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When the Big Apple Flaunts Its Big Heart

WHO says New Yorkers are a cold-hearted lot?

Try to get a reservation for Valentine's Day at some of New York's most romantic restaurants.

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For the past month, Aureole has been turning down 30 to 50 customers per day for Saturday night dinner. "We are usually not booked on Saturday night," says Adam Fran, a harried reservation taker.

You needed a reservation a month ago to dine under the gamboling nymphs at Cafe des Artistes where the chef has a special meal of smoked salmon with salmon caviar followed by a consomme of wild-mushroom essence served with porcini crepes. The main course is either beef tenderloin stuffed with asparagus, grilled swordfish topped with oysters, or roast Cornish hen with a honey-ginger glaze.

Feel like treating your valentine to the best seafood in the city? It's just about too late to get into Le Bernardin, considered to be the kind of restaurant King Neptune might take his mate. "The naturally romantic atmosphere" draws people in, says Kaitlin Straub, the reservationist. Or, it could be the carpaccio of tuna, the oyster truffle, or the lobster daube with chanterelles.

Tim Zagat, publisher of the New York City restaurant survey, says Valentine's Day is considered the most heavily trafficked day in the industry. "Everyone seems to want to take someone out and make it romantic," he says. And what do New Yorkers consider romantic? Mr. Zagat says romantic restaurants are usually quieter with rich or pleasing colors. The Zagat guidebook lists 55 restaurants under the "romantic" category.

It helps if there are bouquets of flowers, soft music, and candles. One Zagat surveyor once noted Cafe Nicholson a place where "wives feel like mistresses." The restaurant has floral tiles and plenty of flowers. "It is a place to see to believe," says Zagat. But, don't plan on seeing it this Valentine's Day. A taped message informs callers that the hot spot is sold out for Saturday night and is not open on Sunday.

In fact, to have a romantic meal on this Valentine's Day is particularly difficult since many of the city's better restaurants are closed on Sunday, the 14th. So cross off Bouley, considered the numero uno restaurant in the city. Cross it off for Saturday night as well - it sold out in November.

Another intimate eatery, Arcadia, is not normally open on Sunday but is opening for this Valentine's Day. Chef Ann Rosenzweig, a consultant to the Hillary Rodham Clinton kitchen, plans molasses roast lovebirds (quail) with ruby-red grapefruit, mustard- crisped crab cakes with spicy apple mayonnaise, and buckwheat fried oysters with oyster remoulade. Ms. Rosenzweig says dinner is nearly sold out, but there's still room for brunch.

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If your thoughts of romance include Fred and Ginger fantasies, book next year at the Rainbow Room, considered by some the most romantic art-deco atmosphere in New York. The Rainbow Room, where the orchestra has been blowing its horn since 1934, has been sold out for Valentine's Day since December.

Although most restaurants stick to their regular menus on Valentine's Day, some cater to the romantic. The Halcyon Restaurant at the Rihga Royal Hotel provides a personalized heart-shaped cake for two. The Russian Tea Room will have a "Be my honey Parfait," and a Chocolate Lovers Rendezvous to go with a cabaret show called "Julie Wilson from the Heart." Andrew Freeman, director of marketing at the Tea Room, says there is at least one marriage proposal every year. Last year, he recalls a delivery man arri ved with a dozen roses for a young woman. Her partner then popped the question and presented her with an engagement ring. "When she said `yes' there was wild applause, and she proceeded to show the ring to the whole restaurant," he says.

Bruce Garrison, a tax lawyer, remembers Valentine's Day 1984 at one of New York's most romantic restaurants, Cellar in the Sky, which is at the top of the World Trade Center. Before going to the restaurant, Mr. Garrison surprised his girlfriend, Aphrodite, with an engagement ring. "She was truly dumbfounded," recalls Garrison. At the restaurant, he recalls the food, but especially the ambience.

"We were there in the candlelight with the Spanish guitar in the background. We savored that moment for a long time."

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