In the Times’ “What to Cook this Week” newsletter last Sunday, subscribers were greeted by a bit of subtle Valentine’s Day editorializing from Sam Sifton: “Of course we have recipes for that night, and for some heartwarming cocktails to go along with it,” he wrote, then added, “At least if you’re not heading out to a restaurant for too-sweet Champagne and too many chocolates after the oysters and filet mignon. I’ll pass.” The Guardian’s Anna Jones shares his preference: “As time goes by, maybe I am softening to the kitsch of it all,” she wrote in a recent piece. “But I’m still not one for a restaurant on Valentine’s Day, so we stay at home.” At Chowhound, the writer Pamela Vachon was more emphatic: “Entertaining at home for Valentine’s Day has become synonymous with actual love. Actual love. You know, the kind that doesn’t require reservations, overblown expectations, underwhelming menus, and the casual eye-rolling of disgruntled restaurant staff.”
We all know these arguments by now, but each year they seem to grow louder: Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark holiday, spinning love into gold like so many cynical Rumpelstiltskins. Among those who truly love eating out, Valentine’s Day represents contempt for the art of dining, for good food, and for decent value. What’s more, if you do venture out, you’ll be surrounded by suckers who’ve bought into the sham, and who—unlike you—fail to grasp the true meaning of love. Basically, you’re paying several hundred dollars to have a picnic on one of those Robert Indiana “LOVE” statues in mid-February, while quaffing sweet champagne that has mysteriously managed to stay warm.
I’m alive to these arguments. And I’ll admit to being perverse in my eating habits (see: my enduring appreciation for brunch). But I am somewhat weary of being hectored on this point each year. For my money, as long as you’re doing Valentine’s Day you should do it right. It’s not meant to be an elegant holiday. It’s cheesy, and that is its charm. Is it so shameful to admit to the world that you’re “in love”? Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the suspicion that lingerie has been purchased, and donned—or maybe just the public avowal of sex after coupledom—that secretly alarms the holiday’s detractors.
Maybe because I grew up in a resolutely nonreligious home, the kids’ holidays—Valentine’s Day, Halloween—took on an extra, unambivalent air of festivity. On Valentine’s Day, pancakes were heart-shaped. Red was worn. Every kid in our class received a homemade card. The British food writer Nigel Slater puts it well in his book “The Kitchen Diaries,” where he writes, “St. Valentine’s is a bit like Christmas, in that if you ignore it, you always end up regretting it, feeling mean and cynical.” (Granted, he too avers that “home is the place to be.”)
As an adult, Valentine’s Day seems to me less like Christmas than like karaoke: it takes a lot of energy to be negative about it; go with the flow and you can have a blast; and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” might somehow become imbued with real emotion in the process. It’s a feeling that requires other people to share it, and for that I’m willing to pay a prix fixe. There’s also the good old-fashioned treat of eating out: for those of us who put meals on the table every night—and plan those meals, and shop for them—dinner in a restaurant is nothing to sneeze at.
I’ve written before about my preference for eating out on Valentine’s Day, preferably at a rather moth-eaten restaurant where the food might be bad, but no worse than usual. But the truth is it’s more than possible to dine out well on February 14th. In New York, at Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton has been going all out for years, presenting dishes that have included éclair swans and classic shrimp cocktails, as well as menus with titles like “Love in the Time of Cholera” (pigeons, coffee flan) and “Medea” (lamb with feta). This year, in London, Quo Vadis is teaming with the funkier St. Leonard’s for an evening that its Web site describes as “rakish and rugged, ice and fire, smoked eel and foie gras custard. . . . A coming together of apparent opposites to electrifying effect.” What’s not to like?
And remember, if you’re still feeling shy about partaking in the festivities, don’t worry: you’re unlikely to run into anyone you know. Assuming they heed the experts’ advice, they’ll all be at home, laboring romantically over a hot stove.