Restaurant people might loathe me for writing this while experienced diners might quietly applaud me.
I’ve been burned too many times to be a diner on Valentine’s Day.
I’m not alone. Every year, readers call me the morning after Valentine’s Day complaining about Restaurant X not meeting Diner X’s standards. I feel for them.
Valentine’s Day is a formula for a potential mess – an overburdened kitchen and a clientele with high expectations for perfect execution on a high-pressure night. Talk about performance anxiety. My sincerest apologies to restaurant owners. I don’t intend to hurt business, and I know you need it more now than ever.
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All that being said, diners will still insist on dining out Valentine’s Day. I get that. And restaurants really could use your money. Here are a few thoughts to help with the experience:
Restaurant owners, please consider
* Keep extra staff on the floor to navigate tables, fill water glasses or answer questions about the night’s menu. Diners get restless when they feel ignored. If it’s going to be a long wait for food, disclose that. Don’t lie. Keep drink glasses filled! Bring bread. Do anything. Just don’t ignore us, please. * If you are requiring diners to order from a prix fixe or limited menu (which I know can save your kitchen staff’s sanity), please warn diners when they make reservations. Every year, I get phone calls the day after Valentine’s Day from diners complaining that the regular menu was unavailable.
* Offer something complimentary if you keep someone with a reservation waiting for more than 15 minutes or if food is exceptionally delayed. A glass of sparkling wine or cider, or an amuse bouche won’t cost you much. You might get a customer for life. Diners appreciate the effort. A heartfelt apology about a wait doesn’t hurt, either.
Diners, you're not off the hook. Here's what you need to remember:
* If you haven’t made a reservation for Valentine’s Day, you might be out of luck. Call your favorite restaurant now! But seriously, you waited until the Friday before Valentine’s Day to make a reservation? You’re in trouble. Don’t blame me if your wife is mad at you.
* When you make reservations, ask the restaurant if they’ll be requiring diners to order from a set menu. Restaurants often do this to ensure quick turnaround from the kitchen on a high-traffic night. The smaller the menu, the easier it is to execute. If you want to have your favorite entrée from the regular menu, you best ask the restaurant in advance if it’s available. And do ask what’s on the set menu. You might not like the choices.
* Arrive for your reservation five to 10 minutes early. That’s what good diners do. Bad diners show up for reservations late. Shame, shame, shame.
If you fall squarely into my “I will not dine out” category, here are strategies that worked for years for me and others I know who eschew Valentine’s Day dining out:
ONE: Go out for cocktails, skip dinner
Lounges almost never require reservations. A well-crafted drink in a sexy environment sometimes is the perfect touch for a romantic night. You can follow up with a meal prepared at home later. Here are a few picks for cocktails:
The hand-crafted apothecary and quiet coziness of 1022 South. Cinnamon-infused tequila and echinacea and cayenne-infused gin make for sexy Valentine’s Day sipping. 1022 S. J St., Tacoma, 253-627-8588.
Sweet drinks at Indochine. Try the Pink Orchid or Thai Kiss. 1924 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253-272-8200.
El Gaucho for wine and cocktails. Dark, moody, a piano player. What’s not to like? 2119 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253-272-1510,
TWO: Share a meal, but NOT on Valentine’s Day
A few days before or a few days later, here’s a lovely concept: Meals meant for sharing.
Think wood-fired pizzas, well-crafted platters of sushi, plates of oysters. All things that you can dig into together.
At Pacific Grill, you can get oysters on the half shell or a remarkable seafood platter built for two (but not on Valentine’s Day, when only oysters on the half shell will be available), 1502 Pacific Ave., Tacoma, 253-627-3535.
Share a bowl of pho at Vien Dong in the Lincoln District (3801 Yakima Ave., Tacoma, 253-472-6668), or Pho King, which always starts its meals with complimentary cream puffs (1020 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, 253-272-6287). You can even re-create that cute scene from “Lady and the Tramp,” only with rice noodles.
Get wood-fired pizza from Primo Grill. I love the flavors of the wood-fired prosciutto pizza with fig balsamic preserves and goat cheese. Rich and wonderful. 601 S. Pine St., Tacoma, 253-383-7000.
Enjoy sushi roll platters meant for sharing. TwoKoi (1552 Commerce St., Tacoma, 253-274-8999) makes a salmon lover’s roll with a lemon-onion relish that might make you swoon.
Gari of Sushi (1209 S. 38th St., Tacoma, 253-475-3456) makes a brilliant salmon, crab and mango roll called a mango paradise you really must eat with a lover.
THREE: Takeout, takeout, takeout
Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese. These are good options for creating a meal at home on Valentine’s Day.
Call your favorite go-to Asian restaurant and ask about takeout in advance.
Flying Fish for bento or Korean bulgogi. 2723 N. Pearl St., Tacoma, 253-752-7675.
Tacoma Szechuan for pork with hot garlic sauce, the ginger crab or ants on a tree. 9601 South Tacoma Way, Tacoma, 253-581-0102.
Le-Le for panang curry, eggplant tofu stir fry and Thai lemongrass. 1012 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Tacoma, 253-572-9491.
Galanga Thai for larb gai, spicy chicken with crisp basil, and eggplant with sweet basil. 1129 Broadway, Tacoma, 253-272-3393.
FOUR: Create your own meal
You could collect a nice selection of high-end cheeses, oysters from the fantastic seafood department, and a selection of fresh fruit atMetropolitan Market, 2420 N. Proctor St., Tacoma, 253-761-3663.
How about a prepared take-out meal that just needs heating? Capers Cafe & Take Home in Proctor is offering just that. Pre-order by Saturday and pick up tenderloin steak with pancetta and mushrooms with mashed potatoes and vegetables ($19.99) or spicy tomato fettuccine with fresh Dungeness crab ($14.99). Other dinner items, desserts and wine also will be available for takeout. Capers Cafe & Take Home: 2602 N. Proctor St., Tacoma, 253-761-4444.
FIVE: Consider breakfast
What? Really? Yes, really. It’s less busy and for some people, it’s the favorite meal of the day. A few suggestions:
Affairs Cafe for imaginative food, incredible truffles to go. 2811 Bridgeport Way W., University Place, 253-565-8604.
Buttered Biscuit for chicken-fried steak as big as your head, delicious French toast. 1014 North St., Sumner, 253-826-6099,
Shakabrah for scrambles. They have great coffee and a funky atmosphere, too. 2618 Sixth Ave., Tacoma, 253-572-2787.
YOUR TURN: Do you skip traditional dining out on Valentine's Day? What do you do instead? Comment below.