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It’s restaurateurs, not lovers, who should claim Saint Valentine as their patron saint. His titular day is an annual gift to them and the entire catering trade.
Outside London, the reality is that most restaurants are short of customers for large parts of the year, a status quo punctuated by seasonal bursts of activity. Christmas, with all those workplace outings, those families who prefer to have the big meal out rather than in, gives restaurateurs a reliable tranche of business. January is dead time in catering, the reason why so many chefs head off on exotic beach holidays at that time.
But Valentine’s Day presents restaurateurs everywhere with the first New Year opportunity to bring in a serious chunk of revenue. And there’s a compulsion, a lingering “I haven’t been attentive enough” guilt about Valentine’s Day that ripe for exploitation.
This makes it one of a few days in the year when restaurateurs are released from any semblance of offering good value. Instead they can devise a menu that gives them an audacious gross margin (profit) on their costs without encountering a murmur of dissent.
Courses typically include steak (for the men), and farmed fish sold at a wild fish tariff (for the women).
With all that special occasion candlelight and bubbly, only the most churlish diner would spoil the sparkle by complaining that the food was overpriced, or that the wine was rubbish.
For the opportunist restaurateur, the first knack of money-spinning the St Valentine’s way is not merely a full house, but packing in more tables than usual. So don’t be surprised if sweet nothings whispered by lovers at the next table are audible at yours, and be patient if the service slows to a snail’s pace because the establishment hasn’t staffed up to serve more diners than normal.
Expect a ‘special’ tasting, or very limited choice, menu. These restrictive propositions allow restaurateurs to be quietly dictatorial, so steering customers into a ‘choice’ that suits the restaurant’s bottom line.
A classic Valentine’s formula typically involves starters that seem deluxe and aphrodisiacal – seafood, asparagus – and can be priced accordingly. Subsequent courses typically include steak (for the men), and farmed fish, such as sea bass or bream, sold at a wild fish tariff (for the women).
Vegetarians and vegans are mainly palmed off with a lucrative “plant-based” carbohydrate option (pasta, risotto, sweet potato, squash) that contains a smidgen of some seemingly classy ingredient, such as truffle oil, to lend cover to what is, in terms of the kitchen’s costs and effort, a ludicrously marked-up dish.
If you do want to take your darling for a romantic meal, you’d be well advised to pick almost any day of the year.
And once you’ve stepped into the Valentine’s honey trap, you won’t want to look like a skinflint scanning the wine list for the cheaper bottles, so here’s where alcohol cranks up the final bill.
Your Valentine’s Day food cost is £50 per head and upwards, with wine packages, thoughtfully tailored to each dish, of course, easily adding on another £45 per diner. But who dares baulk at that price? Yes, why not go along with the management’s wine proposals; this is Valentine’s Day, after all.
Actually, if you do want to take your darling for a romantic meal, you’d be well advised to pick almost any day of the year other than that of the eponymous saint. But if you do choose to go ahead on Thursday irrespective, may St Valentine bless you.
It must be love.
Joanna Blythman is an award-winning investigative journalist, the author of seven landmark books on food issues, and one of the most authoritative, influential commentators on the British food chain. A great believer in basing your diet on whole, unprocessed food that you cook yourself, Joanna is a passionate supporter of independent shops, markets and similar non-supermarket outlets. Guild of Food Writers Food Writer of the Year 2018.