SOME THINGS in life simply embody romance: A dozen red roses; a flute of champagne. A blazing fire. Flowers and bubbly are easily obtained, but, unfortunately, romantics in search of a flame all too often have to content themselves with a set of candles or a copy of "Modern Fireplaces."
Clearly, neither will suffice.
So we've put together a list of places where you can have some heart-to-hearth talks. There are fires to dine by, fires to drink by, fires with views and fires where you are viewed, fires in your neighborhood and fires in the country, fires with gas and fires done the old-fashioned way -- with logs.
One (or more) of them is sure to, er, light your fire.
MOST ROMANTIC HEARTH: Tabard Inn, 1739 N Street NW. 833-2668.
Nestle into a dimly lit corner of the lounge with a cognac and a date and you might never get up, so engaging is this setting in Washington's oldest running inn.
The fire invites keen competition, and "who gets the couch by the hearth" is a game played over and over on busy weekends. Appetizers are served 'til 10 p.m., but you might save your appetite for one of the inn's scrumptious homemade desserts (ask for the chevre cheesecake or the apple-gingerbread pudding) served from the inn's restaurant, or a glass of something unusual, say a Czechoslovakian clove liqueur.
MEETING THE FIRST MATE: Sign of the Whale, 1825 M Street NW. 223-4152.
You wouldn't expect a place with a nautical theme to place a moosehead above its fireplace, but Sign of the Whale spouts an even bigger surprise: the sailor to mermaid ratio is about 10 to 1. Whoever said women outnumbered men in Washington clearly never peeked into this pub, a loud and homey place in which everyone seems to know everyone else. So this is where all those downtown professionals stop before heading back to the burbs.
Sign of the Whale has a looooooong bar that stretches across most of the front room, providing a good view of the gas fireplace regardless of where one is perched. There are dinner specials every night of the week, though it probably wasn't the half-price burgers that grabbed everyone off the street one recent evening. The restaurant makes several rather interesting hot tea drinks (one with Grand Marnier, the other a brew of Drambuie and Scotch called Finlay's Scottish Tea) and serves up an array of familiar seafood appetizers.
MOST CONVINCING FIRE: Iron Gate Inn, 1734 N Street 737-1370.
The fireplace here serves a dual purpose: For the patrons, it warms the room and enhances the atmosphere; for the staff, it serves as an incinerator.
No sooner had the party at a nearby table departed than the busboy tossed the paper placemats and napkins into the blazing fire. Sometime after the hummus and pita bread arrived, we were treated to yet another fiery display as a glowing log rolled out of the hearth. Without a doubt, we were dealing with a very, very real fire here.
The fare: Middle Eastern and moderately priced. The setting: a former stable. But the fire's so inviting, this is one time you might not mind dining inside a stall, beneath a trough or below a hayloft.
FOR THE YOUNG AT HEART: The Tombs, 1226 36th Street NW. 965-1789.
Wanna know where all those incredibly good-looking and well-bred Georgetown students take their study breaks? It's here, several blocks away from the pedestrian hustle of Wisconsin and M streets, in a bustling underground hangout with lots of time-worn charm. The fire blazes brightly each evening and, if you're lucky, the school's popular male chorus, The Chimes, will make an appearance.
The line for tables extends up the stairs and out the door on weekends, and you may have to stand three deep at the bar, but the tunes and faces are enough to hold any preppy's rapt attention. When mom and dad come to visit, you take them upstairs, to the 1789 Restaurant, where hearth -- and tab -- are bigger.
MOST ADVENTUROUS FARE: Dominique's, 1900 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. 452-1126.
The menu reads like a passenger list from Noah's Ark (rattlesnake, venison, buffalo), and the front dining room is an atrium sporting all manner of stuffed beast and fowl. Even if the spirited hostess doesn't recognize you, she greets you as an old friend. With that as an introduction, you know you're going to have a good time here. You might not manage a table near the hearth (it's gas-fired), but if you dine early (5:30 to 7 p.m.) or late (10:30 til close) there's a rather attractive prix fixe menu offering plenty of choices.
MOST RELAXING: The Wayfarers, 110 South Pitt Street,Alexandria. 836-2749.
The Wayfarers could pass for a country inn, with its carefully tended fire, English menu and warm, attentive staff. A large skylight in the lounge near the bar gives the feeling of being outdoors -- and a peek into the second story of the owner's home as well. One plus: you needn't partake of an entire meal here, and there won't be anyone to rush you if you wish to linger over a glass of wine or a piece of the restaurant's fudgy- rich chocolate mousse pie.
MOST FIREPLACES: Petitto's Ristorante d'Italia, 2653 Connecticut Avenue NW. 667-5350.
She shows up wearing taffeta and you're in a ski sweater. Roy Rogers is out of the question. The solution? Petitto's, an Italian eatery with not one, but four fireplaces in as many dining rooms, and an impressive selection of Italian dishes. Despite the upscale appearance, the establishment has no pretensions. On a recent evening, not a particularly busy one, two of the staff playfully boxed in the foyer and our waiter (who must have trained in a New York deli) offered a big "hi-how-are-ya." Opt for a dish of pasta primavera and an order of Petitto's wonderful fried dough.
BEST PLACE TO GO WITH A CROWD: Murphy's, 713 King Street, Alexandria. 548-1717.
"You have to come in here hungry," scolded our waitress as she cleared our half-eaten rations from the table. Indeed, the portions are hearty at Murphy's, and so is the crowd. The pub atmosphere attracts a mixed group and the fire at the rear of the ground floor -- open on two sides -- serves as the main attraction before the live musical entertainment commences in the evenings. You'd think a place with an Irish name would do better things with potato appetizers, but the Irish coffee was among the best -- strong and hot and topped with freshly whipped cream. Take note that conversation becomes impossible after the musicians start playing (at 9 p.m. each evening).
OTHER HOT SPOTS Here are some other places with hearths that might fire your fancy:
LA CHAUMIERE -- 2813 M Street NW. 338-1784. A rustic French look in the heart of Georgetown. The hearth -- open on two sides -- is in the middle of the dining room for maximum enjoyment.
FOURWAYS -- 1701 20th Street NW. 483-3200. The lounge downstairs from the restaurant requires a coat and tie, a lesson you'll be reminded of when the waitress brings you a jacket with your gin and tonic.
THE GUARDS -- 2915 M Street NW. 965-2350. Offering a gas fire, it boasts one of the largest hearths in the city and attracts an upscale, middle-aged crowd. The dimly lit interior makes it a perfect brunch site after a late-night rendezvous.
TOUT VA BIEN -- 1063 31st Street NW. 965-1212. A log fire in an attractive, moderately-priced French restaurant near the C&O Canal in Georgetown.
AROUND AND ABOUT
L'AUBERGE CHEZ FRANCOIS -- 332 Springvale Road, Great Falls, Virginia. 703/759-3800. This popular country inn (reservations are required exactly two weeks before the day of your visit) boasts two fires and an innovative French menu.
KING'S LOFT -- 121 South Union Street, Alexandria. 836-7010. Couches around a gas fireplace.
OLD ANGLER'S INN -- 10801 MacArthur Boulevard, Potomac. 301/365-2425. Begin your evening with a toddy before a blazing hearth, or end it with a nightcap. Seafood is the featured fare.
POTOWMACK LANDING -- Washington Sailing Marina, George Washington Parkway, 11/2 miles south of National Airport. 548-0001. One of the area's newest restaurants, offering a view of the water and monuments, and some pretty ordinary lounge fare. Call ahead to be sure the fire's ablaze.