How Restaurants Handle Your Special Requests on Valentine’s Day — Plus Tips from Top Managers

RequestsValentine’s Day is one of our favorite holidays, but we’ll be the first to admit that it can be a high-pressure day for some couples. After reviewing thousands of special requests, it’s clear that there are a lot of people out there seeking romantic redemption at a restaurant on February 14. Diners’ special requests on Valentine’s Day range from the vague (“Make it extra special!”) to the particular (“When paella is ordered, if possible, shape the meal into a heart.”), but the overall theme of the many requests restaurants receive is that everyone wants their Valentine’s meal to be something special (some need it to be more so than others). We talked to three restaurant professionals for their take on diners’ requests, and they reveal everything from what’s a bit too much to what they want to hear more of — and why you should let them handle the heat.

Under Pressure
“Valentines Day with new girlfriend. Help me out. I am clueless.”

Restaurants see a solid uptick in special requests on Valentine’s Day– and given the perceived stakes, it’s not surprising. Jeff Benjamin, author of the forthcoming Front of the House: Restaurant Manners, Misbehaviors & Secrets, partner in the Vetri family of restaurants, and general manager at Vetri in Philadelphia, notes, “The expectation levels on Valentine’s Day are higher — sometimes artificially higher. We can tell when one member of the party is very nervous. If it’s a first night out with that date or maybe it’s a ‘Hey, I’m not so sure we’re going to continue dating and now all of a sudden we’re out on Valentine’s Day’ kinda thing – that’s a lot of pressure.”

Philippe Vongerichten, director of operations at Jean-Georges restaurant in Manhattan, agrees. “Valentine’s is one of those nights, almost like New Year’s Eve. You have men who don’t know what kind of flower their girlfriend likes. They’re panicking. They’re not used to making romantic moves. Our job is to make sure they get the best service and that everything goes well — and that they forget about any stress.”

At Lucy Restaurant & Bar at Bardessono in Yountville, California, as at Jean-Georges and Vetri, the staff phone all diners who place special requests to discuss them in detail. This helps the restaurants create a plan and to get a read on future guests. General manager Guy Barstad says, “You can put private notes in OpenTable on a particular reservation, and I might type, ‘This diner seems a little nervous,’ if that’s the case.

The ordinary and the extraordinary
“Can I have a Brazilian band playing music and red roses?”

While common requests include diners seeking booths, window seats, or private/quiet tables, as well as flowers, each restaurant gets its share of unusual requests. At Lucy, “We had a customer who made a reservation for our very last seating, and he and his date sat in the bar and waited until every other diner left, had me blow out all the candles in the dining room, turn the lights down as low as possible, and the two of them dined in the dark. And, they loved it,” says Barstad.

At Vetri, Benjamin says, “Several years ago, a man with his wife were coming in, and it was a first time out for them since they’d had a baby. The gentleman sent a script for us [related to a forthcoming present] ahead of time. The staff and I had fun with it at first, but we could tell midway through that his wife was getting uncomfortable with it. And, none of us [at Vetri] had thought about the effect these exchanges would have on the surrounding diners in the room. So, midway through, we talked with him about it, and he said, ‘You know, I overthought it; maybe tone it down a little.’ We ended up just bringing the gift he’d bought her with dessert at the end, and he was very happy.”

At the elegant Jean-Georges, a guest requested that staffers throw rose petals as he and his date walk through the entrance, a request they were unable to meet. “We’re very sorry, but this is not Coming to America.”

Managing Everyone’s Expectations
“I will be dining with a woman named [redacted]. Please tell her how beautiful she looks.”

While almost all restaurants will do their best to meet your special request, it’s a good idea to temper your own expectations. For example, while staffers may not be able to pave your path with rose petals or feel comfortable explicitly telling your date how beautiful she looks, they may find another way to carry out your wish. Says Barstad, “We actually compliment diners on a regular basis, but we come from a place of, ‘You took some time to get ready and you look great!’ With any ask, he reveals, “If you request it, and we have it or can tastefully do it, it will happen.”

One of the ways restaurants meet guests’ expectations is to let them know if they cannot be met on a particular night, says Benjamin. “You don’t want to start off with the idea that you’re going to underwhelm someone. If we can’t give someone the table they requested, for example, I can say ahead of time, ‘I guarantee you that everything else other than your table choice is going to be perfect, and we’re going to make everything special for you.’”

Oftentimes, when a restaurant cannot fulfill a request, it’s because, says Vongerichten, “Guests are scared of their wife or valentine and are trying to throw too much at it [the evening].” Instead of overthinking it, let the restaurant create the experience for you. Embracing the foundations of fine hospitality, the Jean-Georges staff makes sure everyone feels important. “When most people come through the door on Valentine’s Day, they love being recognized as if they were a regular guest. We can tell who the host of the dinner is, and we’re sure to greet that person by name.”

