Tables for Two
It’s the second-busiest day of the year and diners are ready to splurge on spending and decadent diets, but savvy restaurateurs build on the passion of the moment to create lasting emotional connections with their guests.
On Valentine’s Day, even the nation’s most romantic full-service restaurants understand there are decadent profits in the details. The National Restaurant Association estimates 25 percent of diners will splurge for something special on February 14, which has operators ramping up their offerings with everything from unique menus to rose petals to parting gifts. Similarly, the National Retail Federation found, in a 2015 study, that last year consumers planned to spend a collective $3.5 billion on going out for Valentine’s Day. For restaurants, finding a way to stand out from the crowded field, and capitalize on the second-busiest day of the year (following only Mother’s Day), can be key. Oftentimes, it’s a matter of elevating a fine-dining experience to an unforgettable one.
At Blantyre, a Relais & Châteaux hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts, the ever-romantic dining room, with its pink tablecloths and candles, is taken up yet another notch. Out come rich, velvet burgundy tablecloths and delicate lace napkins. Antique plates—different styles on each table—are pulled out of storage, and each table is adorned with a vase of black roses, “which our florist has to search for,” says Christopher Brooks, the general manager. “The whole atmosphere of the dining room changes that night.”
“We get a lot of repeat business so we want to make this night different,” he adds. And because of this, on Valentine’s Day, guests—who are mostly from the hotel—tend to stay longer and tables typically aren’t turned.
Valentine’s Day isn’t a day to play it safe, either, says Gregg Rapp, a menu engineer in Palm Springs, California. There’s profit in the romantic details, from the décor to the drummed-up ambiance. “It’s a great time to package meals and experiences,” he says. “Being creative will help your guests remember you year-round for romance. Valentine’s Day gives you permission to push romance buttons and better position your restaurant as a leader in the field.”
Sepia, a restaurant in Chicago serving upscale American fare, also dolls up its dining room for Valentine’s celebrations, putting floor-length ivory overlay tablecloths on the usually bare tables, adding flowers and candles to adorn each two-top, and serenading diners with jazz.
Diners have certain expectations for Valentine’s Day, says New York City restaurant consultant Arlene Spiegel. “They expect the restaurant to put them in the mood for romance,” she explains.
Setting the Mood
In addition to dressing tables with more romantic finery, some restaurants reconfigure the dining room to set the mood for an intimate meal. Petrossian, in West Hollywood, California, reduces the number of tables on Valentine’s Day “because I’d rather guests have a fabulous experience than have those two extra tables come in,” says general manager Christopher Klapp. This way, he explains, there’s more room between the tables.
Canoe, in Atlanta, does the same. This modern American restaurant seats 190 on a typical night but just 160 on Valentine’s Day because several four-top tables are converted to deuces. “Sometimes you’re better off making less money to have people enjoy the experience and want to come back,” says executive chef Matthew Basford.
Dabbling with the tables you have can be tricky; some can’t be removed and some look odd as a two-top. WP24 by Wolfgang Puck, on the 24th floor of The Ritz-Carlton, Los Angeles, circumvents that awkwardness by removing very large tables and using credenzas and plants as dividers on others, though only when guests can’t tell. This results in a dining room of 56 seats compared with the usual 106.
And since this restaurant is known to have some of the best views in town, other four-tops are set around the perimeter of the restaurant so guests can look out onto the city. Because the view is such a focal point, general manager John-André Wielenberg opts for displays of red roses and other red flowers, but tries to keep it simple, to avoid distracting guests from the view and the food, he says.
The Terrace at The Charlotte Inn on Martha’s Vineyard resets any four-tops into tables for two on Valentine’s Day, and turns a large eight-seat table in the center of its dining room into a service station for bottles. Little extras for Valentine’s Day include red roses for the women and decorative dessert accessories wishing guests a “Happy Valentine’s Day.”
The Melting Pot, which has 127 locations and is known as one of the more romantic chain-restaurant settings, embraces all the potential promise of Valentine’s Day, by expanding hours of service and elevating the experience—a strategy that’s clearly working: Customer counts are typically three to four times higher than on regular nights.
“We decorate the restaurants with lots of pink, white, and red, and have flowers everywhere,” says Mike Lester, president of The Melting Pot Restaurants. Franchisees (four locations are company-owned and the remainder are franchised) also work to make each Melting Pot experience even more intimate on Valentine’s Day, offering special dinner packages with rose petals scattered over the table or a Champagne toast.
Putting a Price on Love
Prix fixe menus are almost de rigueur on Valentine’s Day. They give the restaurant more control over the pacing of the meal and the timing, explains Justin Melnick, executive chef at The Terrace. “It tends to be more of a special experience for our guests when there are multiple courses thought out in advance for guests to choose from,” he says. “The portion sizing, for instance, is much more consistent for a multi-course meal when it is set up as a prix fixe menu.”
Offering the prix fixe menus also allows for better ordering of ingredients on the planning side, and it enables the restaurant to deliver faster service and thus shorter wait times, says WP24’s Wielenberg.
However, when prix fixe menus result in increased costs for diners celebrating a special night, it is not always the best option. “You have to decide whether making memories for your customers is more important than milking Valentine’s Day for every penny,” says Tom Frank, a culture engineer with Round World Management in Phoenix. “Making memories is much more profitable in the long run. [Valentine’s Day] customers can become the most loyal customers you could have.”
