It’s one of the biggest days of the dining year, yet so many restaurant operators get Valentine’s Day wrong. FSR spoke to some restaurants about how to ensure romantic diners leave with a great impression.
Prix-fixe is the only way to keep things moving on Valentine’s Day, says Derek Dollar, executive chef with Milton’s Cuisine and Cocktails in Milton, Georgia, “because it’s faster paced for the guest. If you only have a certain amount of appetizers or entrees the kitchen only has to prepare a certain amount of items—we might do a larger volume because we have fewer items so it really reduces the amount of lag in getting food out.” This means Milton’s can usually turn the tables twice.
Prix fixe also significantly boosts the check average, he says, from around $48 per head to closer to $100.
Demarchelier, in New York City, always offers a prix fixe menu, but on Valentine’s Day it bumps up the cost from $35 to $45 and adds an amuse-bouche (oysters Rockefeller this year), a glass of prosecco, and a dessert. “We tried doing a special Valentine’s themed menu and it didn’t work,” owner Emily Demarchelier says. “People were upset we didn’t have their favorites.”
One year, Milton’s offered champagne with chocolate-dipped strawberries for dessert “but it was really old-school and nobody wanted it,” Dollar says. “Those things are passé and a little trite. Certainly there are ways we can do this—our sommeliers pass out half glasses of sparkling rose to every guest—without doing things like chocolate-covered strawberries.”
Demarchelier features just red napkins and roses at the front of the dining room. “If we do more it can get tacky but it is a special night so you do have to do something,” says Demarchelier.
Valentine’s Day “is not worth it if you take that night in the micro but it’s way worth it in the macro,” says Justin Cucci, owner of Edible Beats restaurant group in Denver. “If you can imprint on someone that night—that this a place they enjoyed, it can become part of their story— it’s worth it. So the night itself is “meh,” but it’s about the big win—in the long run.
Dollar has to serve filet on Valentine’s Day and half of guests will order it, he says. Lobster is also non-negotiable, as are oysters. “With filet, they know they’ll like it, and it’s familiar, but we always include one dish for the food crowd that’s different or odd or has some specialty items—and 20 percent of people order something like that.”
For dessert there has to be chocolate, he says, and he also tries to offer a red or pink sweet item—as well as something off the wall. This year he’s preparing a rose panna cotta—with rose syrup and edible flowers. “It’s kind of tongue in cheek but we’ve never done that before so we’ll give it a shot.”
Cucci agrees, and usually has a berry dessert as well as something shareable—“desert is the last thing guests have so it leaves them with a good last impression,” he says.
It’s important to make the food feminine, since most restaurants feature masculine food from male chefs, says Cucci. “We try to make it balanced: With a filet mignon we like to add some fish or a couple of really special salads. We also bring in lobster so people feel like they’re splurging and getting good value.”
Michael Orobona, director of operations for La Pulperia Restaurant Group in New York City, says pricing is crucial to bolstering the bottom line on Valentine’s Day. Restaurants must maintain the delicate balance between value and extravagance. “You know your menu was priced correctly when the customer feels like the meal was kind of expensive but totally worth every penny and something they would do again. If a guest leaves feeling like they were gouged or that the meal was a real bargain then we're not doing our job properly,” he says.
Do not run out of the dishes you are advertising for Valentine’s Day, “or you’ll make someone very upset,” Dollar says. “And if you ruin someone’s Valentine’s Day they’re never going to forgive you. We post our menus about a month in advance so people can really have their heart set on something.” Dollar uses up any leftovers in specials the next day.
Guests linger on Valentine’s Day, so Cucci restructures OpenTable for that night “to accommodate a whole different mindset” and adds half an hour to all bookings at his three full-service restaurants.
“Training staff is key,” says Cucci. “Employees should pick up on body language and know when to give couples space and also to be mindful of facilitating checks quickly for those looking to move things to the next phase of the Valentine’s Day evening."
Cucci discusses this in staff meetings, especially prior to Valentine’s Day. He makes sure to let staff know if they can win customers over on this night, it’s a big win, taking the macro view that they’ll come back. “I want them to see the big picture and not get too tied up turning tables,” he explains.