If you listen to the food writers of America, taking your partner out for Valentine’s Day is an experience that falls somewhere between the Fyre Festival and a non-anesthetized root canal.
On Valentine’s Day, diners might be “swooning over chocolate fondue in some red-tinted hellhole,” eating ” idiotic little gimmick dishes that somehow are supposed to convey love.” They’re definitely “making a huge mistake,” because Valentine’s Day is “turn-and-burn night,” “depressing,” “a nightmare for everyone involved in the restaurant business,” “a risky proposition” and “the worst dining night of the entire year,” one that “makes even the most hardened cooks want to kill someone.”
“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 [sic], be my guest: The rest of us will be looking down from our apartments, sneering,” wrote Food52.
It has somehow become a mark of sophistication for those who consider dining out a hobby — and the restaurant professionals who prepare and serve their food — snub their nose at people who celebrate Valentine’s Day. It has a name: “Amateur Night.”
“It’s not the usual guests on Valentine’s Day,” one industry veteran told Los Angeles Magazine. “It’s usually a completely different demographic. These are people that go out once or twice a year, and are maybe not as seasoned a group of diners.” He didn’t explain what he meant by “completely different demographic,” but it’s hard to conjure up a charitable interpretation of those words. Is the demographic people who can’t afford to eat out regularly, but have saved up for this one special night? People who don’t have exquisite, cosmopolitan taste?
I say, knock it off. Stop condescendingly referring to people trying to have a nice, romantic dinner as “amateurs.” Most people don’t have the good fortune of being able to eat out in restaurants all the time, and that seems to be something that people in the hospitality industry — and the media scrum that surrounds it — forget.
It is cynical to look down on people who want to celebrate Valentine’s Day — a Hallmark holiday, we know, we know — on the actual day, even though it is much easier to get a reservation the day before or after. It is cynical to mock them for wanting to splurge on stereotypical romantic meals with caviar and truffles. It is cynical to chuckle that they are not as cultured as more “seasoned” regulars, who would never order an extremely uncool white zinfandel.
Maybe some people — rich people, or people who grew up in big cities, I’m guessing — are born professional diners. But everyone else started out as amateurs at some point. And it’s not like you really need specialized knowledge to eat some lobster pasta and drink a glass of champagne for a special occasion at a restaurant! All you need to know are the basic rules of etiquette. Many people who eat out all the time could use a refresher on those, frankly.
I understand that the economics of Valentine’s Day can be tough for restaurants. The kitchen gets incredibly hectic between 6 and 9 p.m. Cooks are often making a special prix-fixe menu that they aren’t used to, so mistakes happen and the staff is tense. Some restaurants bring in extra tables, which makes it harder for servers. Tables for two are less profitable than tables for four. And when Valentine’s Day falls on a Friday or Saturday, the restaurant might lose money even if it’s packed full, because the turnover — the amount of time people linger at their tables — is slower.
But when Valentine’s Day falls on a weekday, as it does this year, it can actually be a boost for a restaurant on an otherwise slow night during an otherwise slow time of year, so the “amateur” talk is really biting the hand that feeds. Many restaurants raise prices on Valentine’s Day, and people order expensive bottles of wine, so the average check in many restaurants will be higher than your typical Wednesday, which benefits servers. I’ve heard reports that servers say the “amateurs” tip less, and I’m sympathetic. (If you’re going out on Valentine’s Day, I shouldn’t have to say it — tip your server well, people!) But other servers say they make bank. Yes, they have to work extra hard — for one night. Every job has tough days, and it’s okay to complain — privately — about stress at work. But to scorn your customers for coming to your restaurant and spending more money than they usually would seems awfully self-defeating.
And that Valentine’s Day meal might mean everything to some amateur, who deserves the same chance at having a great date as someone who comes on a regular night. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the National Retail Federation, 33 percent of adults making less than $50,000 a year planned to celebrate the day with an evening out — only seven percentage points less than those making more than that amount. The age group most likely to go out are 18- to 24-year-olds. Maybe they’ve been saving up for a chance to eat at the restaurant those seasoned diners consider to be a weekday kind of place. Maybe Valentine’s Day is the day young parents can justify the extra expense of a babysitter.
I’m not here to tell you that everyone should go out on Valentine’s Day. Admittedly: My husband and I don’t go out that night, either. Mostly because we prefer our splurges to be on vacations, and we are content to sit on the couch with our dogs and watch movies. Some of our best Valentine’s Days have been the time we went to a very good play (that I was writing about, for work), and the time that we went to Whole Foods and bought some ingredients for an epic meal, and the cashier couldn’t figure out how to scan our escargot, so she gave them to us free. Romance!
Valentine’s Day can be expensive, and noisy and rushed — restaurants have to turn those tables. But if you know all of this coming into it and you still want to take your loved one out for a romantic meal, you should! Of course, be a considerate diner: Don’t be late, which can throw off a restaurant’s entire schedule for the night. Don’t badger your server with a million special requests. Know that the restaurant will be busy and possibly loud, that not everyone can have the best table in the room, and set your expectations accordingly. And — I’ll say it again! — tip well.
But if you choose to dine out on Feb. 14, no one should make you feel bad about your lack of experience as a diner. Because here’s the thing: Dining out more frequently doesn’t make a person more interesting or better than anyone else. It just means they go out to eat a lot. If you are a frequent diner who stays home on Valentine’s Day, it doesn’t mean you’re more enlightened or experienced. It just means you’re doing what works for you.
I remember being a gangly teen who was so excited to go out for my first Valentine’s Day date at an Italian restaurant with my first-ever boyfriend. I was the very definition of an amateur diner. I don’t remember what we had — probably the least expensive and most pedestrian pasta on the menu. We might have been the cheapest two-top of the night. I bet the server who discovered one of his tables was a pair of 16-year-olds too young to order a pricey bottle of wine probably rolled his eyes.
If I had known it then, I would have burned with embarrassment. Instead, I had a lovely night. I hope other amateurs will get the same chance.
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