Building Valentine's bridges

Valentine's mealkit from Park Chinois

How closed restaurants are doing their best to make the most of tomorrow. Above is Park Chinois' Valentine's meal kit for delivery, from this selection on SquareMeal.

Jancis asked me a simple question yesterday morning. ‘Do you think that you and your bridge-playing friends will ever meet again around a bridge table?’ My honest answer was probably not.

Our regular foursome, of which I am the youngest if not the sprightliest, has played regularly via Bridge Base Online since March 2020 when the first UK lockdown struck, thanks to the wonders of Zoom.

Restaurateurs have benefited similarly from advancing technology. Many perhaps were not as quick off the mark as others, while some thought that even the first lockdown would not last as long as it did. But the second and third lockdowns here convinced even the doubters about the need to switch from serving customers in their own premises to delivering meals to their customers in their own homes. There seem to be few British restaurants today that do not offer a pretty good service with a pretty good meal at a fair price, and the streets of London are as busy as they are usually in the late afternoons of Wednesday to Saturday with Deliveroo, Supper, and any form of black cab delivering from a restaurant to an address near you, if not yours.

I have been thinking of this scenario being played out in, sadly, so many of the major cities of the world as Valentine's Day approaches with its specific advantage this year, a year which so far has seen few advantages for those in the hospitality business. This advantage is very simple: this year Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday.

This could not be a better day for the restaurants themselves. First of all because it is the day after Friday and Saturday, the days that most restaurants offer their delivery service, and so it just adds the potential of another extremely busy day on to the other two (and most restaurants’ trading weeks end on a Sunday evening so this will make up for a cold and snowy week, in Europe at least, when the figures will need as much bolstering as possible).

Then there is the fact that because it is a Sunday there is the potential to expand the offer beyond just dinner. There is now the possibility of offering a Sunday lunch, breakfast or brunch. Quite a few British restaurants are offering the latter with the normal add-ons: roses, boxes of chocolates and bottles of champagne.

This run of three very busy days will mean extra work for the chefs and the key people who pack and dispatch these meals, but again this year this will not seem that onerous. There will be the quiet of the earlier part of the week followed by three or four quiet days from this Sunday. There should not be the slightest complaint from any member of any kitchen team.

The wholesale changes from Valentine’s Day falling on a Sunday are compounded this year because of lockdowns in the UK and the other restrictions that prevail, from Hong Kong (where no restaurants can open after 6 pm) to France with its 6 pm curfew. Then there is New York where Governor Cuomo has partially lifted previous restrictions on indoor seating restrictions and, from yesterday, restaurants may now seat up to 25% of indoor capacity – although not all of them are. This removes three potential sources of anguish for the restaurateur and his team.

The first is that by definition on this particular day of the year everybody who books a table wants a table for two and ideally one where the couple can sit as close as possible to each other. No larger tables. No round tables. But no restaurant has ever been designed to have exclusively tables for two. Every restaurant will always have a majority of tables for two – they are essential for the lunchtime business – but no restaurant could survive without corner tables that seat four and the occasional round table that can seat five or more. This year no restaurateur will have to worry about that.

Then there will be no concern about what’s going on in the PDR (private dining room). Most restaurants now have at least one of these because, in the past at least, they have generated such profits (one menu, wines to impress, limited staff, one bill, and the opportunity to generate goodwill among any first-time diners are just some of the reasons).

Finally, there will be no ‘scenes’ on Valentine’s Day in any restaurant in the UK as they will all be closed. There is nothing at all wrong with romance in the air but it is the different interpretation of it that often leads to misunderstandings. Is dinner a prelude to more of a commitment or just a continuation of the same? (See my tales from a past life as owner of L’Escargot in Why restaurateurs dread Valentines.)

The most positive response to my queries to various restaurateurs about this annual festival of love came from Chris Galvin, who in the 1980s was a young chef at L’Escargot before finding great success with his brother Jeff. ‘Yes, it has been amazing that this year we have had three bites of the cherry: Friday, Saturday and Sunday resulting in 2,300 orders. It is saving the day because our rent and fixed costs are causing the last of our reserves to haemorrhage. Hopefully our Galvin at Home deliveries will help us to crawl over the line when we open the restaurants – sometime in May? Jeff and I are taking heart because on the positive side at least romance isn’t dead!’

From that most romantic of cities, Paris, Mark Williamson, restaurateur at Maceo and Willi’s Wine Bar, emailed me their €75 per person menu enlivened with hummingbirds and featuring add-ons of every kind of wine, flowers and even perfumed candles.

Over in New York, the situation continues to be complicated. Chef Michael Anthony from Gramercy Tavern reported:

‘… despite Governor Cuomo’s decision, GT and other USHG [Union Square Hospitality Group] restaurants will remain closed for indoor and outdoor dining this weekend. We just don’t feel like it is currently the right environment to welcome back our staff and guests indoors and we have had several snowstorms over the past two weeks, limiting our ability to serve folks comfortably and safely outside.

‘USHG restaurants have all proposed a variety of special pick-up and delivery options and we should benefit from the holiday falling on a weekend since more guests are likely to take the time to swing by our restaurants to pick up a fun meal. Our Valentine’s menu, offered for pick up only, consists of three courses with some choices at $150 for two people and represents value in terms of food & wine … (I believe). We’ll also continue to offer our regular delivery menu with easy-going items like minestrone soup, grilled Tavern burgers and whole smoked and roasted FreeBird chickens through the weekend.

‘The celebratory meals over the weekend should allow guests to consider add-ons to their Valentine’s meals like our oysters Rockefeller, baked truffled clams, citrus-cured steelhead trout with caviar, signature cocktail kits, bottles of wine, collaborative pints of ice cream (Caffe Panna x GT).

‘National deliveries via Goldbelly have spiked this week (and overflowing into next week too) as our fans have purchased gifts like grilled eggplant parm, wood-fired mushroom lasagna, smoked kielbasa and chocolate chunk cookies to send (frozen) all over the country. For “not such a busy time”, I have never felt so hectic trying to keep up with production. All of these sales are very welcome at a time it is so hard to keep GT looking alive.’

From Will Beckett, founder of Hawksmoor restaurants, came this thoughtful response to my question. ‘If restaurants were open it would be a boon – Sunday evening would be a bit more like Saturday evening. In terms of at home the specific day of the week isn’t massively important, although there are cost implications to weekend deliveries. It probably bottlenecks things a bit, but we’ve still managed to get 3,500 boxes out this week, plus another 750 from Air Street for our restaurant delivery, so overall it matters more that it is Valentine’s week than the specific day it lands on!’

Finally, from Christopher Mark, who founded Black Sheep Restaurants in Hong Kong, came a rather plaintive response: ‘This year we are not able to open for dinner on Valentine’s but to your point, having an event like it on Sunday is way more beneficial than having it fall on Thursday, Friday or Saturday.’

And what will we be doing this Valentine’s evening? Well, I will be playing online bridge while Jancis will be watching the final episode of The Serpent in the next room [highly recommended – JR].