by Virginia B. Wood

Last-minute planning for Valentine's Day? Those romantic private dining rooms at Bertram's were booked days ago and the elegant, new, small private dining room at Jeffrey's with its own china and crystal has long since been taken. Castle Hill only accepts reservations once a year and you forgot to call? Don't panic, there are still some options available. Invite your heart's desire for a drive to Becker Vineyards, 10 miles east of Fredericksburg, off Hwy290W on Jenschke Lane. The winery is celebrating a Merlot and Chocolate Experience showcasing their 1995 Merlot and delectable handmade chocolates from Fredericksburg Fudge Co., 10am-5pm, February 14 and 15, and noon-5pm on Sunday, Feb 16. Before you go, call Gastehaus Schmidt Reservation Service at 210/997-5612 or Hill Country Lodging & Reservation Service at 800/745-3591 to reserve an overnight stay in one of the romantic little B&B's in Gillespie County. Wine, chocolate, shopping, travel, romance -- you've covered all the bases. There are also some wonderful options right here in town. Penny McConnell of Penny's Pastries is baking again, just in time to sell her excellent, heart-shaped shortbread and lovely, hand-decorated sugar cookies for Valentine's Day. Look for the cookies in such places as Central Market, Whole Foods, Trianon, Breed & Co., and Northwest Hills Pharmacy. There will be demos in some of these stores this weekend with prize drawings to award lucky winners special occasion cookies for an entire year... A couple of Westlake businesses have birthdays this Valentine's Day. Las Palomas turns 14 on the 14th, so owners Amelia and Javier Corona invite all their friends and customers to join them this weekend. Farther down Bee Caves Road, Bon Fresh Food Market celebrates its first anniversary with a Customer Appreciation Weekend, February 14-17. There will be sales and a selection of Valentine's treats including giant chocolate-covered strawberries inscribed with messages of love, collectable heart-shaped boxes filled with Valentine cookies and distinctive ready-to-eat menus for two from chef Nicholas Bogert.

Restaurant Biz: Saturday, February 1 was the first official "lake day" of 1997. Lots of folks spent the afternoon on the deck at the Iguana Grill, noshing on carnitas de res ($7.95) with chipotle salsa or camarones a la plancha ($15.95). Order a bowl of the superb chipotle salsa and eat it on everything... The Serranos outfit simultaneously closed the Cafe Serranos/Pulpo Loco on Barton Springs Road and opened a new location in Round Rock... That flurry of activity in the old Night Hawk at Congress and Riverside is an expansion of Art Carved Rings, not a restaurant... Eddie Wilson has added to his neon sign collection. Check out the new acquisitions on the porch at the Threadgill's World Headquarters and order from the new quick lunch menu... Though she'd love to be associated with the Central Market Cooking School, scheduling conflicts will keep former Blanco River Cooking School owner Leslie McGrath from taking the new position there, after all... We expect an announcement any day about the chef job at Zoot... Share Our Strength founder Billy Shore was at Jeffrey's in late January, meeting with local volunteers to encourage their efforts. The annual Share Our Strength hunger relief benefit dinner will be held at the Shoreline Grill on Sunday, April 27.

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