February is that month when people’s hearts start to beat faster. Not for all that love stuff. No, it’s the fear of the all-important date night. You need a menu that covers all bases, from the chest-beating steak eater to the politely forked salad-picker. You need a little luxury but a price that won’t mean you have to hock the ring before you buy it. You need an atmosphere that is nice but not so airless you feel like you’re being smothered in a white tablecloth. 131 Main in Cornelius has been aiming at couples for a while now, first with Wednesday night Date Night specials. That’s been replaced by the nightly Main Event – $59 for an appetizer, two salads, two choices from a short entree list, a dessert and a bottle of wine. With February in mind, we gathered a date (husbands come in handy that way) and checked it out. (As you can already tell, 131 Main likes to make frequent changes with its specials. But most of the things on the Main Event menu when we visited also are choices in the regular menu, so our experience should remain pretty close to the actual offerings.) Everything in the place is designed to give the impression of bustle, from the open kitchen right by the door to the bustling bar scene up front. But with a faux Cape Cod cottage interior, the dining room feels more comfortable than stilted. It’s no surprise they’ve staked out the Date Night concept: There’s doubling up all over the menu. First, there’s the signature Cast-Iron Cornbread, served hot in a small cast-iron skillet with honey on the side. If you make a cake with cornmeal, is it cornbread? This version walks a fine line, with a sweet, crunchy top and a moist, cake-like interior that still includes green chile peppers, corn and cheese. It’s addictively good, but it is hard to escape the notion that you’re eating dessert first. Another popular appetizer is actually called The Double Dip: A scoop of guacamole and a scoop of pimento cheese served on a platter of tortilla chips with salsa. OK, the menu calls it “roasted red pepper queso,” but you will know it as pimento cheese. And while you have to wonder what kitchen collision resulted in that combination, it works if you get a little of both, along with some salsa, on a chip. (Try a fork – they’re very chunky.) Salads arrive on ice-cold plates, a nice touch. The Main Salad is the better choice, generously tossed with bacon, hard-boiled egg, carrots and cornbread croutons. Caesar was a plate of romaine ribs and a couple of small cornbread croutons. Main Event entrees when we visited included meatloaf dressed up with a shiitake and stroganoff gravy, prime rib, grilled trout with cole slaw, roast chicken with fries, “simple” grilled salmon with kale salad, and Cajun fish and grits. All but the fish and grits appear on the main menu, where they become shrimp and grits. The slow-roasted prime rib arrived very pink for medium-rare, but it was tender and tasty, served with smashed potatoes and a bowl of au jus. On the fish and grits, the fish was char-grilled tilapia surrounded by a pool of creamy Creole sauce with slivers of asparagus and country ham. Here’s a debate: Is there truly a difference between grits and polenta? We say there is, and these fall into the polenta camp – thicker, fluffier and more corn-like than your average grits. For dessert, we had a choice of Key Lime pie, brownie a la mode, or Banana Creme Pie. Banana Creme turned out to be the Waffle House of pies: scattered, drizzled, topped and chunked. Somewhere under the slices of banana, drizzles of caramel, chunks of chocolate and a towering construction of whipped cream, there was a slice of cream pie with a spicy, gingerbread-flavored crust. For $59 for two generous meals (we paid $7 extra for the cornbread) and a bottle of wine (Trinity Oaks, not fancy but respectable), it’s an easy way to do the date night while honoring the economy. The ring is up to you.
Want to go? Where: 131 Main, Lake Norman Address: 17830 N. Statesville Road, Cornelius Contact: 704-896-0131; www.131-main.com Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Check: Dinner prices: $3 to $13 (appetizers), $8 to $15 (sandwiches and salads), $3 to $4 (sides), $15 to $27 (entrees), $7 (desserts).