Valentine's Day

How a Depressing Restaurant Became My Valentine's Day Tradition

February  9, 2016

It is generally understood that only suckers venture out on Valentine’s Day. If you want to feel the cold blast of true scorn, try going on a New York restaurant forum and innocently asking where to take your sweetheart on February 14th: Reaction will be swift and unsparing. By all means, goes the common wisdom, surround yourself with yahoos and eat an overpriced pre-fixe, be my guest: The rest of us will be looking down from our apartments, sneering.

Valentine’s Day may be a dining amateur night, but for people-watchers, it’s the Super Bowl—or at least the Puppy Bowl. New couples! Old couples! Couples who hate each other! And all festooned with balloons? What’s not to like! I look forward to this bonanza every year, and to me, it’s well worth overpaying for a scrap of mediocre prime rib and a lurid cocktail.

Not a mediocre prime rib. Photo by Mark Weinberg

So when I started dating my now-husband, and our first Valentine’s Day rolled around, I knew we’d go out. Due to a combination of factors—non-American girlfriends, bachelorhood, a lack of family tradition, etc.—he had never celebrated this institution. Indeed, he’d subscribed to the usual bromides: cliché, commercial, unpleasant. Let’s get a bottle of Champagne, he said. Let’s get some caviar, he said. I laughed at these suggestions. Haha!

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It’s true, not everyone shares my view of such things. In general, some of my friends think it’s unsafe to let me choose restaurants; I tend to go for age over beauty, and patina over cuisine. But I was sure I could get it right this time—and maybe manage to share something important to me in the bargain.

I’ll handle this, I said. And accordingly, I plotted my strategy with care: We would need to venture out to a densely populated area but avoid a restaurant that was so overrun that the servers were exhausted and furious. I studied menus online with the intensity of a frivolous Simone Weil: While we didn’t want to be forced into some six-course charade, I wanted concessions made to the holiday, even grudging ones. I also didn’t want to be bullied into large hunks of frozen lobster tail or pre-shucked oysters—active illness was not the point. Oh, and we’d also have to be able to get a reservation on short notice. Plus, the place had to have character.

Photo by Alpha Smoot

Ultimately, I narrowed our choices down to two: a moldering, geriatric Italian restaurant extremely far from our apartment, and a moldering, geriatric French restaurant several blocks from the Italian one. Both, at the best of times, were like something out of an early David Lynch, so I figured Valentine’s Day would be even better—plus, they could probably use the business. French being the language of romance, I opted for the latter.

The night of Valentine’s Day, we both dressed with care. After a celebratory glass of Champagne, I affixed a small cupid to my lapel and we set out. The streets were crowded with couples in various states of resignation.

The owner greeted us with what I can only describe as irritation. The restaurant was… sparsely populated. Even so, we were led to a terrible table directly next to the kitchen. There was a decrepit mylar balloon tied to the back of my boyfriend’s chair. The place smelled of old brown sauce with base notes of bad drains and mouse. A waiter sullenly proffered cheap Champagne. Edith Piaf was moaning lugubriously. I can only describe my boyfriend’s demeanor at this time as “game.”

We toasted gaily. “It will get really fun,” I assured him.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

For those of us who love depressing old restaurants, there’s a complicated sense of protectiveness to these moments. If someone doesn’t feel the essential magic of history and experience, you can’t communicate it—and it can be tricky to explain that the depressingness can be tied up inextricably with that magic. This is very different from liking something ironically; it’s fiercer and depends not on bringing old things into your own context, but in giving yourself over to something: rewarding it for existing, I guess.

After returning a dirty fork, we attacked a notably tough artichoke and surveyed our fellow diners. The inspection did not take long. There was one elderly couple sitting in complete silence; I could not help thinking the best table was wasted on them. There was a single gentleman eating a steak. “His wife just died,” the waiter explained loudly.

Photo by Alpha Smoot

Perhaps saddest of all, was a pair of teenagers—college freshmen at the oldest—very dressed up and looking mortified. I had the terrible image of the boy looking up “romantic French restaurant” and buying his date flowers (she had flowers) and then showing up here, and ending up between the widower and the silent couple. And they were too young to drink wine.

I must admit, even my spirits were flagging slightly when a very jolly gay couple came in. They were down from Buffalo; they had just seen Pippin; their zest for life was infectious. “We come here every year!” they said.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

Our squab arrived, and a very dubious green purée. “Don't eat that,” I warned after taking an experimental forkful. The young couple, blessedly, left.

