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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.