond cookies instead of hot dogs. But save your appetite for the Jade Palace -- the 300-seat seafood emporium that specializes in Australian lobsters and pan-fried flounder plucked straight from the tanks. (136-14 38th Avenue; 718-353-3366; entrées start at $8.95.) Next stop on your No. 7-train voyage: the Queens Museum of Art, where -- thanks to the world's largest scale model -- you can take a whirlwind tour of all five boroughs in just one hour. (Flushing Meadows Corona Park; 718-592-9700; $5.)
It's show time -- at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Thanks to chief curator Thelma Golden and museum director Lowery Stokes Sims, the once-sleepy art center has become an uptown destination. Go on a Friday -- it's open until 8 -- to see exhibits like "Africaine," a spotlight on four African artists living and working in America. (144 West 125th Street; 212-864-4500; $5.) Then try an older Harlem institution, the M&G Diner, where a waitress named Betty says she's seen six couples who later got engaged fall in love over fried chicken and short ribs. "This is Harlem," she explains. "You can't get any more comfortable." (383 West 125th Street; 212-864-7326; $4.50-$12.)
Any longtime local basketball fan will tell you that one of the most thrilling games ever played at Madison Square Garden was the 1960 face-off between Boys High, with star player Connie Hawkins, and Wingate High, with Roger Brown. Both went pro. On March 16, you can catch future stars (along with top NBA recruiters) at the Public Schools Athletic League Championships at Madison Square Garden for a mere $10 (212-465-6741 or www.ticketmaster.com). Then head uptown to beloved dive Jimmy's Corner, where owner and boxing trainer Jimmy Glenn has been pouring cheap drinks ($3.50 for a gin-and-tonic) for more than 30 years and the jukebox has everything from Coleman Hawkins to Sinatra. (140 West 44th Street; 212-221-9510.)
News You Want to Use
Skip the tourists holding SPRINGFIELD, MO, ROCKS! signs outside the Today show. The one taping natives get excited about is The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. (513 West 54th Street; call 212-586-2477 several weeks in advance for free tickets.) Doors open at 5:45 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Before the show, Stewart warms up by cracking jokes and taking questions from the audience. Afterward, try Azuri Cafe, which boasts some of the best falafel ($7.25) outside of Israel. Remember to bring gum for your good-night kiss. (465 West 51st Street; 212-262-2920.)
Is riding a horse along the beach your romantic fantasy? If so, there's no need to leave the city (or dial up Fabio). The Jamaica Bay Riding Academy in Gateway National Recreation Area offers year-round guided rides along the shore and through lovely wooded trails (718-531-8949 for directions; $23 per person). From there, it's a quick drive to the wildlife refuge on Broad Channel Island, where more than 325 different species of birds stop along their migration. In winter, you'll see snow geese, baffle-head ducks, and snowy owls; in spring, hundreds of songbirds returning north (718-318-4340).
Sunday Morning Coming Down
Wash away your Saturday-night sins at the Sounds of Praise gospel brunch, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the BAMcafé on select Sundays. Brunchgoers shout and stomp their feet while enjoying traditional southern comfort food like Cajun catfish and corn bread ($20 per person). Dickson Guillaume and the New York State Haitian Interdenominational Mass Choir kick off the spring season on February 17. (30 Lafayette Avenue, at Ashland Place, Brooklyn; call 718-636-4139 for a schedule and reservations.)
Conversation lapses inevitably arise, so let the funniest people in New York fill the awkward silences. The Upright Citizens Brigade has a 74-seat Chelsea club that showcases their own talents as well as those of Conan O'Brien writers and SNL guests. Arrive by 8 p.m. on Sundays to pick up tickets for the 9:30 show of "Asssscat," the famously guest-star-laden (Colin Quinn, Rachel Dratch) gig; the line can stretch around the block. (161 West 22nd Street; 212-366-9176.) After the show, comics still eager for an audience head to the Peter McManus Cafe for $3.50 pints of Guinness. (152 Seventh Avenue, at 19th Street; 212-929-9691.)
Scenes of Love
Convinced that Off-Off Broadway is simply code for "painful to watch"? Challenge your assumptions at HERE, which features truly excellent works of experimental theater. February's offerings include I Think I Ken, about "Mattel's most glamorous couple," and Lapis Blue Blood Red, based on the life of seventeenth-century painter Artemesia Gentileschi. (145 Sixth Avenue; 212-647-0202; most shows $12-$20.) After the show, stop by the Eat Here Cafe, next to the theater, for a glass of wine ($6) and a bowl of hearty duck-and-sausage stew ($7.95). Or head north to Caffe Reggio, the oldest café in Greenwich Village, and perhaps the most romantic. Since 1927, it's hosted artists, poets, and German tourists; you'll feel right at home discussing avant-garde theater (or how hot Ken looked) over espresso ($1.75) and cannoli ($3). (119 MacDougal Street; 212-475-9557.)
It's the tragedy of fine dining: No matter how greedily you devour your boeuf en gelée or your foie gras-stuffed capon, you always wish you'd saved more room for dessert. Thankfully, Gramercy Tavern lets you skip right to the best (and, okay, the least expensive) part of the meal, and its Tavern room doesn't require reservations. Pastry chef Claudia Fleming turns out exquisite creations -- warm chocolate-soufflé cake with cinnamon ice cream, maple flan with gingersnaps -- for only $8. Be sure to split a pot of the Costa Rican estate coffee ($10), which is roasted with cocoa, chicory, and vanilla. (42 East 20th Street; 212-477-0777.) Then roll yourself over to Veritas for an $11 cognac to cap off the evening. (43 East 20th Street; 212-353-3700.)
Poetry and Proles
If you're dating a book editor (or Dave Eggers) but the last "contemporary" novel you read was Valley of the Dolls, suggest KGB -- a requisite haunt for up-and-coming writers, where dim lighting, red velvet curtains, and decorative Soviet propaganda lend an air of mystery. This season's readers include Ann Powers, Gary Indiana, Timothy Westmoreland, and David Lehman. (Free fiction readings on Sundays at 7 p.m., poetry on Mondays at 7:30; 85 East 4th Street; 212-505-3360.) Afterward, go around the corner to East Village fixture Frank, a tiny Italian restaurant serving wonderful handmade pasta and hearty meat sauces -- truly food for the people. (88 Second Avenue; 212-420-0202. Entrées, $7.95-$12.95.)
Additional reporting by Emily Aronson.