Valentine's Day is one of the busiest times of the year for a restaurant. If all goes well, it can be an unforgettable meal a couple will remember for the rest of their lives. But with all that pressure to be perfect, things can go horribly wrong. There are countless rings to hide, requests for "the most romantic table" and fires to put out when couples decide to break up in the middle of the dining room. Oh those fires.
Josie LeBalch, chef at Josie Restaurant and Next Door by Josie has seen her fair share of Valentine's Day proposals. But the one that's stuck the most was a grand proposal that involved an unusual couple during her time at Saddle Peak Lodge in Los Angeles. An older gentleman had set up a proposal for his much younger girlfriend.
The man had come early to the restaurant with Champagne and had hired a videographer to follow his girlfriend around during the dinner. Everyone in the restaurant, including the staff, watched as he proposed.
"And then she said no," LeBalch said. "We didn't know what to do. It was really awkward because the camera was rolling, and she just left."
Neal Fraser of BLD and Fritzi Dog witnessed a bad scene that happened to involve flying bacon. During one Valentine's dinner while he was cooking at Grace, a couple argued throughout the meal. And to make matters worse, the woman started to cry.
"She became so incensed at one point that she threw her bacon-wrapped saddle of rabbit at her boyfriend," Fraser said. "It missed him but hit the wall behind him and partially stuck. They left in a huff. Not sure if they paid their check."
Getting stood up
Other restaurants have discovered the drama of a bad date can lead to check-walking, inadvertent or otherwise. Matt Duggan, general manager at Lucques, remembers a time when one Valentine's Day beau got stood up. Irritated, he did everything he could to take it out on the staff, including sending back a steak from the multi-course tasting menu he'd ordered.
"Next time I see him, I'm chasing him down the sidewalk, because he left without signing the check," Duggan said. And then the guy disputed the charge with his credit card company, claiming he had never been at the restaurant. Fortunately, Duggan had his signature on the check confirmation.
"So Prince Charming doesn't get away with it," he said. "But the big winner? That lucky lady, whoever she was, really dodged Cupid's bullet."
Vartan Abgaryan, chef at Cliff's Edge, witnessed a last-minute proposal gone wrong during his time at the now-closed Red Pearl Kitchen.
"The server asked us to write "Will you marry me?" on the dessert plate," Abgaryan said. "We obliged, and from that point on, everyone had their eye out for what was going to happen."
With most of the staff watching, the dessert went out to the table. But no one was expecting what happened next.
"The girl immediately crossed her arms, sat back in her chair and just stared at him," Abgaryan said. "That was followed by a 45-minute conversation and the dessert was never touched!"
But for some lucky couples, Valentine's Day plans can go off without a hitch.
Suzanne Tracht, chef at Jar, remembers when Molly and Tracy, a couple who live near the restaurant, came in for the holiday seven years ago.
Tracy made an excuse to leave the house earlier in the day to walk the couple's dog Lu Lu. She brought Lu Lu to the restaurant and dropped off a package to present to the table after dinner.
That night, when the two women were finished with dessert, Molly unwrapped the package and found a box full of red and white M&Ms that read "be mine" and "marry me." And also in the box was an engagement ring.
A bun in the oven
At Starry Kitchen, owner Nguyen Tran likes to get in on the fun with his customers. Last year he enlisted the help of all the diners to make a Harlem Shake video. "The video was hella fun to shoot," Tran said. And another year, a couple came into the restaurant for the first time on Valentine's Day. "The wife actually used the dinner to announce to her husband that she was pregnant," Tran said. "That was sweet."
At STK in West Hollywood, marketing manager Gisselle Delapuente witnessed a love story worthy of a scene in a Nora Ephron rom-com. A man called ahead of time to have one of the restaurant's regular cappuccino cups switched out with one that had "Will you marry me?" on the bottom of the cup. He was hoping she'd see the message when she finished her coffee.
The server brought out the cup, but the girl wasn't drinking fast enough for her boyfriend. Worried she wouldn't finish, her boyfriend took the cup and started drinking the coffee to make sure she got to the bottom.
"She finally took the last sips from the coffee as the guy got down on one knee in front of the whole restaurant and took the ring out of his pocket," Delapuente said. "We had our servers come out with a bottle of Champagne with sparklers, and all the dinner guests clapped and cheered for them."