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Valentine's Day: Thoughts on restaurant dining

Like most self-absorbed smug schmucks who consider themselves experienced eaters and restaurant-goers, I tend to turn up my nose at the excitement around Valentine's Day dining. The idea of feeling obligated to go to a restaurant on a specific night, along with all of those amateurs who clearly don't eat out very often, isn't very appealing. Add prix fixe menus, set seatings, and the pressures to have a “special” evening, and all I see is a stress-inducing night, one which keeps me safely behind my computer screen, hurling stones at those barbarians who decide to venture out and visit a restaurant.

Oh, and on top of that, it's always been my understanding that this night absolutely sucks for staff, and the restaurant basically phones it in, not trying to please one bit.  But is that really the case?

I figured some insight from people actually in the industry that I tend to blather on about might be helpful if I'm going to continue with this baseless theory. So, I asked a few owners and chefs what they think about Valentine's day dining. How they approach it at their restaurant. If they hate it like I assume they do. And I received some interesting feedback.

Valentine's day offers, as you might expect, a financial shot in the arm for restaurants. Bryan Gregg, Executive Chef/owner of Escape Montclair, in Montclair, said that Valentine's Day is typically “one of the best days of the year for restaurants.” Kevin Portscher, Chef/Owner of Rigdewood's Village Green concurs, noting that it is a “welcomed push after January, which is notoriously slow.”

Yeah but what about the food? My impression has always been that restaurants dumb down their menu for holidays like Valentine's Day. Well, this certainly can be the case. “I have heard plenty of horror stories about 3 course dinners of Caesar salad and penne pasta for $75 per person at fine dining restaurants,” said Portscher.

Avoiding overpriced crappy food is a hobby of mine, which is why I don't consider venturing out on V-day. But the places that I like would stoop to that level? That lowest common denominator appeal-to-the-masses money-grab nonsense? “Au contraire,” I believe is the appropriate response, in French.

If you're a regular, you might very well find that dining at your favorite spot on V-day might offer the opportunity to experience the restaurant in a different way. Portscher tells me that “doing a special menu on the holidays gives [the regulars] a chance to come try something special.” Who could have a problem with something special?

Christine Nunn, Executive Chef of Grange in Westwood, sees Valentine's Day as a opportunity to get a bit whimsical with her menu. “I get to do a very sexy hot menu. Apps are foreplay. Dinner is, well you can guess. And dessert is the afterglow.” Nunn added, “It's fun to cook for almost all couples on Valentine's Day. It's fun to do food that can be shared or that screams passion.” Hey, you had me at “sexy hot.”

Certainly a day like Valentine's day comes with special challenges for a restaurant.  In order to mitigate service issues due to the additional covers, extra staff often has to be put on. Dining rooms need to be reconfigured for more 2 tops. Menus have to be carefully thought out. “It's almost always a prix fixe so you have to over prep everything because you just never know what's going to sell, and you can't sell out of anything,” said Nunn.

A common theme in the feedback from these chefs was the diners' expectations, and how these chefs don't want to let anyone down. “I want customers to feel like they had an experience,” said Gregg. Nunn notes, “I always cooked with the assumption that going out to dinner is a treat and perhaps a financial strain. I think it even more on Valentine's day. So the last thing you want is someone disappointed.”

My takeaway? With folks like these looking out for your experience, perhaps going out on Valentine's Day isn't as horrible a proposition as I had thought, if you're dining at this level. It sounds like it might actually be a “good thing.”

So rather than sitting up here, looking down my nose, telling you to not go out on Valentine's day, I will say, if you're not going to go out to a restaurant this month unless it's February 14, by all means get out there and enjoy what our better restaurants have to offer. And I promise I won't make fun of you.

I have to admit that I've almost convinced myself. But you'll still very likely find me making dinner at home.

Village Green Restaurant : 36 Prospect Street : Ridgewood, NJ : 201.445.2914

Grange : 31 Westwood Ave : Westwood, NJ : 201.497.3788

Escape Montclair : 345 Bloomfield Ave : Montclair, NJ : 973.744.0712