Pack into a tiny table in a massively overcrowded restaurant, pay above-average price for a “special” tasting menu that in reality is below-average in quality, get pressure to purchase the “premium” Champagne and then pressuree to leave once you finish the last bite of some generic chocolate dessert.  To me, that does not signify romance nor love, so why, oh why, do millions of people file into restaurants each year to do this to themselves?  I do not get the appeal, but then again, I worked in restaurant management for a decade.  And trust me people, it looks even worse from my side.

For many restaurants, Valentine’s Day presents an opportunity to generate some much needed revenue.  The holiday season is over and the expensive, open-bar-all-night corporate Christmas parties are a distant memory.  From a management perspective, there is pressure to do big sales and have a smooth night, as there will be numerous new diners that could become regulars.  The P&L for February always looks nicer with a nice, fat sales day smack dab in the middle of the month.  It eases food and labor cost issues and provides a respite from the always depressing January.

For a diner, however, there is usually little reward.  There are two nights per year that most people, especially people who never dine out, feel pressure to make a booking at a nearby restaurant: New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day.  In the restaurant business, we call them Amateur Nights.  After many years of experience, I can spot these people immediately upon entering the restaurant.  The diners seem unsure how to order, are openly nervous when asked about wine or cocktails and never appear comfortable, often sitting in relative silence.  On New Year’s Eve, bookings tend to be for larger groups, so even among restaurant amateurs, individual awkwardness is drowned out by the rowdy crowd.  On Valentine’s Day though, it is just a sea of tables for two.  I personally found it disheartening to see these people, who were spending a fair amount of money on a dinner, appear, at least in their facial expressions, to be having as much fun as taking a trip to the dentist.  “Why do this to yourself” I would think.

Even for the experienced diner, things are not much better.  Restaurants plan far in advance for Valentine’s Day night and not just because of increased business.  Floor plans are specially arranged, to maximize space and the number of tables for two.  Tables for four are replaced by two tables of two.  At one restaurant, we went from twenty seven tables in the dining room normally to thirty five.  This tactic was certainly not meant to make the diners more comfortable.  It allowed us to “push the book” and take more reservations. Special menus are developed as well, often with high priced features or formatted as a lengthy tasting menu.  Most people feel pressure to splurge on Valentine’s Day, so restaurants are more than willing to offer up some options, with feature Champagne or massively expensive cuts of steak for two.  Yet, in the back of the house (or kitchen if you don’t know the slang), chefs and cooks are dealing with many, many new dishes and new tables (along with table numbers) that magically appear for one night only.  And with the pressure on the management to push the book, the kitchen is tasked with cranking out dishes at a blistering speed so that the waitstaff can turn the tables for the next wave of reservations that are patiently waiting in the restaurant lobby.

Obviously, with all of these unique variables, things inevitably go wrong.  People show up late to reservations, a table spends an hour eating their dessert, the kitchen loses a ticket, the host makes a mistake on the seating chart.  It never goes perfectly.  I was lucky to avoid any monumental Valentine disasters, but there were always a few fires to be put out every year.  The biggest headache as a manager was always the no-show reservations.  Despite confirmation calls and emails, there were at least ten no-shows every year.  So, as a restaurant manager, you overbook, assuming that somewhere along the way, a table will open up due to a reservations not showing.  Many restaurants will overbook by 10-20%.  It is a financial necessity in a place where rents and overhead are astronomical.  However, if most of the parties show up and are on time, it means long queues at the host stand and a lengthy waiting period for your reservation.  Not exactly a great start to a so called “romantic” evening.

Overall, nights like Valentine’s Day do not bring out the best in restaurants.  While there are some restaurants that do a stunning job, many more are quite subpar, and aren’t able to get in front of the complexity of the night.  Do you want to do a special night out to celebrate Valentine’s Day?  Did you just start dating someone and want to impress him/her?  Go out on the February 13th or 15th, any day other than the 14th.  When the 14th falls on a weekday, why splurge on a night where you both have to work in the morning?  Wait until the following weekend and do a proper dinner.  There is no need to feel herded into a crowded restaurant and pressured to spend massive money at an average restaurant just because it’s Valentine’s Day.  Or, do like I do, and prepare an elaborate meal at home, pop some good wine bought at retail prices and enjoy the company of your significant other in the warmth of your own home.

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  • February 13, 2015
    Ann

    I loved the behind-the-scene expose, Drew. Well-written, interesting, and a duh! Except I would never had thought it through–until now. Thank you!

    • February 16, 2015

      Every once in a while I have some good advice!

  • February 14, 2015
    George

    Been there; done that. Couldn’t agree more. Took Tami out on Thurs. Tonight a nice dinner at home. Good advice, Drew!

    • February 16, 2015

      good idea George. You can go to a good restaurant, not fight for a reservation and relax