Ah, Valentine’s Day. That day when we celebrate with our beloved, perhaps over dinner at a fancy restaurant where the Champagne never stops flowing and the steaks are cooked to perfection.
At least that’s the expectation. Too bad the reality rarely measures up.
Ask anyone who has ever dined out on Valentine’s Day, and they will likely tell you that the experience can be a disappointment. “I’d rather be at home eating leftovers with my sweetheart,” said Jennie Hess, a resident of Orlando, Fla., who has given up on going out to eat on Feb. 14.
Hess has plenty of company. A 2023 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 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.
How do we loathe restaurants on Valentine’s Day? Let us count the ways.
1. 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 an establishment only has so many tables. So diners often have to settle for a way-too-early or way-too-late reservation instead.
Rob Russell, a former restaurant and club manager in Palm Beach, Fla., said it’s simply the nature of reservations. What can be frustrating for restaurateurs, he added, is the need to turn over those coveted tables. They don’t want to rush diners through their romantic meal, but they are also mindful that they need to free the up table for customers with a later reservation.
2. You’ll have limited menu choices
Feeding many more customers than normal on a single night is a challenge, 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 or vegans.
For couples splurging on a fancy dinner, that means they might miss out on specialties the restaurant usually offers on its a la carte menu. In effect, they’re not able 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.
3. You’ll pay more — possibly lots more
Here’s a dirty little secret of the restaurant business: Those prix-fixe special-occasion menus — not just on Valentine’s Day, but also on Mother’s Day and New Year’s Eve — can be priced higher than what a dining spot might normally charge. It’s a simple function of supply and demand: Operators know that customers are lining up for a spot, so they’ll make them pay for the privilege.
Some restaurants may not be looking to charge more, Russell noted, but if the special-occasion menu features big-ticket items, such as a chateaubriand steak for two, that pushes prices higher — a disappointment for those customers who might otherwise be content with cheaper menu offerings.
4. Your food — and service — may not be up to par
As much as restaurant workers try to put their best foot forward on Valentine’s Day, to say nothing of every other day, they are only human. And when kitchens get busy, as they do on Feb. 14, diners may feel the effects.
“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.
And don’t expect the service to be faultless, either, professionals warn. Kitchens can easily get backed up as a result of the sheer volume of orders, so your meal might not arrive in timely fashion.
5. You might find that takeout won’t be any better
Speaking of backups, the same restaurant kitchen that’s overwhelmed with customers in the dining room on Valentine’s Day 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.
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.