Didn’t make a special request? Don’t fret. “Even if you don’t make a special request, you’ll still be treated special,” says Vetri’s Benjamin. “First-time diners are just future regulars.” Getting ready to make a special request? Barstad, Benjamin, and Vongerichten offer up their tips for one on Valentine’s Day, below.

Book early to help secure your ask.
“Make your Valentine’s Day reservations as early as possible — that way you get everything you ask for,” advises Barstad. “We can see when the reservation was made, so if someone tells me in December that they want a window table on Valentine’s Day, they’re likely to get it. If someone requests that on February 13, the odds are that it is unavailable.”Continue Reading

James Beard Foundation Awards Nominees 2010: Congratulations!

The list of James Beard Foundation Awards nominees for 2010 has been released. Congratulations to everyone whose hard work and great talents have been recognized by the industry’s most prestigious organization. The winners will be announced on May 3, 2010, but there aren’t any losers in this round-up. Nominees include:

James-Beard-Awards-2010-nomineesBEST NEW RESTAURANT
* Bibou, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Chefs/Owners: Pierre and Charlotte Calmels

* Flour + Water, San Francisco, California
Chef/Partner: Thomas McNaughton
Partners: David White and David Steele

* Frances, San Francisco, California
Chef/Owner: Melissa Perello

* Marea, New York, New York
Chef/Partner: Michael White
Partner: Chris Cannon

* RN74, San Francisco, California
Chef: Jason Berthold
Owners: Michael Mina and Rajat Parr

OUTSTANDING CHEF AWARD
* José Andrés, The Bazaar by José Andrés and Zaytinya
* Tom Colicchio, Craft and Colicchio & Sons
* Charles Phan, The Slanted Door

OUTSTANDING PASTRY CHEF AWARD
* Amanda Cook, CityZen at Mandarin Oriental, Washington, D.C.
* Nicole Plue, Redd, Yountville, California

OUTSTANDING RESTAURANT AWARD
* Boulevard, San Francisco, California
Chef/Owner: Nancy Oakes
Owner: Pat Kuleto

* Daniel, New York, New York
Chef/Owner: Daniel Boulud
Owner: Joel Smilow

* Highlands Bar & Grill, Birmingham, Alabama
Chef/Owner: Frank Stitt
Owner: Pardis Stitt

* Spiaggia, Chicago, Illinois
Chef/Partner: Tony Mantuano

OUTSTANDING RESTAURATEUR AWARD
* Tom Douglas. Restaurants include Dahlia Lounge, Etta’s, and Lola.

* Pat Kuleto, Pat Kuleto Restaurant Development & Management Co., San Francisco, California. Restaurants include Boulevard, Epic, Martini House, Waterbar.

* Richard Melman, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, Chicago, Illinois. Restaurants include Big Bowl, Hub 51, Osteria Via Stato, Tru, and Wildfire.

* Stephen Starr, Starr Restaurant Organization, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Restaurants include Alma De Cuba, Buddakan, Morimoto, and Parc.

OUTSTANDING SERVICE AWARD
* La Grenouille, New York, New York
Owners: Charles Masson and Gisèle Masson

* Michael Mina, San Francisco, California
Chef/Owner: Michael Mina

* Vetri, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Chefs/Owners: Marc Vetri and Jeff Benjamin

OUTSTANDING WINE AND SPIRITS PROFESSIONAL AWARD
* Paul Grieco, Hearth, New York, New York

OUTSTANDING WINE SERVICE AWARD
* A16, San Francisco, California
Wine Director: Shelley Lindgren

* Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder, Colorado
Wine Director: Bobby Stuckey

* Jean Georges, New York, New York
Wine Director: Bernard Sun

RISING STAR CHEF OF THE YEAR AWARD
* Timothy Hollingsworth, The French Laundry, Yountville, California
* Grégory Pugin, Veritas, New York, New York

BEST CHEFS IN AMERICA
Best Chef: Great Lakes
*Bruce Sherman, North Pond, Chicago, Illinois
* Alex Young, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic
* Cathal Armstrong, Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, Virginia
* Jeff Michaud, Osteria, Philadelphia, Pennsyvlania
* Michael Solomonov, Zahav, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
* Bryan Voltaggio, VOLT, Frederick, Maryland

Best Chef: Midwest
* Colby Garrelts, Bluestem, Kansas City, Missouri
* Alexander Roberts, Restaurant Alma, Minneapolis, Minnesota
* Lenny Russo, Heartland, St. Paul, Minnesota

Best Chef: New York City
* Michael Anthony, Gramercy Tavern
* Wylie Dufresne, wd-50
* Daniel Humm, Eleven Madison Park
* Michael White, Marea

Best Chef: Northeast
* Michael Leviton, Lumière, West Newton, Massachusetts
* Tony Maws, Craigie on Main, Cambridge, Massachusetts
* Marc Orfaly, Pigalle, Boston, Massachusetts

Best Chef: Northwest
* Ethan Stowell, Union, Seattle, Washington
* Jason Wilson, Crush, Seattle, Washington