It was around this time that the waiter managed to hit a picture on the wall with an errant Champagne cork. “I don’t even care anymore,” he said in French, to no one in particular.

We ordered pêche Melba. I was starting to feel uneasy. I had promised my boyfriend the bizarre, not the grotesque. I had one of those awful early-days moments of imagining a montage of hypothetical better dates: glamorous fashionistas at fabulous parties, relaxed guys’ girls swigging beer, sophisticated Europeans who marveled at Americans’ cheesy consumerism. “I’m sorry,” I muttered. “This is kind of depressing.”

He took my hand. “It’s exactly what I wanted,” he said.

Needless to say, it has become our tradition; this year will be our first married Valentine’s Day.

Photo by Alpha Smoot

To make the recipes featured in this story:

Tell us your thoroughly mediocre—yet close-to-your-heart—Valentine's Day tradition in the comments below.

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21 Comments

Tracy W. February 11, 2016
We got married on Valentine's Day and I told the restaurant that we would be newlyweds when I made our reservation. They made a special note and they brought us an extra special dessert and complimentary bubbly. We went back to that restaurant for a few years, and then they started pushing their Valentine's Special, as did it seemed Every Other Restaurant in Town! Mediocre food with a fancy name, and the waitstaff would hover over the table trying to get us out so they could turn the tables one more time. <br /><br />I would rather eat pizza than a "special Valentine's meal". and I'm not a fan of pizza these days. Seriously - the poorly prepared special just takes all the fun out of it. And worse - it seems that the "special" is spreading to the weekend before and after V-Day, so it's a good thing that I'm an excellent cook - I can stay home and make seared scallops and broiled lobster for pennies :) and they are delish and the service is supreme!
 
mrathmel February 11, 2016
My husband and I always went to dinner with another couple for Valentine's Day. Then, they divorced. The first year after their divorce, we asked another couple to join us. We chose an established restaurant very popular in the Kansas City area. What a disaster. The service was abysmal, the food terrible and the atmosphere was cold. We had a blast!! To this day we toast fondly to our foursome's first Valentine's Day and recall that at least the wine was good. This year the four of us are meeting for an intimate dinner party. The Champagne is ready to go.
 
cosmiccook February 10, 2016
I have to agree with PG Tipsy. That said I remember a Valentine Day that occurred during Mardi Gras (NOLA). There were about dozen of us --all close friends at the time and starving after a daytime parade watching. We went to one of our favorite, and in my opinion, the best Mexican restaurant New Orleans has had to date (now defunct). The Bean Pot was run by an incredible cook and GROUCH and his daughter. We were the only ones in there; His daughter took our orders for food and drink. About 12 minutes the old man comes out shouting in Spanish "GET OUT, GET OUT. He'd decided he just didn't want to cook for us. His daughter was mortified; they argued--we were stunned as we knew them both. No one had said anything to upset him but we just left.
 
PG T. February 10, 2016
While I find fascination with depressing old restaurants interesting, the keenness of your interest is in your fellow diners seems slightly mean-spirited to me.<br />I know you're not being awful, but still - these people are not putting on a show for your amusement.<br />My neighbors once mentioned how their family, kids included, played this eavesdrop/*I Spy* game with surrounding strangers when on vacation and I was turned off. I've grown to love my neighbors, but I also accept that they are a little smug.<br />It's really hard to find, but sometimes, a couple so enjoys each others company that they're really not paying attention to what everybody's doing at the next table. <br />Rare, but it can happen.<br />Sometimes the ideal does happen.<br />For some of those not so lucky, I guess this depressing little game will have to suffice.<br /><br /><br />
 
dave B. February 10, 2016
I chose a great deep dish pizza place years ago for a person I no longer speak to and was over-ruled. We had to go for some snazzy modern cuisine at a rainbow flag flying place. The food was tasty and service surely passable but the dramatic break up over dessert will never be forgotten. If we'd done pizza at least there would've been leftovers. C'est la vie!
 
meg February 10, 2016
Swell guy you've got.<br />One year I did not have a guy and my friend Bruce took me to China town.<br />He was right, no one was there and the food was great. Why china town, I asked him. All the violin places (French, Italian, Continental) will be full he told me. What a smart cookie.
 
Amanda S. February 10, 2016
Cheering!
 
