It's 4:30 p.m. on Valentine’s Day, and 400 oysters are waiting to be shucked to order at Canoe in Atlanta. Fifty pounds of house-smoked salmon are ready to be served with more than 100 potato pancakes. Chef Matthew Basford expects to feed 400 to 450 diners on Valentine’s Day, and he estimates approximately one-quarter of those lovebirds to order the filet mignon
The entire restaurant staff is preparing for one of the biggest restaurant days of the year — not to mention one of the trickiest. “Valentine’s Day is sort of the climax of the crazy time that is the lover’s time of year,” says Basford.
Canoe’s canoodling couples come for the restaurant’s manicured gardens, set on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. That and the venue’s “warm, brick-lined dining room” are among the details that made Travel + Leisure name Canoe one of the most romantic restaurants in the country.
But for all the pains restaurants like Canoe take to make Valentine’s Day dining the picture of romantic tranquility, behind the curtains the scene is one of controlled chaos, with cooks hustling to send out 120 filets, cooked perfectly to spec. One sent-back plate can potentially delay the orders of many tables.
“But it’s one of those things that we have down to a science,” says Basford.
The first of Canoe's prep cooks will arrive at 8 a.m. Valentine’s Day. The last of the cooks will leave close to midnight. “I’ve got prep guys who have been here for 15 years that are basically the lifeblood of the restaurant,” Basford says. “They make my job a lot easier.”
A strong crew is necessary to manage a steady flow of hundreds of diners who will drift in and out of the restaurant between 5:30 and 11 p.m. To handle the workload, the kitchen crew tackles tasks by committee. “I take a many hands make light work approach,” Basford says.
Even though the hours are long and the mouths to feed are many, Basford sticks to a simple philsophy: “Don’t panic; it’s just cooking,” he says.
A panic-free staff is also important at Eastern Standard, a Boston restaurant around the corner from Fenway Park that sees plenty of action — particularly during baseball season.
“We get a lot of practice,” says Emmylou Taylor, the restaurant's service manager. “But Valentine’s Day is a totally different animal.”
For one, all of the restaurant's large tables must be pulled apart to make "two-tops", or tables for two. "Because that's most of your business on Valentine's Day, except for the occasional double date," says Taylor, who mentions she'll spend a big part of her Valentine's Day moving furniture.
Eastern Standard will seat more than 500 diners on Feb. 14th. And Taylor said it’s important to make sure each one feels at ease, particularly since it's a big night for people who might not be accustomed to dining out.
“It’s all about the level of comfort,” explains Taylor, who says her servers are well-versed at determining what customers are looking for and talking them through their options. “It's nice when the server’s willing to walk them through the menu, as opposed to just taking the order and walking away,” Taylor says.
Taylor likes to relay to her staff a particularly uncomfortable Valentine’s Day date she endured in her college years at the hands of an impatient server. “Some elements were very stressful,” she says. “The server did a poor job of putting us at ease, knowing that neither of us had gone to a fancy restaurant before.”
One of Detroit’s most romantic restaurants, The Whitney, is housed in an 1893 mansion which has stood for years as an island of old-school elegance. Nearly demolished in the 1970s, The Whitney lived to a see another Detroit renaissance. Its neighborhood bustles with young professionals and hipsters, says director of operations David Duey.
Duey echoes the sentiment that a big part of Valentine’s Day means appeasing diners without much restaurant experience. But novice diners, he adds, are usually looking to go big or go home.
“Valentine’s Day is when a restaurant like ours gets a lot of rookie diners,” he says. “People who don’t generally go to this type of restaurant but are out for a special occasion, and they’re going to go for those luxury items.”
The Whitney, which specializes in throwback classics like beef wellington and surf and turf, will likely feed about 300 on Valentine’s Day. Many of the diners will spring for dishes in the $50-80 range, like a 2-pound rib-eye steak or stuffed lobster, says Duey.
Making sure 300 nervous, big-spending daters leave happy takes more than derring-do in the kitchen. It also takes tactical maneuvers from the dining room.
One of the most important planning strategies is nailing down precisely how long it will take a table to “turn,” which in restaurant parlance means trading one party of eaters for another. Get that timing wrong, and it’s likely that, despite The Whitney’s historic charm, at least one couple will storm out in a huff after waiting too long for their table.
How to fix that from an operations perspective? Add staff wherever you can to grease the wheels, even if it gets a little crowded in the kitchen.
That could mean having a person do nothing but decorate desserts all night. “Where normally the guy who does cold appetizers may be able to handle it,” says Duey. “But that’s the reality of days like Valentine’s Day: They’re very busy, you’re throwing a lot of staff at it, and there’s people everywhere.”