My wife and I may not be Jewish, but that doesn't stop us from celebrating Valentine's Day as a Jewish holiday. We skip all the restaurant horror stories that make their way around the Internet after the 14th, and we have our V-Day "seder" after sundown on the 13th.
Not all restaurants are guilty of these sins, and precious few are guilty of all of these sins, but do yourself a favor: If you find a restaurant that doesn't fall into any of these categories, keep it to yourself, lest the insane crowds find, neutralize and kill your secret Valentine's romantic hangout.
1. Premade food
Look, it's no secret that most of the food in any restaurant is made beforehand, during prep time. Very few things are actually prepared à la minute because it would take forever. That said, there's a difference between last-minute assembly and having huge sheets of food languishing in the walk-in after being made on the 11th or 12th--or earlier. It won't taste as fresh because it won't be as fresh.
2. Premade menus
The only way a restaurant can cope with the massive influx of people who are determined to make this night perfect is by limiting the offerings. Even with a choice of two starters, two mains and two desserts, the kitchen will find itself dans la merde, which means the food will be picked not principally for its gustatory qualities, but for its ease of preparation in the kitchen. Even if those two goals are not mutually exclusive, it means everyone in the room has to settle--and woe betide you if you've got allergies, aversions or are vegetarian and forgot to let the restaurant know weeks in advance, then again on the confirmation call, then again upon being greeted by the captain.
3. Invasion of the noobs
There are more "new" restaurant diners on Valentine's Day than on any other night of the year, or so it seems. Questions, menu translations and a steadfast refusal to alter expectations of the evening to match the obvious reality unfolding. The waitstaff, as professional as they may be, will start to fray at the edges sooner into service than one would think, and who could blame them? The most inane, cluelss and just plain rude words come out of people's mouths, and the staff have to just stand there and take it. "This was supposed to come with green beans! This is broccoli! Take it back!" "Don't you have any white 'mur-lott'?" Of course, to cap it all off, they've all arrived straight from the year 1837, when 8 percent was plenty for a tip and those ingrates in white aprons were glad to have it!
4. You didn't need that seat anyway, right?
A long, relaxing, romantic dinner à deux is just what the love doctor ordered, right? Too bad. The restaurant needs to turn tables over two or even three times on Valentine's Day in order to cope with the influx of people and make the most of the crowds. Pacing? Right out the window. We have had staff watch for the last forkful of the starter to enter the mouth before swooping in to replace the plate with our mains, which had been sitting in the pass-through under heat lamps. Forget about lingering over coffee and a digestif, too--get in, get fed, get out. You can talk later.
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5. A little touch of exploitation
It's not enough that the kitchen has to knock the menu down to the culinary equivalent of monosyllables, most of which are just being reheated and sauced. It's not sufficient punishment to have to watch the panicked rumblings of people unfamiliar with this newfangled social-dining phenomenon and be rushed out the door for the privilege. No, diners are expected to pay a premium--anywhere from 33 percent to 500 percent or more--for the privilege of eating it on this one day. It's the night of the laughably bad-value prix-fixe menu. Three courses for $75; four courses and Champagne (Château Sept-Onze, of course) for $200. Bad value, bad experience, bad everything. How many times must you be burned before you cook some romantic finger foods at home?