Like a Hallmark e-card, the latest Zagat Valentine’s Day Survey has arrived in our inbox, and 53 percent of couples planning to celebrate the holiday with dinner this year will be doing so in a restaurant. They also expect the total bill to be $142.11. That’s quite an expenditure, given that restaurant insiders themselves acknowledge that dinner out on Valentine’s Day is a risky proposition.
Why? Let’s start with what we all want on Valentine’s Day: We want to feel special, right? We want the restaurant to be like, “You two are awesome! Have a cocktail on us!” But it’s almost impossible for restaurants to coddle when we’re one of scores or even hundreds of couples to show up. The best of the bunch will try their hardest, but Valentine’s Day is the busiest day of the year for reservation-taking restaurants, reports OpenTable.com. “Remember Atari?” asks Brooke Burton, a Los Angeles restaurant consultant and former waitress. “If a typical night is a level 3 or 4, Valentine’s Day is a level 10 — or 11.”
The wait staff is sweating to accommodate. The kitchen is struggling to keep pace. Sure, this happens every night. But it’s especially tricky on Valentine’s Day—when the reservation list is packed with “two tops,” industry-speak for tables of two. As a result, the tables for four or more — usually the most lucrative on any other day — go empty. So, for many restaurants, the heat is on to pack in and turn over as many two tops as possible to make up for the loss. “Basically what’s going through the manager’s mind — besides taking care of the guests — is, ‘How am I going to maximize seating?’” says John Fischer, a former general manager at popular fine-dining spots in New York City, and a current associate professor of hospitality and service management at the Culinary Institute of America.
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Meantime, most customers are oblivious. It’s Valentine’s Day after all! This is the night of all nights to spend some extra time getting gussied up, possibly being a bit late — which will, in turn, mess up the restaurant’s mandate to turn the tables ASAP. But oh well. This is also the night to linger, chat, snuggle, savor that bottle of wine. So much so, we’re probably not noticing the starving couple at the bar, staring (or is it glaring?) at us as we take our sweet time.
January is slow for restaurants and Valentine’s Day is a bright spot, says Steve Dublanica, author of Waiter Rant and Keep the Change, and a former waiter in the New York metro area. And to do that, they need customers to eat quickly, spend a lot, or both. Trouble is, this is also the time of the year when customers are feeling poor. Points out Angeline Close, Ph.D., an assistant professor of advertising and event marketing at University of Texas, Austin, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Valentine’s Day’s so-called market resistance: marketing for the holiday starts around January 9. It hits just when you’re receiving credit card bills for all those presents you bought in December. You’re also getting forms in the mail reminding you of tax time. And yet restaurants are asking us to shell out cash just when we’re feeling we should count our pennies. “Valentine’s Day happens when we’re already emotionally and financially stressed,” says Close.
If you ask psychologists what causes or exacerbates stress, they’ll often say it’s the feeling of not being in control. On Valentine’s Day, both the restaurant and the customer feel they’ve lost much of it. “Some call it amateur night,” says Michael Symon, chef-owner of several popular Cleveland restaurants, including Lola, and co-host and star of several television cooking shows. “At Lola, on a usual night, 65% of the customers are regulars. If we say the lamb is best medium rare, they trust us. But on Valentine’s Day, maybe only 5 or 10% are regulars.” What this comes down to: Instead of the typical two special orders he might get an entire night, he’ll get no less than 50 on Valentine’s Day, whether it’s requests for sauce on the side or a steak well-done instead of medium rare. “We always try to make guests happy, but it does affect the flow,” says Symon. Considering that the kitchen crew is seeing 50 tickets for two people at one time instead of the usual 25 for four, it’s no wonder the kitchen’s a veritable pressure cooker.
Understandably, then, many restaurants (though not Symon’s) institute a prix-fixe menu. Yes, from a financial standpoint, it can guarantee that a table will spend a minimum amount — but it’s also plain efficient. Customers take less time deciding on what to order; and the kitchen isn’t stuck making 30 different entrées. But that also means we’re deprived of the much-raved-about something á la something we’ve been dying to try. To compensate, restaurants make awkward attempts to enliven the menu, creating separate selections for “ladies” and “gentlemen” and serving up sappy-sounding cocktails.
One final note about what people want on Valentine’s Day: sex. But it turns out an alcohol-infused three-course dinner isn’t exactly the best preparation for lovemaking. “If you’re thinking of sex, it’s best to keep it light and avoid fatty foods,” says Marty Klein, author of Sexual Intelligence. And wouldn’t you know it, but the most popular types of restaurants for Valentine’s Day happen to be fondue, Italian and French, according to OpenTable.com. Dessert — which that prix-fixe menu forces us to order — isn’t helpful either.