As you’ve probably gathered from the influx of heart-shaped stuff at your local CVS, it’s Valentine’s Day next week. And a few of you may still be wondering: Should I go out, or stay in?
“If you’re a fan of surreal, subtextually stressful, and expectation-loaded experiences, then yeah! Go out,” says Taylor Parsons, General Manager at République. “If not, other nights may be more to your liking.”
République is one of a number of restaurants that have moved away from the longstanding tradition of the pricey Valentine’s Day set-menu—a tradition that’s gotten a bad rap for resulting in years of unmet expectations and a lot of overcooked beef Wellington. But there’s a simple reason, Parsons says, that the holiday has been such a racket for so long.
“Look,” he says, “restaurants are a challenging business. You have to fight for every butt in a seat, for every cover, for every dollar. But then you have a day when there’s a captive audience. They’re obligated to go out and to do something more extravagant than they would normally would. So—and this is the sort of sinister part—the idea was always, ‘Let’s give them something more extravagant and bind them by making it the only choice.’ I mean it makes business sense right?”
Right. But that doesn’t mean restaurants are necessarily chomping at the bit to get our money. Most industry professionals dread the day as much as the rest of us. “It’s not the usual guests on Valentine’s Day,” says Parsons. “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.” As a result, many restaurants might feel the need to dumb down menus at the same time as they price-up, which leads to the double whammy of a holiday flush with mediocre food that’s also expensive as hell.
Still, before we go storming into kitchens asking for our money back, know that we diners can also be a big part of the problem. “People’s expectations are so high, and it can be really demanding to meet them,” says Leah Bunch, general manager at Bestia, which books reservations three months in advance even when it’s not Valentine’s Day. “Restaurants feel the need to do something special—to try to go over the top. But that can be more challenging. You’re throwing a new menu and a new format at a kitchen crew on one of the busiest nights of the year. It messes up the rhythm.”
That’s why Bestia, too, treats February 14 like every other night of the year. “Sometimes we’ll send out some cute heart-shaped cookies that Genevieve [Gergis] made,” says Bunch, “but that’s the extent of it.”
While we’re all for restaurants ceasing the check bait prix-fixe menu, the truth is a lot of people will still be having a high-stakes date night next Sunday. “The danger is everyone now saying, ‘I don’t give a fuck about the holiday,” says Parsons. “You still need to up your hospitality game. Valentine’s Day should not be an excuse to be like, ‘Oh hey suckers. You want a special night? We’ll give you a special night.’ At République, we’re still going to make it special, we’re just not going to do it with a tasting menu anymore.”
So long as we can still order those sexy-ass soft-scrambled eggs on toast with truffles, we’re good either way.