Blantyre always offers a prix fixe menu, and on Valentine’s Day, the restaurant adds an extra course or two, some classical romantic dishes, or a dessert-and-wine pairing.
Last year’s Valentine’s menu included a wild mushroom risotto with truffles and a chateaubriand for two. The prix fixe menu is priced at $180 for food, and the wine pairings start at $145, which compares to $125 for the prix fixe menu on a regular night.
Petrossian prints out a special Valentine menu that includes a prix fixe meal as well as à la carte offerings. Many diners like to take the menu home as a keepsake, Klapp says.
The menu doesn’t include any Valentine-themed items, he explains, because Petrossian’s menu is already filled with culinary aphrodisiacs like truffles, caviar, and Champagne. “We can’t push that too far and still remain elegant. We prefer to just accent a few dishes with items like those,” he says.
The seven-course prix fixe menu at WP24 is offered alongside the regular à la carte menu, and the latter tends to be more popular with earlier guests, who have additional plans like a movie, Wielenberg says. The prix fixe menu—priced at $150 or $250 with wine pairings—features a collection of luxury items like caviar, oysters, lobster, and Champagne.
But the final impression may be as important as the first, and WP24 always sends guests home with something, be it a red rose or house-made chocolate truffles in a gift box. “It’s a nice gesture and while the food is very important, what you take home is a feeling—it’s when all the little pieces come together,” Wielenberg says.
Joël Robuchon Restaurant and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon within the MGM Grand in Las Vegas do the same thing. They gift female diners with a giveaway that’s always something themed, such as a red fruit macaroon in the shape of a heart. “It’s one manner of tipping our hat to the holiday and acknowledging the reason for many people having dined with us that evening,” says Sebastian Dumonet, the director of operations.
The Melting Pot’s chefs love the challenge of envisioning romantic recipes for Valentine’s Day, Lester says, and they submit ideas to the head office for approval up to four months in advance. These are intended for the February 14 prix fixe menus (there’s no à la carte option that night) but some are so good they end up being rolled out to all of the locations.
Similarly, the five-course prix fixe menu ($95) at The Terrace offers special foods, Melnick says. “Usually I start people with a red velvet beet soup, which has a nice lush deep look, and I typically offer a dessert for two to share, a sampling of two or three things—a nice, romantic way to finish the meal,” he says. “Desserts might include chocolate and hazelnut mousse, raspberry crostata, chocolate-dipped strawberries, or a chocolate and caramel tart.”
Canoe does not offer a prix fixe menu for Valentine’s Day “because I like to give people options,” says Basford. “Would it make things easier for me? Sure, but it’s about giving customers the best dining experience we can.” Instead, Canoe offers a slightly reduced menu and adds in some more exotic items like beef tenderloin and lobster—“things associated with the night and with romance,” he explains. “And this gives regular customers something different.”
The Joël Robuchon restaurants serve their regular menus (an 18-course tasting menu and four prix fixe menus) on Valentine’s Day. “Our menus are created for the season, and it wouldn’t do justice to the menu if we changed it for that day,” Dumonet says. “We don’t feel the need to change much since we are already a celebratory restaurant.”
A Memorable Experience
Overall revenue drops slightly on Valentine’s Day at the Joël Robuchon restaurants because sales of expensive bottles of wine drop as more customers drink Champagne, Dumonet says. However, at the same time, food revenue tends to be up slightly because more people (70 to 80 percent) opt for the $445 per head tasting menu (compared to around 60 percent on a regular night), along with one of the three wine pairings (six glasses of wine for $295, $595, or $995 per person). Wine pairings are down, however, since more people continue to drink Champagne throughout the evening.
But overall, people splurge on Valentine’s Day, he says. “People are willing to spend a little more on their loved one. Instead of domestic caviar they might get a nicer, imported caviar. They’re also willing to splurge on some of the smaller things, like pairing all of their courses, or getting a nice Cognac or after-dinner drink,” Dumonet says.
At New York City’s famed Gramercy Tavern, there’s a focus on tradition as well as innovation. “Some people come to us every year for Valentine’s Day,” says general manager Kim DiPalo, “so we just want to keep it interesting.”
The restaurant is considering making changes to its Valentine’s menu this year, perhaps offering just its seven-course tasting menus (including a vegetarian option). The dishes served will include some favorites as well as some new dishes. “We make tweaks to add some surprises,” DiPalo says.
Average checks at Canoe go up slightly on February 14, mostly because wine sales—especially by the glass and Champagne—are higher (though more bottles sell if Valentine’s Day lands on a weekend) and there are more dessert sales. Desserts are a little more lavish, too, Basford says, with additional chocolate-based items such as chocolate-covered strawberries with a brownie, strawberry ice cream, and toasted meringue. He also likes to offer a shareable dessert such as raspberry-filled chocolate cake with chocolate ganache, Chantilly cream, and fresh berries.
The service is the most vital aspect of the experience on Valentine’s Day, Basford believes. “We want guests to come back another night. The service is the most vital part of [making sure] people leave with a positive lasting impression,” he says. Adds Frank: “This is the day to make emotional connections with your customers.”