There are two nights of the year you should never go out for dinner: Valentines Day and Mother’s Day. The problem with going out on Valentine’s day is not just that the restaurant will be super busy, it’s that Valentine’s is the one day of the year that people who never go out feel they have to go out.
Any other day of the year, the restaurant will be populated with people who like to eat out. They will be having fun, having some drinks, trying some new foods. They get it. The Valentine’s crowd are people who would normally stay at home enjoying turkey tetrazzini Thursdays while watching wheel of fortune, but tonight is a special occasion.
To accommodate this crowd, restaurants tend to “dumb it down” on Valentine’s Day. Restaurants famous for lamb kidneys braised with pork blood are suddenly serving boneless chicken breasts. The classic Valentine’s menu item is chicken breast stuffed with something which is then ‘napped’ in some sort of white sauce. I have been known to be so avant garde as to sprinkle some rose petals in the sauce. “So romantic!” Other favourite options are beef tenderloin or some sort of generic salmon dish. Restaurants almost offer a “dessert to share,” because the boy is usually too thrifty to cough up the coin for two desserts. “Oh, we can have dessert at home dear…” As for drinks, restaurants usually bring in some high end bubbly or try to sell some sexy sounding cocktails, but the most popular choice of beverage for Valentine’s Night is “we are fine with just ice water, can we get some lemon wedges?”
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Valentine’s is not a particularly fun holiday. There is so much pressure to be romantic. Diners speak in hushed tones. They hold hands, gaze into each other’s eyes, and wonder what the hell they are going to say to this person who they have had nothing to say to for the past 11 years. If an alien walked into a restaurant on Valentine’s Day, he wouldn’t be sure if he was at a restaurant or a funeral. Restaurants are usually filled with groups of 4, 6 or 8 diners. They laugh, drink, tell stories, banter with the waiter, banter with the people at the next table, you know, have fun. On Valentine’s day, every table is a “deuce,” couples sitting, whispering at each other, no one is having fun.
Your server hates Valentine’s Day, too. He or she has to work, everyone in the restaurant industry has to work on Valentine’s. They have worked every Valentine’s Day for the past seven years. Their partner is back at home watching reruns of friends wondering why they hooked up with a restaurant person. The server knows that it will be busy, but that they will make lousy money. These Valentine’s diners, who only eat out once a year, feel that a 10% tip is an extravagance. “Son, you did a wonderful job of taking care of us this evening, here’s a little extra.” So your server will be polite and professional, but you will know they aren’t happy about it.
The cooks are fine. None of them have boyfriends or girlfriends. They don’t care about Valentine’s Day. They are just going to go out to the late-night spot and get drunk when this is all over. Kind of like any other night. The chef, however, is feeling maudlin. He is into his third double gin. He is wondering why Valentine’s has to be like this every year. “Next year is going to be different!” he barks, a little too loudly. “Next year, I’m just going to do my own thing. If they don’t like it, f___ ‘em!” He jokes, only half joking, that next year he is going to serve veal heart. “I’ll serve it rare and call it Bleeding Heart.” But deep down he knows, next year it will be more boneless chicken breast in a white sauce sprinkled with rose petals.
So if you must go out for dinner on Valentine’s Day, invite another couple to double date. Have fun. Drink. Get silly on bubbly. Order a dozen oysters. Laugh. There is no rule that says romance has to be quiet and love has to be boring. And please, tip your server, he has to pay for his Mexican vacation somehow.
Click here to view and print Chef Alex’s Valentine’s Day talking points
Alexander Svenne is the food writer for Spectator Tribune and chef at Bistro 7 1/4. Follow him at @ChefAlex
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