Joan February 10, 2016
I have always loved Valentine's Day and I get quite goosey about it.<br />I believe it is for everyone not just couples and have always tried to share the love. After 30 some years in the food industry, 3 gourmet delis, 3 restaurants,(Romantic Italian), hundreds of employees, cooking school, cooking classes, three kids and 1 husband. I have had my share of providing special events for all ages and combinations of people. I continue to be thrilled with the opportunity to share my love for fun & yum with all. Thank you for the cute story and Happy Valentine's Day!
 
Lisa E. February 10, 2016
" I don't even care anymore" best Valentine line. ever.
 
Kenzi W. February 10, 2016
One of my favorite lines of the piece!
 
I_Fortuna February 10, 2016
Maybe you will go there when you are a geriatric couple. Things are even more meaningful then.
 
Louis C. February 10, 2016
Wonderful read. So the old gent's wife "just died" right there in the restaurant? Might explain the top notes of mouse you were picking up. Wonder if her last words were "Honey don't worry about me, finish your steak".
 
Sara M. February 10, 2016
My husband and I are both former restaurant folks, so if we do venture out on a high-traffic night we do so knowing what we are in for. In general, we hit up the local market for romantic finger food (is that a thing?) such as fresh shrimp, cheeses, and fruits and pull a Pretty Woman with a picnic on the living room floor and a cheesy movie. <br /><br />Thanks for this article!
 
EL February 10, 2016
Thank you so much for this article!
 
SE February 10, 2016
This was priceless!
 
D.C. February 10, 2016
we began our valentines tradition (or any high volume people nite) with requesting the earliest reservation possible like 5:30PM; the staff is fresh, no shortages, and no waiting in a crowded foyer; one time, the person taking he reservation shared that they only seated at 6pm and 8pm but we were welcome to come in early at 5:30PM (and duly noted it) imagine, being seated by the fireplace, no one else in the place and enjoying the attention and fanfare provided!!!
 
Eleanor C. February 10, 2016
My husband is generally not a romantic but a number of years ago he spotted a Valentine's "special" being offered at a local Italian place and he fell for it. We went expecting something impressive. Yes, there was a complimentary glass of vino (wine or champagne, whatever) and a single flower given to the lady (type of bud, I do not recall). The food I also do not recall in detail. What I ALWAYS will remember about that evening was that the restaurant decided to forgo any actual dinner ware and served everything on paper and plastic. That economy on their part ruined the evening's ambiance completely for me. We never went back. I can laugh about it now though!
 
Jonathan B. February 10, 2016
As a chef, I know all about the amateur nights that people subject themselves to in pursuit of celebration and marking of holidays. Hell, I was born on NYE, so..but Valentine's day is especially excruciating for the diners and for the cooks and servers that attend to them.<br />With my partner of three years, we've decided to do a date night at home, with the addition of my mom, my aunt and my little niece. I cook them all a chicken pot pie and a chocolate chip cookie cake (in the shape of a heart of course)! With sparkling rosé the dinner is both comforting and celebratory, the best of both worlds that is sorely missing when you eat out on this night.
 
cv February 9, 2016
There's a potential way to get the best of both worlds: Rookie Night and Decent Food. Sit at the bar for people watching; when you tire of that, go home/elsewhere (Mexican/Chinese/Indian/etc.) and enjoy a pleasant dinner.<br /><br />But basically, yes, St. Valentine's Day is part of the trinity of Amateur Hour holidays: the other two being New Year's Eve and Mother's Day brunch. I can just imagine what Cheesecake Factory is like those days. Actually, no I cannot.<br /><br />Valentine's Day is like New Year's Eve with a better wardrobe and less puking on public transit.<br /><br />However, even sitting at the bar may not be a complete foil. The drink prices may be jacked up as well. No matter what, the service will likely be worse because the restaurant staff have to molly coddle a bunch of people who NEVER DINE OUT.<br /><br />The bad food isn't an issue if you don't eat it, but poor service cascades throughout the entire evening and affects every single restaurant guest that walks through the door.
 
El B. February 9, 2016
Ha! Loved this article! Husband and I have been married a gazillion years, and one of our first dates was at a really crappy Dairy Queen. He gave me the gold coin ( for a soft serve dessert) like it was a diamond. Now on every hallmark anniversay he takes me to some horrible fast food place...and we love every greasy awful bite. <br />Everything tastes better with love. Cheers!
 
Leslie S. February 9, 2016
Loved this story and your hilarious (but sweet!) tradition, Sadie!