Why restaurateurs dread Valentines

Ex-restaurateur and father of a restaurateur Nick explains in this updated version of an article we published in 2004.

The combination of Valentine’s Day falling on a Friday may lead outsiders to speculate that this will mean bumper takings for the world’s restaurateurs – but they would be mistaken.

Restaurants will undoubtedly be very busy but it is likely that at the end of an extremely hectic and occasionally dramatic evening, takings may well be lower than on a normal night.

Friday nights are no longer the busiest night of the week in any major city. They have been overtaken in this respect by Thursday evenings as on Friday nights a certain number of people tend to leave any large conurbation for the quiet of the countryside. This year’s Valentine’s night, falling on a Friday, should see bumper bookings in many of the hotels outside the major cities.

But while hotel bookings are invariably for a couple, restaurant bookings require a different mix of sizes of tables to maximise profitability and, on this night of the year, present quite a challenge.

Almost everyone looking to go out that night will want a table for two, leaving restaurant managers with the headache of just what to do with their larger tables (several I know have temporary small tables built just for the night) and couples also tend to drink less (there tend to be fewer casual requests for ‘one more bottle please’). That is why so many restaurants now offer a fixed price menu with an introductory glass of sparkling wine on 14 February.

Then there is the challenge of how to fill any restaurant’s private dining room. Over the years these have become an increasingly important part of any restaurant’s profitability: a set menu; fewer staff; one bill and potentially the opportunity to attract new customers. But who will want these on Valentine’s night? I did hear of one wealthy man who in desperation booked a private dining room as a ‘table for two’. But I have subsequently heard that this particular couple have already split up.

And then there are the tears. The poet William Blake was undoubtedly correct when he wrote that what two people require from each other is precisely the same. ‘The lineaments of gratified desire’, was his unforgettable phrase. But Valentine’s night, with its unspecified agenda on either side, does mean that there are often those who leave the restaurant unhappier than when they arrived, no matter how good the food, the wine and the service.

Do go out tonight but spare a thought for anyone who has to work as a waiter or a waitress on 14 February. They may be called on to perform certain roles that are normally not part of their job description. When I was running L’Escargot in London’s Soho in the 1980s, my estimable maîtresse d’, the late Elena Salvoni, told me once that Valentine’s night meant for her spending more time in the ladies’ lavatories consoling young women than on any other night of the year.

Crying heart