Stephen Jardine: Valentine’s one night when all rules are off

Valentine's Day dinner is the night the rules go out the window. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Valentine's Day dinner is the night the rules go out the window. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IT’S the most romantic evening of the year, but will you love your meal out, asks Stephen Jardine

A few years ago I ended up fronting an item on breakfast television about Valentines Day. It involved a live broadcast from a church in the Gorbals in Glasgow where, bizarrely, some relics of St Valentine are kept in a special casket under lock and key.

Quite how that led to one of the biggest nights of the year for the restaurant trade is shrouded in as much mystery as the bones of St Valentine.

Research shows a disproportionate number of low scores end up on restaurant review sites on 14 February. How could it be any other way? For one night all the usual rules of eating out are suspended as every restaurant in the land becomes C4’s First Dates meets The Undateables.

On an average night, a happy restaurant will have a couple of big parties, a few tables of four and some couples. That makes for a good and interesting atmosphere. On Valentines night it is wall-to-wall couples and that completely changes the dynamic and usually not in a good way.

The fact that the restaurant is full of people following tradition rather than seeking great food tends to send some chefs into flights of fancy. Think parma ham, asparagus and, inevitably, Prosecco. In fact you can get away with just about anything on a menu tomorrow night as long as you surround it with love hearts and cherubs.

On that basis, it’s no wonder waiting staff reach breaking point. Trip Advisor features a litany of people complaining their Valentines experience was ruined by restaurants who served them too slowly. Or too quickly. Then there are the people complaining about the music. Or the lack of music.

The very organised secure the best tables in the best restaurants at the best times. The less organised end up with a booking at 9pm in their second-choice restaurant. And the least organised end up with a takeaway and a row at home.

And even if you do end up eating in a favourite place at a time that won’t lead to midnight indigestion, there is then the problem of your fellow diners. Just when you are feeling smug about having made all the necessary arrangements, some bloke at the next table will whip out a red rose or, even worse, a diamond ring. Every other man in the room then lets out a gentle groan as they realise they will be measured against this gold standard…and be found wanting.

So my top tips for Valentines Night are the following. Don’t stay at home and pretend you are opting out of the whole commercial juggernaut. That just makes you look like a miserable cheapskate. Instead grab the chance to share some love with Scotland’s restaurant sector on a cold, dark night in February. Choose the venue carefully and don’t be afraid to go off piste. The Italians and the French do romance well but steer clear of any place that claims to be romantic. That just means it is old and draughty.

Wherever you end up, have a happy Valentines night. And remember, even if the date is a disaster you will still be having a better evening than the poor staff who are having to serve you.