Jacob Gemmell got ghosted last Valentine’s Day.
But it wasn’t his girlfriend, Ammiel Mendoza, who disappeared: Gemmell says it was the couple’s server at Dirty Habit, a trendy, noirish restaurant inside Hotel Monaco in the District. The couple were sitting in a quiet room dining on a $75 prix-fixe menu. Though they enjoyed the food, calling it “delicious,” their waiter was nowhere to be found.
“They were probably ghosting everyone,” Gemmell says. “There were just too many patrons and not enough staff.”
That pretty much sums up the problem with dining out anywhere — no matter the location or budget — on Valentine’s Day. Ask diners about their experiences on the holiday, and the answers range from overcrowding to expensive prix-fixe meals that were so bad they ensured that the next year’s would be a McDonald’s dinner at home.
A sampling of complaints from Washington Post readers about various restaurants:
“The tables were on top of each other.”
“The food was atrocious.”
“We could not get our, or any waiter’s, attention.”
“Our food never came.”
The issues start before most diners even set foot in the establishment: Seventy-one percent of Americans planned to dine out for the holiday, according to a 2017 OpenTable survey, making reservations hard to come by. Then, once diners score a table somewhere nice, they typically have to invest in a prix-fixe menu. If they don’t and are given menu options, they are still more inclined to splurge, because it’s a special occasion. Expectations balloon along with price tags.
But customers are rarely blown away. Packed, noisy dining rooms; tables for four split into two-tops; overworked servers and cooks — these are all factors that, more often than not, result in disappointment. Take it from celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay: “Valentine’s Day is the worst day of the year to go out,” he told Town & Country magazine last year. “Busy kitchens with tons of diners means you don’t get the true feeling of the restaurant.”
Restaurant staff, from chefs down to servers, typically agree. They frequently deride Cupid’s calendar cameo as “amateur night” — a time when people who don’t dine out often show up expecting to have the most memorable meal of the year.
Bar Pilar chef Jesse Miller takes the umbrage one step further: He calls Feb. 14 “the most overrated day in dining.” That’s why Pilar offers an annual “anti-Valentine’s Day” menu with offal dishes, bitter cocktails, heavy music and “just treating everyone like it’s a normal” day, he says, “because it really should be.” Some couples go every year because they’re in on the joke, while others just show up because of the date and are unaware of the “celebration.”
Bar Pilar is a rare exception. Most restaurants play into the expectations and try to sell a night of romance and fine dining, whether it’s four courses of “truffle-forward” dishes at Flight Wine Bar ($80 for two); “aphrodisiac” Japanese small plates at Zentan ($12-$15 each); or a Co Co. Sala prix-fixe selection where every course includes chocolate ($75). (Even Ramsay’s London restaurant empire offers specials for that holiday — including “sumptuous dishes, divine desserts and a cheeky cocktail or two.”)
Other restaurants may not go crazy with special menus, but they still make an effort: Cedric Maupillier, the chef and owner of the French-accented restaurants Convivial and Mintwood Place, says Convivial sees a higher-than-usual number of first-time diners on Valentine’s Day. “People use a special occasion to try a special restaurant,” he says.
So he pulls out all the stops to make a good first impression: Tables are covered with white tablecloths, more shareable items go on the menu, and the kitchen hums nonstop. A month before Valentine’s Day this year, all of the reservation slots between 6 and 9 p.m. were booked.
But there’s little that chefs such as Maupillier can do about the decibel level. A full restaurant means more people talking, which leads to more people trying to be heard over the din, and the next thing you know, you’re forced to eavesdrop on your neighbors’ conversation. That’s why, Maupillier admits, the night “is not for everybody. Some people prefer a quieter ambiance for a romantic evening.”
That can be hard to land on one of the busiest nights of the year, although some restaurants win praise for being themselves. The romantic Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown offers its usual menu with a few nightly specials, while Centrolina treats it as “business as usual.” And if you’re going to spend more than normal, you might as well visit a high-end restaurant known for its ambiance and quality of service year-round, such as Marcel’s or Sfoglina.
“I’m not going to sit here and say that some chefs and restaurants don’t do a good job,” Miller says. “They know you’re willing to drop a couple of extra bucks on this day so you don’t have to sleep on the couch that night. Can’t blame them for it.”
Of course, there’s no rule that a couple have to celebrate their love on Feb. 14. It’s probably easier to get reservations and a babysitter on the 13th or 15th — a fact that restaurants are beginning to acknowledge. All Clyde’s locations and their sister restaurant, 1789, for example, are offering all bottles of wine for half-price on the 13th.
Those who still feel the need to mark the classic “Hallmark holiday” might just want to get creative. Although Gemmell and Mendoza have been together since 2013, last year was the first time they tried dinner out — and probably the last.
“I’m not ruling out going out on Valentine’s Day completely, though,” he says. “I bet nobody goes out for Valentine’s Day breakfast.”