Best Chef: Pacific
* Michael Cimarusti, Providence, Los Angeles, California
* Jeremy Fox, Ubuntu, Napa, California
* David Kinch, Manresa, Los Gatos, California
* Matt Molina, Osteria Mozza, Los Angeles, California
* Michael Tusk, Quince, San Francisco, California

Best Chef: South
* Zach Bell, Café Boulud at the Brazilian Court, Palm Beach, Florida
* Scott Boswell, Stella!, New Orleans, Louisiana
* John Harris, Lilette, New Orleans, Louisiana
* Michael Schwartz, Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, Miami, Florida

Best Chef: Southeast
* Sean Brock, McCrady’s, Charleston, South Carolina
* Linton Hopkins, Restaurant Eugene, Atlanta, Georgia

Best Chef: Southwest
* Bryan Caswell, Reef, Houston, Texas
* Ryan Hardy, Montagna at The Little Nell, Aspen, Colorado
* Rick Moonen, RM Seafood at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada

Read more about the James Beard Foundation and the 2010 Awards, click here. Purchase tickets here. And, reserve your seat at the next James Beard House dinner in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village for a unique dining experience in the birthplace of modern American gastronomy.

Top Vancouver Restaurants for Medal-Worthy Meals

Top-Vancouver-Restaurants-for-Medal-Worthy-MealsHeading to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics? Get a competitive advantage over your fellow foodies with the scoop on 10 top restaurants serving meals as memorable as the games.

1. Araxi. Araxi has been satisfying Whistler diners for nearly two decades, but the name may be familiar to fans of Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” Featured on the fiery show, Dave Levey, the winning contestant, is now cooking behind the line under the expert tutelage of James Walt. Forget the fanfare, though, and go for the farm-fresh, seasonal food, their impressive wine cellar, and the stellar service.

2. Bearfoot Bistro: Known among foodies far and wide for it’s regional and seasonal menu, the Bearfoot Bistro boasts a Champagne bar with a frozen ice rail and live piano music as well as an award-winning chef. Melissa Craig is renowned for her New Canadian cuisine, served up in a romantic setting. Watch for unique ingredients: Caribou, anyone?

3. Bishop’s: Fresh seafood and local meats keep locals coming back to Bishop’s in Kitsilano regularly – as do the staff. Owner John Bishop and maitre d’ Abel Jacinto are known for their hospitality while executive chef Andrea Carlson brings her love of gardening into the restaurant’s kitchen with sustainable foods. Try the Yukon Gold potato soup to warm you up and whet your appetite.

4. The Cannery Seafood House. An institution of the Vancouver dining scene since 1971, The Cannery is set to close on March 27, 2010 – forever. Don’t miss your last chance to sample the delicious dishes at this scenic stand-by that’s situated in the Port of Vancouver. Come for the amazing sunsets and stay for the ocean-friendly seafood and deep discounts on wines of all prices from the restaurant’s impressive cellar.

5. db Bistro Moderne. Restaurateur/renowned chef Daniel Boulud brings his brand of casual culinary magic northwest from New York to Kitsilano. Traditional bistro fare, such as coq au vin, populates the menu alongside locally inspired dishes. Don’t miss the famous db Burger (sirloin filled with braised short ribs and black truffle).

6. Five Sails. Operated by husband and wife team of Chef Ernst Dorfler and Gerry Sayers, Five Sails has a view to kill for and cuisine to match it. A favorite of OpenTable diners, the restaurant is very vegetarian-friendly, but you’ll also find plenty of meat dishes, including fallow deer, on the menu.

7. Lumiere. Another restaurant with Daniel Boulud’s imprimatur on it, Lumiere literally has something for everyone. Upscale sister to db Bistro Moderne (which is adjacent to Lumiere), Lumiere has a variety of menus to please varying palates and wallets, from small plates and a seasonal prix-fixe for just $65 to vegetarian tasting menu and a specially created grand tasting experience. Lumiere seats just 45, so reserve early.

8. Maenam. Maenam boasts a terrific Thai menu and a pedigreed chef, Angus An, who worked with and was inspired by David Thompson, the renowned chef of Nahm in London, the only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant in the world. Authentic dishes, such as stir-fried halibut cheeks, are served up in a casual setting with prices that won’t break the bank.

9. Market by Jean-Georges. Jean-Georges brings contemporary American cuisine to Vancouver. The restaurant itself is as dimensional as its menu, with an intimate and approachable café with a fireplace, a heated outdoor seasonal terrace with city views, a welcoming bar, and a sophisticated fine-dining room. Choose your own culinary adventure, starting with which section you dine in and whether you order from the raw menu, small plates, or sumptuous main dishes.

10. Rimrock Café. Two fireplaces set the mood at this cozy yet upscale Whistler restaurant. A favorite of locals, Rimrock’s menu features oysters served seven different ways, seafood specialties, and buffalo, caribou, and venison entrees. The wine program is paramount to Rimrock’s success. Oenophiles will enjoy the can’t-miss lit cellar that holds more than 320 labels from around the world.