Valentine’s Day is one of the biggest days of the year for restaurants. Even if the weather says, “binge-watch 'Great British Baking Show'” and the calendar says, “Wait, it’s Thursday,” restaurant owners can count on a dining room packed with lovers trying to impress their dates. But once you hear chefs’ honest opinions about the night, Netflix starts to sound romantic.
“Behind the scenes, there are definitely a few reasons to avoid it,” says Michelin-starred chef Ben Roche, who worked at the top-rated restaurants Moto and Charlie Trotter’s in Chicago and is now director of product development at JUST, Inc.
On Valentine’s Day, restaurants can jack up the prices, downsize the portions and serve inferior ingredients. “Some people will pay whatever amount to impress their date. Restaurants might take advantage of that,” says chef Jen Johnson, who worked for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and is now the co-founder of Sebastopol, CA-based Hip Chick Farms and The Kitchen.
Call it surge pricing. It’s a night when lower-value foods can command higher prices. “Instead of serving a filet they’ll use a flat-iron steak, or instead of sea bass or Dover sole they might use something like salmon,” says chef Lance Corralez, whose career spans 30 years and includes stints in southern California restaurants Barbarella Bar, Smitty’s Grill, Bex Grill and The Abbey Food & Bar.
It's not romantic
Forget about intimacy. In a loud, crowded restaurant it’s tough to find the romantic ambiance you’re after. “It can overwhelm the kitchen and the front-of-the-house team when that many people hit the restaurant all at once, so it can be hard to get great service,” Roche says. “They might not be putting as much care into your plate as they would on a slower night.” And you might be waiting around between courses, because the kitchen can get behind in preparing so many meals.
On Valentine’s Day restaurants are filled with “deuces” — tables for two. “Deuces clog up the pipes,” Johnson says. Why? Servers do everything once per table — explain the specials, take the orders, bring out the food, etc. That means they’re doing nearly four times the work for four deuces, compared to one eight-top.
On the flip side, you might feel rushed. “If a restaurant seats 100 people, they expect 400 reservations and they open at 5, they have to turn those tables pretty quickly,” Corralez says.
It’s out of your control
“There’s pressure to do something very special, and if the meal experience isn’t everything you thought it would be you can feel as though it’s your fault. That’s not a good feeling,” Roche says.
What’s a lover to do?
“Making dinner at home is a really strong option,” Roche says. And who says you have to celebrate on the 14th? He recommends making reservations for the weekend before or after Valentine’s Day. Corralez agrees, and would push the date even earlier or later in the month. “Every day is Valentine’s Day when you love someone,” he points out.