Ah, Valentine’s Day. That time of the year when we celebrate our beloved, perhaps with dinner at a fancy restaurant where the Champagne never stops flowing and the steaks are cooked perfectly to order.
At least that’s the expectation. Too bad the reality rarely measures up.
Ask almost anyone who has dined out on Valentine’s Day, and they will tell you that it can be a series of disappointments. “I’d rather be at home eating leftovers with my sweetheart,” said Jennie Hess, a longtime Orlando, Fl., resident who has given up on going to a restaurant on Feb. 14 because of past problems.
Hess has plenty of company. A recent WalletHub Valentine’s Day survey found that 36% of respondents said going out for dinner on the big day was a bad deal. And restaurant-industry professionals and consultants alike told MarketWatch much the same, saying that diners booking a Feb. 14 date night are probably better off saving the romantic celebration for another time.
So, how do we loathe restaurants on Valentine’s Day? Let us count the ways…
You might be eating dinner at 5 p.m. — or 10 p.m.
It all comes down to basic math: Lots of people want to eat at a particular restaurant on Valentine’s Day at the preferred time — typically, around 7 p.m. — but there are only so many tables that establishment has. So, diners often have to opt for a way-too-early or way-too-late dinner time, instead.
Rob Russell, a former restaurant and club manager in Palm Beach, Fl., said it’s just the nature of the reservation beast. What’s even more frustrating for restaurateurs is tactfully turning over those coveted tables, Russell said: They don’t want to rush diners through their romantic meal, but they are also mindful that they need to free the table for the customer with a later reservation.
You’ll have limited menu choices
It’s always a challenge feeding a far-greater-than-the-norm number of customers in a single night, so restaurants often try to simplify the process by offering a prix-fixe meal with just a few choices — say, one beef item, one fish item and one item for vegetarians/vegans.
But for the couples splurging on that dinner for two, that means they might miss out on specialties the restaurant usually offers on its a la carte menu. In effect, you’re not getting to experience the eatery at its fullest. “It’s a simplified experience because it has to be,” said Clark Wolf, a veteran restaurant consultant based in New York and California.
You’ll pay more — possibly LOTS more
Here’s a dirty little secret of the restaurant business: Those prix-fixe special-occasional menus — think not just Valentine’s Day, but also Mother’s Day and New Year’s Eve — can be priced higher than what an establishment might normally charge. It’s a function of supply and demand: Operators know that customers are lining up, so they’ll make them pay for the privilege.
Or, as Russell noted, the restaurant may not be looking to charge more, but the special-occasion menu will inevitably feature big-ticket items, such as a chateaubriand steak for two. So that forces prices to be higher — especially for those customers who might otherwise be content with cheaper menu offerings.
The food — and service — will likely suffer
As much as restaurant staffs try to put their best foot forward on Valentine’s Day, to say nothing of the other 300-plus days on the calendar, they are confronted with the fact they are only human. And when kitchens get busy, like they do on Feb. 14, diners will pay a price.
“Maybe the food is not quite as pretty on the plate. Maybe the cook is less careful with how the steak comes off the grill,” said Steve Zagor, a former restaurant operator who now teaches the ins and outs of the dining industry at Columbia University’s business school. “It’s just too much.”
And don’t think service will be any better, professionals warn. Kitchens can easily get backed up based on the sheer volume of orders, so your meal might not arrive in timely fashion.
And the delivery/takeout options won’t necessarily be any better
Speaking of backups, the same restaurant kitchen that’s overwhelmed with customers dining in the establishment might also be overwhelmed with delivery and takeout orders. And operations that are strictly delivery and takeout can also be far busier than usual. All of which results in customers waiting for their meals — sometimes for hours.
At least that’s what New York City resident Brian Lipton learned when he and his boyfriend ordered in from a favorite Italian restaurant one Valentine’s Day. What was usually a 30-minute delivery window turned into a two-hour one. “By the time the food arrived, we were not only starving, but too inebriated to enjoy it,” he said.