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IN THE RED

The Baltimore Sun

High on love but low on cash?

Swooning couples shouldn't have to shell out hundreds of dollars on Valentine's Day. And with the recession in full swing, who can afford to splurge on champagne and chocolate, anyway? There is a world of options available, from dancing to Frank Sinatra's hits in front of a live orchestra to sipping red wine over spaghetti at a Hampden pasta joint.

Leave the roses on the shelf, and try one of these five Valentine's Day dates instead. Each one has its own theme, multiple stops and an alternative option, in case something falls through or an event sells out. It's always good to have a backup plan, after all. But the best part is: Every date on this list costs less than $50. If you want to celebrate Valentine's Day on a tight budget, here's how to do it.

Dance the night away

The Plan: : In the beginning of the year, a well-known dance promoter started renting out the building that used to house Gardel's Supper Club (29 S. Front St.) and having weekly dance parties there. If you have two left feet, don't fret: On Valentine's Day, the festivities kick off with salsa and tango lessons, followed by open dancing until 2 a.m. The fee for lessons and dancing is $20 a person, which also includes a free buffet. The Latin Sound Band will provide the beats. Lessons are at 8 p.m. for beginners and 9 p.m. for intermediates.

If you're all tangoed out before 1 a.m., walk to Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop (222 Albemarle St., 410-685-4905) for bottomless cups of coffee ($2.85) and (we hope) endless conversation.

Total cost: : $45.70

Plan B:: The Havana Club (600 Water St., 410-468-0022) is hosting a 12-piece orchestra, which will perform songs from the Frank Sinatra era, as well as classic versions of more contemporary songs, from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Valentine's Day. There is an open vodka bar from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. Dress to impress. Admission is $10 per person, and dancing is highly encouraged.

The hipster shuffle

The Plan:: Pick up a high-end (but not high-priced) bottle of red wine from the Wine Source (3601 Elm Ave., 410-467-7777). Paul Cudone, a wine manager at the Wine Source, suggests Revello Dolcetto D'Alba 2007 ($12.79), a medium-bodied wine that he describes as "an unbelievable vintage." Or you could opt for a Cavallotto Dolcetto D'Alba 2006 ($14.99), a heavier, spicier vintage that needs to breathe for a bit. "It's killer," Cudone said.

Take the bottle of wine to Grano, the pasta joint that opened last year at 1031 W. 36th St. Don't worry, it's BYOB. There, order a plate of Bolognese spaghetti ($10.95) so you can re-create the alley kiss from Lady and the Tramp. Another popular dish there is zuppa di mare - shrimp, mussels and clams in a light tomato broth on top of a slice of roasted bread. It costs $15. Grano's number is 443-869-3429.

After dinner, drop by The Ottobar, where a DJ will be spinning funk, soul and reggae from 10 p.m. on as part of its International Lovers Party. Pop the top on two Natty Boh cans ($2 each) and relax. If you get hungry again, you can nibble on free Jamaican food, such as curry chicken and steamed vegetables, courtesy of caterer Mama Sarray.

Total cost: : $42.74-$44.94, depending on the wine you pick.

Plan B:: Slip into some skin-tight jeans, hop on your mo-ped and cruise to Rocket to Venus (3360 Chestnut Ave., 410-235-7887). Once there, sit at the bar and sip Natty Bohs ($2) and try to look aloof.

The cheap drinking date

The Plan:: You don't have to empty your purse to fill your glass on Valentine's Day - provided you know where to go. From 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., women can pay $5 for all-you-can-drink at Don't Know Tavern (1453 Light St., 410-539-0231). Men can sip $2 Miller Lites. There will also be a free finger-food buffet and plenty of other freebies, such as roses and chocolate. After the Don't Know Tavern special ends, keep the party rolling by heading to Angels Rock Bar (34 Market Place in Power Plant Live) for the $12 all-you-can-drink deal from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Total cost:: $29-$50, depending on how much you drink.

Plan B:: Joe Squared (133 W. North Ave., 410-545-0444) is offering half-priced wine and a free concert with performances by Sujay Pathak, Magnet South, Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps.

Gyros, guffaws and grog

The Plan:: Tomorrow, the Baltimore Improv Group is throwing its annual Worst-Date-Ever Valentine's Day bash at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson (3134 Eastern Ave., 410-276-1651). Be ready for off-the-cuff quips about love lost, love found and silly love. Laughter is the best medicine, after all. Tickets cost $12 for the public and $10 for members. The performance starts at 8 p.m. Go to bigimprov.org.

Since it's hard to sit through a show on an empty stomach, you're probably going to want to have dinner first. Nearby Samos Restaurant (600 Oldham St., 410-675-5292) makes some of the tastiest lamb gyros in town - tender meat slathered with cucumber yogurt and wrapped in a puffy pita. The best part? They're only $5.50 each.

After the comedy show ends, walk your date (hand-in-hand, if possible) three blocks to the Annabel Lee Tavern, where the troupe will be hanging out with fans for drinks. Soak in the Edgar Allan Poe-themed tavern's vintage decor while sipping two delicious draft Resurrection Ales ($4.75 each).

Total cost:: $44.50

Plan B:: Instead of seeing the comedy show, you and your date could strap on some ice skates and swirl around the Dominic DiPietro Skating Center at Patterson Park. Admission and skate rentals for two are $12. Call 410-396-9692.

One-stop romance

The Plan:: Instead of bouncing around the city to several different spots, head to Germano's Trattoria (300 S. High St., 410-752-4515) tonight for dinner and a show - all under one roof. Last May, Germano's started holding weekly cabaret shows in its second-floor dining room, which seats about 75. Tonight's show, titled "What Is This Thing Called Love?", features singer Carolyn Black-Sotir, who will perform love songs from the Great American Songbook. She promises an intimate, candlelit evening tailored for an upscale audience with a thin wallet. There is a $10 cover charge and a $15 food and drink minimum per person. Dinner starts at 6 p.m. and the show begins at 7:30 p.m. "It's just like being in New York City and seeing a sophisticated cabaret with a slightly hip, younger delivery," Black-Sotir said.

Total cost: : $50

Plan B:: You're not going to find many - if any - all-in-one destinations like this one for less than $50.

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