Sometimes, romance pops into your life over a greasy cheese frenchee and a dollar margarita.
Or while you're wearing a pair of rented shoes and sharing a pitcher of beer.
Or while you're playing a vintage Ms. Pacman game in a dingy arcade and sipping a fountain soda pop.
While there's much to be said for romance over candles and beautiful food at a classy restaurant, there's also something about finding romance in the most unexpected places.
My husband and I have a Valentine's tradition. One year, we do a fancy Valentine's Day, no holds barred. It includes gifts, a big bouquet of flowers delivered to my office and fancy dinner for two, often with a triple-digit price tag.
The next year, we do Valentine's Day on the cheap: We've bowled. We've played video games. We've eaten fast-food breakfasts and pizza buffets and drank pitchers of Bud Light and paper cups of Diet Coke. And it costs no more than a couple of twenty dollar bills.
I figured we couldn't be the only couple with this idea. And as it turns out, we're not.
Omar Garrido, manager of the Zio's Pizza at 132nd Street and West Center Road, said the restaurant's heart-shaped pizzas have been around for a long time — ten years, at least. (Locally owned Valentino's Pizza sells heart-shaped pizzas, too.)
Couples come in and share a pie while sitting in one of the restaurant's cozy booths. Kids come in with dollars and change they've saved to buy a pizza for their mom (dad usually gets a slice, too.) Guys come in and take a pizza to go.
The pizza comes in one size — large — and customers pay for the toppings they choose, just like on a regular large pizza that isn't shaped like a heart. A one-topping pizza runs $16. The most you can spend is $23.90, for one of Zio's five higher-end pies. One example: the Grand Finale, which includes ground beef, pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian-style bacon, black olives, tomatoes, green peppers, mushrooms and onions, with the option to add anchovies and jalapeno peppers.
"Valentine's Day is one of our busiest nights," Garrido said.
Valentine's Day is also busy at Film Streams, the arthouse theater in north downtown. Director Rachel Jacobson said for lots of couples, the intimate theater has at least a hint of romance.
"I think there's automatically something romantic about movies," she said. "Movies are where we get all our dreams of what romance should be, and though it's not necessarily reality, it's fun to lose yourself in that kind of thing."
And it doesn't hurt that the theater serves not just traditional treats like popcorn and candy, but also coffee from locally owned Blue Line, sweets from the Omaha-based Educated Baker, wine and beer.
This Valentine's Day, the theater will screen a romantic classic, "The Leopard," the first movie in its new series "World Cinema Revivals: A Celebration of Film Preservation."
"It's just a great, super-romantic classic film," Jacobson said. "Every scene is incredible, and if you're into 'Downton Abbey,' you'll be into this because of the costumes and the detail and the elaborate sets."
The theater also will show the Oscar-nominated "The Artist" at 5 p.m. on Tuesday — perfect as a pre-Valentine's dinner-date treat. A ticket at Film Streams is $9 for an adult and $7 for students and seniors. Film Streams members can buy tickets for $4.50 each.
"Movies are great for dates, whether you've been together for a long time or not," Jacobson said. "And it's not as much pressure as being at a two-top in a restaurant. It's more chilled out."
It's also pretty relaxed at the Homy Inn in midtown, where manager Terry Finkle said lots of couples find romance — and sometimes a marriage proposal — over a pitcher of Champagne.
"It seems like we're a hot spot for first dates and Internet dates," Finkle said, laughing. He's also seen lots of people get engaged over the years, on Valentine's Day, or on other days, too.
"Usually we give them a shot of something after they get engaged," he said. "They're going to need it."
On Valentine's Day, the Homy serves up its famous "Champagne on tap" with strawberries on the rim of a glass ($4.75) or a pitcher ($19.)
It's one of the bar's busiest nights, Finkle said.
It gets busy at West Lanes bowling alley on most weekend nights, and though this will be manager Mike Pirruccello's first Valentine's Day there, he said he expects lots of twosomes.
"When we have open bowling, there's definitely a rush of couples," he said. The bowling alley also has a snack bar and a bar and lounge that Pirruccello said is perfect for "a Valentine's Day drink."
Because Valentine's Day is on a Tuesday this year, bowlers can take advantage of that night's special price: Open bowling starts at 7 p.m. and is $2 a game, including tax. Shoe rental is $3 for adults. The bowling alley also has a happy hour from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. that includes $2.50 domestic draws and well drinks, $2.75 domestic bottles, $3 Fireball shots, $5 Jaeger bombs and domestic pitchers for $7.50.
"It's definitely a good deal for an hour or two of entertainment," Pirruccello said.
My husband and I have been bowling (cosmic) on our Valentine's dates. We've eaten dinner at Don and Millie's, (a cheese frenchee and a burger, plus two 99-cent margaritas) and at the Amazing Pizza Machine ($8.99 each for dinner plus extra cash to play video games and race go-carts.)
And last week, in the quest for another restaurant to add to the list, we lunched at the tiny Mother India while thinking about romance. We chose Mother India because it's small, its food is fragrant, hot and delicious and because it's sort of out of the ordinary.
This year is our fancy year, and we talked about our plans while splitting slices of kabuli naan loaded with nuts and raisins.
The tiny restaurant buzzed with sounds of the constant lunch crowd and the open kitchen. We shared steaming bowls of lamb korma and saag paneer at a tiny two-top table next to the wall. The total bill: $30.
That wasn't romance in the traditional sense. But we didn't care. Because sometimes, real romance comes from the unusual instead of the expected.