My husband Dan is not what you would call a romantic. On one of our first Valentine’s Days together, when I had my first foolish glimmer of hope that I would receive an engagement ring, I got a cast iron frying pan instead.
Last February, I was working in an office full of cubicles and women. I knew that one by one my coworkers would retrieve their bouquets at the reception desk and if I didn’t get one I would feel terrible.
Several weeks in advance, I put my foot down about this goofy holiday. “You must send flowers to my office on Valentine’s Day,” I told Dan. “If you don’t, I will be humiliated and I will be angry.” He acquiesced. Flowers were ordered and delivered to my desk. I was spared embarrassment and we didn’t have to fight.
It was the second time in our decade together I made such a request for a traditional trapping of Valentine’s Day. The flowers didn’t make it the most romantic day on record, but it was a great deal better than the year I made a different demand: An 8 pm dinner reservation on February 14th at our very favorite restaurant.
This was back in 2006, and the restaurant in question was geared toward food-obsessed restaurant habitués. It was locally famous for serving offal when the nose-to-tail trend was still nascent. Some of our favorite dishes there included fried pig’s trotter and roasted bone marrow served in a long, split bone.
As I looked forward to our date, I imagined a fairly typical visit to this beloved place. Maybe the specials would be extra-adventurous or feature unusual luxury ingredients. Maybe it would be a little crowded or a bit more expensive. But for the most part, I figured I could count on a good time and a great meal representative of our previous visits.
I didn’t realize then what all seasoned restaurant lovers eventually learn: Your favorite restaurant just isn’t itself on Valentine’s Day. This is a day when everyone else goes out to eat. Even chef-driven restaurants are packed full of people who just aren’t that into food. The chefs and restaurateurs know this. I talked to a friend of mine who has cooked in some of New York’s best known fancy restaurants, and his plans for this year are exactly like mine. He’s staying home with his wife.
“It seems like every dive bar, coffee shop, and CVS has a prix fixe Valentine’s menu,” he complained when I asked about restaurants and Valentine’s Day. “The randomness as far as the day of the week is a pain in the kitchen because it’s going to be like a busy Saturday night no matter what day it is.” He also pointed out that many restaurants overreach, adding “fancy” ingredients to their menu to justify the inflated prices when the cooks may not have much experience cooking with those things.
When I looked at the prix fixe menu on that doomed Valentine’s Day, I thought I was in the wrong restaurant. The couple next to us seemed excited by the prospect of a first-course butternut squash soup, but I thought it was boring. The main course was a very simple seared scallop—which arrived at our table overcooked in spite of the fact that the cooking here was precise at all other times. Dessert has faded into the fog of my memory but it was probably vanilla ice cream, or it could have been a molten chocolate cake. Overall, the cast iron frying pan I had received years before was less disappointing. We vowed that night to never go to a restaurant on Valentine’s Day again. It was too heartbreaking.
In the years since, I’ve learned that cooking for your date is infinitely more romantic. Last year, I made meatballs and spaghetti, thinking of the classic scene from Lady and the Tramp. The year before that, I made a spicy Thai salad with fresh herbs and beef. In 2010, Dan made me a heart shaped pizza with all my favorite toppings. Each of these meals was more memorable than some holiday prix fixe. Next week we’ll be cooking grass fed steaks with blue cheese butter, wild rice, and butterscotch pudding.
It’s not too late to cancel your reservation if you have one. You don’t need to be a great cook to make a romantic meal at home. Try Michael Ruhlman’s easy roast chicken for two recipe—the third step of his method involves having sex with your date while the chicken is in the oven. Or do as my chef friend suggests and buy some upscale ingredient you don’t normally cook at home, like steak, oysters, lobster, or scallops.
The completely unambitious can call in some Valentine’s unfriendly delivery, loaded with spices, garlic, or messy sauces. Think: Indian, Thai, Mexican, barbecue. These places won’t be so busy, and if you and your date are eating the same thing, at home, spills and strong flavors aren’t a big deal. (Plus your toothbrush is handy.) Even a spread of baguette, nice cheese, and premade dips or salad is celebratory if a bottle of champagne is also uncorked.
Trust me—it’s a relief to take this fraught holiday less seriously and make it more fun with great food. It robs the Hallmark cupid of its evil power and gives you the chance to make the day your own. We can all go back to our favorite restaurants the minute the cloud of rose petals clears.