Go to a Casual Restaurant for Valentine’s Day


Photo by Damien Petit

It is, ironically, difficult to have a pleasant date night on Valentine’s Day, when every “nice” restaurant replaces their normal menu with a mandatory and expensive prix fixe. Some couples actually like those dinners, and have a fun pre-packaged date night. Other couples like to cook at home, or to ignore the holiday altogether. But if you want to have a typical “date night” out on February 14, your options will feel limited. Here’s how to navigate that strait.

First, give up on restaurant reservations. The places that take reservations are the ones that pull out the pricey menu and the garish decorations. When you call, they might even assure you that they won’t mandate a prix fixe menu—and then on V-Day, they will. This has happened to me and I have no idea why! But you can sidestep the whole question by only going to non-reservation restaurants.

Don’t settle for a mediocre restaurant. To do this is to mistake confuse quality and fanciness. If you want a nice V-Day date, but you settle for a restaurant you don’t actually like, you will feel disappointed and resentful.

Instead, find a casual but “cool” restaurant. The coolness will replace fanciness, and your night will feel just as special. You can go somewhere new or familiar, but go somewhere that you could call “fun” or “popular.” Depending on your comfort level, this could mean (as it did for me one year) an “upscale casual” place that serves tortas and tacos on kitschy plastic trays. Or it could mean a nice sandwich shop, a hipster food court, or Chinese restaurant. A place with a healthy crowd and decently high turnover. These are the places that would lose money if they suddenly switched to an hour-long prix fixe.

You can’t always predict which of these places will suddenly get mobbed on Valentine’s Day. So what you really want is an area that’s full of these casual dinner options. It’s probably cold out, but steel yourself to walk a few blocks, or drive by a few parking lots, with at least three specific restaurants in mind. There’s always a risk that they’ll all be full, so if that freaks you out, have a backup plan: another cluster of restaurants, or a bar where you can console yourselves with a drink before going home and cooking pasta.

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In fact, plan to move to a bar either way, again some place that’s not “romantic” but is still fun and special. Your casual restaurant probably doesn’t want you to linger too long, and if you’re not used to it, taking your date to a second location will feel like a special thrill. (For some of us, even going to a bar as a couple, just for ourselves and not for someone’s birthday or going-away drinks, is already a heady and glorious extravagance.)

Another upside of skipping reservations is that you can schedule some other activity and not worry about the timing. Valentine’s Day is good for live theater, or anywhere that the seats are assigned so you won’t feel mobbed by any holiday crowd. Or once you’ve gone out for dinner and drinks, you can head home for some Netflix while still feeling you had a special night. You can exchange a little gift, something quirky but not too goofy, in the same spirit as the dinner. Avoiding the clichéd chocolates-and-steakhouse experience takes some effort, but so does anything special, and so does learning to be happy on your own terms, not those of the Valentine’s Day Industrial Complex.

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