kristy holland

A typical Boulder date night might not end up super romantic: Crowded waits at your favorite restaurant and standing-room-only at local bars doesn't exactly set the stage for love. Which is why this weekend -- before all the college coeds return to campus -- is a great time to take advantage of smaller crowds at favorite eateries and music venues. Here's a sampling of plans for every budget:

Friday night big spenders on the Hill: Meet your lady before 6 p.m. at Café Aion's (1235 Pennsylvania Av.; cafeaion.com) big, wooden bar for a happy hour warm up. Match the fried cauliflower with a marg or the bourbon and steer clear of the over-spiced Sangria. And then settle into a cozy table to share a plate of saffron-infused Spanish rice (paella, $36). Linger until just before 9 p.m., when the brassy, energetic ska-punk band Reel Big Fish starts shaking things up at the Fox (1135 13th St.; foxtheater.com). It's likely that the just-getting-back-to-campus crowd won't fill up the dance floor, so expect $30 day-of tickets to be available until the last minute.

Modest Saturday downtown: Saturday's usually a day to avoid romantic go-to spots. But there's a reason that so many people go to great restaurants like The Med (1002 Walnut St.; themedboulder.com) -- they're great. Saturday's happy hour doesn't draw the after-work crowd but does attract dinner-eaters, so plan an early meet-up (around 5:30 p.m.) and enjoy an hour's worth of small plates (the $5 pizza will stretch your budget) before sitting down to dinner -- if you need it.

Skip dessert at the Med and head to fancy-pants eatery Black Cat (1964 13th St. ; blackcatboulder.com) to split one of the best molten-chocolate cakes in town ($8). After killing your sweet craving, head a block north to Shine Restaurant and Gathering Place (2027 13th St.; shineboulder.com), where Denver-local string band Chain Station will be rocking original mountain music from 9:30 to midnight for a $5 cover.

Budget boyfriend's get-the-girl plan: There are plenty of great and inexpensive ways to entertain a date in Boulder on a budget, but the best of them are usually jam-packed with broke-ass college kids. But my fave costs-next-to-nothing. Start early with a hike around Settler's Park's redrock formations -- bring your own al fresco happy hour. Then warm up by buying yourself and your woman a couple of $7 noodle bowls and sidling up to a table inside the tiny Chinese-street-food-inspired Zoe Ma Ma's (2010 10th St.; zoemama.com). After eating, stroll the walking mall toward the Laughing Goat (1709 Pearl St.; thelaughinggoat.com), where there's free live music every night. This weekend, you may be able to score a two-top close to the action (plan for a $5 tip if you want a good, close-up seat; less if you sit near the street-side windows). The best of this weekend's lineup: Dreamy guitar and vocals from Cowgirl Radio starting Friday at 9 p.m.

Kristy Holland writes about dating once a week for the Colorado Daily. Tell her about your date-night ideas at boulderdatenight@gmail.com.