Scoring a reservation at a buzzy new spot or one of your favorite restaurants may seem like a major Valentine's Day coup, but I have to advise that you proceed with caution. Here's a piece of insider knowledge that those in the restaurant industry might hesitate to tell you: Valentine's Day is the worst possible night of the year to dine out.
The fundamental reason for this? You will almost certainly not get a true taste of what the restaurant has to offer. With a high demand for reservations, many restaurants serve a prix-fixe (a limited, fixed-priced menu) in lieu of the establishment's greatest hits.
This isn't because a prix-fixe menu makes for a better meal, but a prix-fixe menu reduces cost and complication. But there are some significant drawbacks: it can be unfamiliar to both the cooks, the wait staff, inviting more opportunity for mistakes both in the kitchen and in terms of wine pairings and menu choices. If this wasn't enough to convince you, listen to what Gordon Ramsay has to say about Valentine's Day.
"Valentine's day is the worst day of the year to go out. Busy kitchens with tons of diners means you don't get the true feeling of the restaurant," he says. "You should be cooking on Valentine's. What's more romantic than a meal cooked for your partner with a good bottle of wine?"
If you do go to a restaurant, Ramsay suggests you stay on your toes to avoid Valentine's Day traps: "Ask what yesterday's soup du jour was before today's special. It may be the case that it's the soup du month," he quips.
Contributing to the chaos, tables get shuffled around squeezed in to accommodate an increased headcount. You might end up in a subpar location (near the dishwasher or smelly toilet for example) or seated at a wobbly, rented table.
More significantly, the arrangement alters the flow of service. An increased number of tables means more orders for waiters to manage, which spells trouble even for veteran service teams. Add these factors to the pressure of making this one night memorable for the moony-eyed couples, and blunders are bound to happen (this is probably the biggest day of the year for them outside Christmas party season).
Ramsay suggests that if you do go out and order something you or your partner are not too fond of, don't be afraid to let your opinions heard. "You are going out for a special night, so if it's an unsatisfactory experience, take the opportunity to let the staff know... Don't be shy," he says.
A bad restaurant experience is a bad restaurant experience. Don't let staff use the rush of Valentine's Day as an excuse. At the same time though, just don't give them the chance, by making something at home or ordering takeout.
You'll most certainly find it more romantic to stay in and treat each other to a bottle of bubbly, a home cooked meal and or a takeout for two. Throw in a simple but special cheese and a charcuterie plate (something hands-off that keeps the cleanup to a minimum) and you're assured a great time.
Ultimately, the decision to dine out or stay in is up to you, and what feels right to where you are in your relationship. Personally, I wholeheartedly suggest choosing an intimate evening in instead of booking a prime reservation on a less-loaded night. If all else fails, at least the dinner is assured to be great, and the rest of what you do on that day is entirely up to you.