Valentine’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.
“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.”
When it comes to flowers, try to work with the restaurant first.
Roses are certainly the most asked-for flower, but we’ve come across requests for everything from a dozen sunflowers, five fresh dahlias in a crystal vase, gladiolas, blue hydrangeas, daisies, purple tulips, Stargazer lilies — and as many as 12 dozen roses! Jean-Georges works exclusively with a local florist who helps diners secure fresh flower arrangements for their dates that are tasteful and portable. Vongerichten advises diners to consider the palette of the restaurant and the size of the arrangement as well as the size of the table. “We had a request from someone who wanted 125 lilies. How would you put 125 lilies on a table [for two]? It’s impossible.” Post-dinner plans should also be taken into consideration. “Some people want to send a huge arrangement, but what do you do with it after dinner?” Bottom line: If you’d like to say it with flowers, speak with someone at the restaurant first.
Show your personality and engage.
When you’re making a request, Benjamin loves when diners make it personal. “A lot of diners will say, ‘Please make it special.’ Of course, we’re going to make it special!” If you have something extra you’d like, he suggests, “Make it a request that we can personalize — not just asking for our best table. Make it a request we can wrap our arms around.” He also encourages to diners to start a dialogue with the restaurant’s staff. “After you’ve booked, if for some reason you haven’t heard from us in 24 hours, engage with us. We can have a conversation, and this allows us to get to know you before you even arrive.” It’s worth noting that something extra doesn’t have to mean an extra cost, as far as Benjamin is concerned. “People are already spending money on Valentine’s Day; there’s no need for your special request to be an added cost or an opportunity for us to upsell you. Just let us do something nice for you!”
And, even though Valentine’s Day is just three days away, OpenTable can help you save the day – and night – with a last-minute restaurant reservation. Find a table.