Servers and savvy diners alike know St. Valentine’s Day is one of the top three rookie events on the Hallmark restaurant calendar.
Along with New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day, a three-course Valentine’s dinner for two is garnished with the kind of expectations and anticipation that can result in more pressure than pleasure. The You-Can’t-Make-This Stuff-Up file is filled with material for a reality show or maybe Judge Judy. Years ago, it was fodder for Jerry Springer (OK, Boomer).
With therapy and family support, my friend Lydia has recently emerged from the dark side of an unexpected breakup. A high-end career bartender and server, she’s on both sides of the table with a new perspective. Chronological maturity aside, the change in her social media relationship status has left her a bit more vulnerable.
“Before Christmas, I started dating a guy who is only in town on weekends,” Lydia said. “Based on my work schedule, we haven’t missed either a Friday or Saturday night since we met so I was surprised when he said he wasn’t available the ‘third weekend in February.’ I thought maybe he was taking his son away on school break.
“But it dawned on me that’s Valentine’s Day weekend this year. Without mentioning it, he let me know in advance that he was avoiding the train wreck long before it was up for consideration. I know it’s dumb, but I was disappointed and had to talk myself out of being hurt. And of all people, I know better.”
During a recent oyster-heavy happy hour at Boone’s, Lydia and I swapped war stories of things we’d seen while on duty during past Valentine’s dinners.
There was a marriage proposal gone bad when the woman excused herself before the Godiva-dipped strawberries were served and left the restaurant without her companion or the considerable bling.
Lydia recalled a year when a couple, who ate regularly at her place of employment, was seated in her section for the Valentine’s Day prix fixe menu. Sitting directly across from them, with a smitten date, was the same man’s regular Saturday lunch partner. The Saturday lunches, she explained, were hand-holding and smooching sessions and Lydia was not surprised when the man left her a $100 tip that screamed hush money.
“Not to insult the dogs,” she said, “but I donated it to the Animal Refuge League.”
Thinking how complicated the human condition is, I brought up the time the service staff was gathered for the Valentine’s Day pre-shift meal presentation and tasting (the “scribble and nibble.”) This nightly session is when the chef will explain the specials, the ingredients, a bit of recipe history and if substitutions other than food allergies will be allowed. Servers and bartenders will take notes to accurately share the intel with guests.
Both seatings were at full capacity and the host was fending off last-minute pleas from desperate callers who had dropped the reservation-making ball. While grateful for the proposition of walking out the door with big bucks, I felt sorry for those who would have to justify their feelings for someone else had little to do with ordering pizza instead of pre-booking a table weeks ago.
As those thoughts were going through my head, the chef chastised the bartender who was making side conversation. Usually charged-up during pre-shift tastings, the chef was especially testy. “Especially tonight, these people need you all to make them feel special,” she said. “Who knows if their dates will? And everyone, upsell please.”
As Lydia and I hugged goodbye she invited me to meet her new beau when the weather broke.
“Yeah, I’m having a bash up at the lake Memorial Day weekend,” she gushed. “I don’t want to get ahead of things, but he hasn’t said anything about other plans at that time. I haven’t brought it up to him either, no pressure, you know. But I’m really expecting him to come.”
Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].