Valentine’s Day is yet again upon us. In the restaurant industry, this is the big night. I can tell you after 10 years in the restaurant business that after the new year, things really slow down for the food world. Owners look forward to the craziness that Cupid’s Day brings to help their bottom line and get them through the winter until the spring season truly kicks in.
In the first week of January, owners and chefs begin the planning. The menus are organized to fit the demand of the night. Meetings are held with the staff early on to go over how it all will work. The machine runs at a different speed on Valentine’s Day, with a focus on turnover. Regular menus are often set aside and replaced by hopeful and efficient prix-fixe or tasting menus with wine-pairing suggestions, forcing diners to adhere to what is on offer, streamlining the evening. Sometimes the wine list is nowhere to be found on the big night. If a restaurant takes reservations, these usually begin just after Christmas of the previous year, so owners can get a sense of how crazy the night will be. And often only two tops are offered — that’s restaurant for tables of two. Large anti-Cupid groups of four and above be damned, for they will linger and get too drunk to move on.
If this all sounds like madness — it is. It’s a kind of organized chaos. And when the night arrives and the rush begins, you can only hope it all goes smoothly. It never does, but as long as you can hide it from the customer, all is well.
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The next day, the owners pour over the numbers from the previous night and cry tears of joy as they pay bills and get the wine orders ready for spring. Chefs begin to plan their seasonal menus. I have danced this dance for over a decade and among the madness there is an excitement and sense of challenge that comes over us restaurant folk that keeps us going.
But, for you the customer, there is a different kind of stress. We all lead busy lives and not all of us are on top of early planing. I would see this when monitoring the reservations for Valentine’s Day. In December, they would dribble in by the diligent few. Toward the end of January, tables would fill at a more rapid pace, and by the first week of February, everything would be completely full. Then there would be the staff and managers fielding phone calls from desperate lovers trying to find a romantic dinner somewhere, anywhere, and begging to be called if a cancellation is made. Even more stressful is getting to the joint on time, with hostesses holding tables for only a certain amount of time before giving away your table to walk-ins.
2017 will be the first in 13 years that I don’t own a business (retail or hospitality). It was a good run and I had a blast duking it out in the city that never sleeps, but it was time to throw in the towel and move on. It was tough at first being away for the daily grind, but as Valentine’s Day approaches I am feeling a sense of calm. You can bet this former restaurant owner will not be going out with his wife on the town for this year. This is not to say that dining out on Valentine’s Day isn’t fun or exciting, but if you are someone who dreads the planning and organization of such events, then walk with me among the romantic alternatives.
Wine and romance go hand in hand on Feb. 14 or otherwise. If the thought of planning a night out induces stress, consider this: If wine and romance go hand in hand, then whatever you come up with on this night of lovers will be memorable, as long as you add a bottle or two to the mix. In most cases, it’ll be even more so than a table at a dizzying and loud restaurant. When you are in control of the evening, it’s so much easier to fall in love again.
Remember when you first moved in together? Did you do the classic Chinese takeout because you hadn’t unpacked everything yet? Do it again! Order in some Chinese takeout, splurge on a nice bottle to pair with the often-spicy-salty fare, and have a picnic on the floor of your living room, gazing into each other’s eyes in front of the fireplace… or radiator. I suggest a nice bottle of off-dry herbaceous Gewurztraminer from Alsace with just the right amount of sweetness to curb the heat, or an affordable bubbly like Cremant de Bourgogne, with its round fruit-forwardness and slight lifting acidity from the bubbles.
You can even emulate one of the most romantic scenes in film history, “Lady and the Tramp”-style, by making the simplest of Italian-American meals, spaghetti and meatballs, while cuing up “Bella Notte” on the Spotify. Light some candles, go to the party store and get a cheap red-and-white-checkered table cloth, and on your way home grab a bottle of medium-bodied Chianti. The soft bittersweet cherry notes and hints of tea and violets mingling with a bright acidity to pronounce the aromas will pair perfectly with the meatballs and tomato sauce. Share it on one big platter and make sure you have plenty of napkins for that star-crossed strand of spaghetti sealed with a kiss.