Valentine’s Day is typically the restaurant world’s biggest holiday, when diners make reservations months in advance at their favorite local restaurants. But — surprise, surprise — everything’s different this year. Continued dining restrictions across the country mean that many of us will be celebrating Valentine’s Day in the place where we do everything now: our homes.
According to an OpenTable survey of more than 2,700 Americans in relationships, 39 percent of couples plan to order takeout for the first time this holiday. But just because you’re celebrating at home doesn’t mean you can’t infuse your night with a little bit of that restaurant magic. Here are some creative ideas — provided by restaurants, the Valentine’s Day pros — on how to make everything from the table settings to dessert shine on this Valentine’s Day at home. And if you’re looking for what to order, find the best options near you.
The tip: Create some ambiance through background noise and table setting.
How to execute: Half of the experience of dining at restaurants is simply being in the dining room, surrounded by murmured conversations, the clanging of flatware on plates, and the background rhythm of ice in a bartender’s shaker. But for those missing that feeling, have no fear: the internet has everything you need to bring the sounds of a restaurant to your home. Cue up some light background ASMR or — because almost half of OpenTable survey respondents (49 percent) say playing music will help set the mood for date night — take things further and play this “Every Restaurant Playlist” at the same time.
Georgea Pappas Haby, culinary research and development manager for Pappas Restaurants in Houston, has picked up a few tricks for upping the ambiance from her time working with Pappas Brothers Steakhouse, the group’s high-end flagship. “Add something fun and whimsical to the table,” says Pappas Haby. She suggests easy decorating touches, such as placing candles in hurricanes and surrounding them with seasonal greenery, or adding color to the table through bright cutlery or stemware.
Another way to set the scene is to set a theme. For example, relive that trip to Paris by picking up food from a local bistro, throwing on some vintage French pop, and lingering over the meal like you’re in a neighborhood bistro in the 11th arrondissement. Missing that trip to Mexico you were supposed to take this year? Find a restaurant serving traditional dishes in your area, such as Phoenix’s Chantico, cue up a scenic movie set in the country, and settle in for a night of vicarious travel through food and film.
The tip: Kick things off with a special drink.
How to execute: “Can I start you off with something to drink?” There’s a reason this is the first question you’ll hear when sitting down at a restaurant — starting off the evening by sipping something out of the ordinary helps mark the transition from regular day to special evening. Regardless of your skill level, there are easy ways to make a restaurant-quality drink at home. To keep things relaxed, Maxwell Reis, beverage director of Gracias Madre in Los Angeles, recommends starting with the classics and prepping in advance.
“Pre-batch spirit-forward cocktails and keep them in your freezer,” recommends Reis, adding that if you dilute the cocktail when you build it, there’s no need to add ice. For example, a pre-batched negroni for four would involve mixing four ounces of gin, four ounces of vermouth, four ounces of Campari, diluting the mixture with four ounces of water, and then freezing until chilled. Then, simply pour as you go — no real-time mixing required.
For those who want to share a bottle of wine — and there’s a lot of you, with 33 percent of survey respondents saying that wine is their preferred alcohol for Valentine’s Day — up the ante with a DIY wine tasting. Pappas Brothers Steakhouse’s Pappas Haby recommends talking to a sommelier at your favorite restaurant and asking for recommendations. “They can pair wines for your dinner, and due to new COVID alcohol laws, it’s likely you can purchase them directly from the restaurant,” she says.
Of course, it can always be as simple as just pouring a glass of Champagne. Jimmy Hibbard, bar manager of Chicago’s The Dawson, recommends dropping a berry into the glass for that extra special touch and the perfect pour. “The sugars in the fruit will make it dance with the bubbles, and the acid will prevent the sparkling from bubbling-over,” he says.
The tip: Add a hands-on element to the meal.
How to execute: From tableside salad service to watching a server carve meat, a hands-on element in a restaurant adds a theatrical element for a meal. This year, you and whomever you’re celebrating with will take center stage by creating a dish together. It could be as simple as bringing the raw bar home by learning to shuck oysters, or experimenting with cooking a new ingredient or cuisine.
If you’ve never handled bivalves before, take a cue from your local seafood spot. Seattle’s Walrus & Carpenter is offering a dozen oysters and the option to add-on an oyster knife as part of the restaurant’s Valentine’s Day takeout menu. If there’s not a restaurant near you doing the same, source some oysters from your local grocery store and follow this handy video on how to shuck. Just remember: safety first!
Perhaps you’d like to try your hand at cooking this year — which, as chef Adam Handling of London’s Frog by Adam Handling says, is “the perfect way to show your love” — but want a little help along the way. Turn to restaurant meal kits, which can provide a stress-free path to a delicious dinner while still being hands-on (good news for the 47 percent of OpenTable survey respondents who said they’d be cooking at home this year).
Executive chef John Adamson of Marcel in Atlanta — which is offering two different at-home meal kit options for Valentine’s Day — even thinks there’s a bonding opportunity there. “I’ve always said that cooking is the only art that utilizes all of your senses,” he says, “and these kits will allow couples to experience that while also learning about each other as they work together toward the common goal of a delicious meal.”
Even first-time cooks can get in on the game, with many restaurants offering detailed instructions along with the meal kits to foolproof at-home attempts. Provence Marinaside in Vancouver even filmed a video that walks home cooks through the plating of the restaurant’s heat-and-eat option and provides diners with a printable menu detailing the four-course meal.
The tip: Uplevel your dessert game with some deceptively simple restaurant tricks.
How to execute: Restaurants may have entire teams dedicated to prepping and plating desserts, but going gourmet doesn’t always mean creating something complicated: Kaity Mitchell, executive pastry chef at Portale in New York City, recommends making chocolate mousse. “It can be made ahead of time, so you don’t have to worry about any last-minute preparations while you are cooking dinner,” she says. “Set the mousse in Champagne coupes for an extra-fancy look!”
Alternatively, pick up a few pints of ice cream and some toppings to end the meal with a DIY sundae bar. Don’t be afraid to think like a chef and mix savory toppings in with sweet standards like chocolate syrup and sprinkles. Tyler Akin, chef-partner at Le Cavalier in Wilmington, DE, leans on childhood snack favorites such as crushed sourdough hard pretzels along with more gourmet toppings, like brown butter whipped cream.
The tip: Make a plan for some post-dinner fun — 29 percent of survey respondents say a fun, planned date night activity is the best gift they could receive this year.
How to execute: A special meal out is often coupled with entertainment of some sort. So, once dinner is done, surprise your Valentine’s Day buddy with a planned activity to mimic that. There are plenty of ways to make a night in feel like a night out, from the nightly streaming shows by New York’s Metropolitan Opera to comedy live streams like Hold the Phone, or a virtual game night with friends. There’s even a special Valentine’s Day Josh Groban concert this year, or you could simply have a movie marathon.
For any entertainment you choose, take a cue from San Francisco’s Canela to make a next-level concessions stand. The restaurant’s movie night kit comes with heirloom popcorn, different seasoned salts, artisanal chocolate, and two bottles of Mexican Coca-Cola — guaranteed to be better than anything at your average movie theater or concert hall.
No matter how you choose to celebrate, taking advantage of the great takeout, meal kits, wine pairings, cocktails, and service tricks from a local restaurant can help you up your at-home dining game. It’s basically like giving a Valentine to your favorite restaurant: they’ll feel the love, and you’ll get to celebrate over something delicious.