This was originally posted on Feb 12, 2008, and I think it is still very good advice. So, what are Amy and I doing for Valentine’s Day? We are going to our friend Madeleine’s eponymous restaurant/wine bar with two of our favorite friends. Why am I not taking my own advice? The answer is twofold. First of all, we know that Madeleine will do everything in a first-rate manner. Secondly, but more importantly, Amy is making me.
If Valentine’s Day had an equivalent to Scrooge, I would be a natural in the role. I spout all of the usual reasons for disliking it, such as it being in existence solely to sell cards, etc., that are almost as cliché as cupid and hearts. Of course I am married to a woman who loves it and insists on celebrating it, especially since one of our first big dates was on Valentine’s Day.
So, a few years ago when we lived in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio, I made reservations at my favorite restaurant and talked up the food for weeks. When we got there the service was rushed, the ticket was high, the food was mediocre, my judgment called into question, and our night out fell way short of our expectations. My favorite restaurant became a place that I used to go.
The next year, as I could no longer be trusted to handle the arrangements for such a momentous event, my wife-to-be asked around and found out which bistro in town was considered to be the finest and made the reservations herself. The big night arrived along with some typically lousy February Toledo weather. The rain and sleet and snow slowed traffic enough that we were a few minutes late getting to the restaurant. Having over-booked, there was a line outside the door. When we finally got inside and inquired about our table we were informed that we were late. After standing on line in the elements for fifteen minutes we were late. No shit? Late, you say? Hmm…
Eventually, after standing three deep at the bar with the other sheep who were paying dearly to be fleeced, we were seated…at a tiny table wedged between two other tiny tables, and this is the best part, underneath a grand piano. The lounge area was elevated, and to make more room for us grateful sheep the piano had been shoved as close to the edge of the platform as possible, and tables were added to the dining area in places where no table should ever have been. From our seat we could state unequivocally that the guy hammering out show tunes did not store his gum on the bottom of the piano.
Again, the service was rushed and this time rude, the ticket was higher, the food was slightly better, although we were served courses out of order and one was skipped altogether. Then came the capper, returning from the restroom, I somehow navigated the impossibly close tables and rude, rushed staff to return to my seat. As we sheep were all so tightly packed in, pulling a chair out normally was entirely out of the question, so I attempted to carefully slide in sideways so I could see which mystery course had arrived in my absence. Apparently I wasn’t careful enough because a corner of the tablecloth became trapped beneath my now sliding posterior, causing my full water glass to empty down the front of me and into my lap. As the many passing staff members were apparently oblivious to my mortifying and chilly predicament, a couple of my fellow diners offered their napkins.
That was, and will be, if I have my way, the last time that I ever set foot into a restaurant on Valentine’s Day. It is a day when the lure of a huge payday entices restaurateurs and chefs, who have spent years building a following and reputation, to over-book and under-deliver. Even worse than Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day is a day to avoid restaurants, in my humble, and occasionally sodden, opinion.
My next post will feature a blueprint, with recipes and wine suggestions, for a great night at home that will make even someone with almost no kitchen skills look like a chef with a serious romantic streak. Failing that, it should at least buy time so that dinner out can be postponed until a later date when your favorite bistro owner has returned to his or her senses.