Every Valentine’s Day, there seems to be two types of couple. Firstly there are those who love the traditions of the date and the opportunity it allows them to celebrate their love through the classic conventions of courtship. On the other side, there are the couples who, perhaps having tired of oversized stuffed toys and poem-emblazoned cards, are looking for something a little different in their displays of affection.
Whether it were the groups of friends celebrating ‘Galentine’s’ (Valentine’s celebrations among a group of female friends) with an evening meal or the couples foregoing the candlelit dinner for a foray into a themed dining experience, this year saw Valentine’s Day foodservice shirk cliché, embracing unique offerings for singles and couples alike. It is clear that those establishments not au fait with the public’s changing attitudes towards Valentine’s Day will continue to fall behind in capitalising upon what can be a very successful service. With cliché now far from the order of the day, what can restaurants do to provide a distinctive Valentine’s experience for diners? We spoke to industry experts Mecca Ibrahim from Great British Chefs and Emmanuel Landré, General Manager at Le Gavroche, about how customisation is the key to taking Valentine’s Day dining from conventional to unique.
In Great British Chefs’ recent shortlist of the top restaurants for Valentine’s Day, is was clear that certain trends can be followed in creating a Valentine’s Day service that will gain the attention of consumers and industry players without being predictable. Indulgent ingredients such as charcuterie, truffles, and, of course, chocolate are still common features among the most exclusive restaurants. However, the stand-out trend was multi-course set menus, offered everywhere from Clapham’s The Dairy to Michelin-starred Ocean at The Atlantic in Jersey.
Emmanuel Landré is General Manager of Le Gavroche, a two Michelin-starred restaurant in Mayfair that is considered a cornerstone of the UK’s fine dining scene. The restaurant has been heralded as “simply London’s Best” (in the words of Sunday Business) since 1967, and in recent years Emmanuel has guided the gourmet establishment through some of its finest achievements, including its placement in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards. As he describes, Le Gavroche offered a similar multi-course menu for its Valentine’s Day service this year. He says:
“We had a special Valentine’s menu, which is the only menu we served on the evening. It was a decadent 7-course menu with optional wine pairings and we served a glass of pink champagne at the start of the evening to set the mood!”
The appeal for diners here lies in the variety. A mistake that many inexperienced restaurant owners can make is thinking that a set Valentine’s Day menu of starters, mains and desserts is enough. However, if you have fewer choices than are available in a normal service, then you are actually limiting guests’ options. Couples do want to see menus that are tailored to the occasion, but not at the expense of variety. Tasting menus and five or seven-course dinners are particularly popular because they give the experience of something unique to the occasion whilst still offering a whole array of dishes to indulge in. The model used by the likes of La Gavroche also works because it allows couples to go through a culinary journey together, one which can be carefully curated by the chef to create an intimate foray into epicurean pleasure for two.
Mecca Ibrahim, Head of Marketing and food blogger from Great British Chefs, explains how the restaurants featured in their shortlist created a Valentine’s Day service that stands out. She told us:
“Restaurants are providing more and more personalised experiences for couples at Valentine's Day. Not content on purely devising a generic set menu and a bottle of sparkling wine, we have found that thoughtful touches such as serving hand-made chocolates and uniquely named cocktails are created to make an extra special Valentine's experience.”
As much as hand-made chocolates might seem like a novelty effort, this kind of gesture is effective in its detail. Guests – especially the more discerning diners at high-end restaurants – can tell the difference between token chocolates bought at the local supermarket and those intricately hand-crafted by your in-house pâtissier. The former is satisfactory for mass-market diners, but the latter will really make an evening stand out.
Similarly, a two-for-one offer on cocktails for Valentine’s Day is pleasant, but it is not something to be remembered. A couple could, after all, get the same during happy hour at their local bar. But there is a lot in a name, and even more in an exclusive beverage that diners can only experience on one evening of the year. Having your resident mixologist craft a special cocktail menu for Valentine’s Day, with the food menu in mind and giving the drinks love-themed names will catch the eye of even the more sceptical diner, showing a real attentiveness that any guest can’t help but appreciate. A fun name and perhaps an aphrodisiac ingredient incorporated with flair is a playful way use Valentine’s Day as a platform to upsell your drinks menu.
Couples that eat together stay together
Fans of Valentine’s Day cite the occasion as a chance to ‘make an effort’ and celebrate their love in a way they might not do on a daily basis. However, this means something different to each couple. In 2017, we saw a marked shift in popularity towards sharing plates and platters, and this was no different during Valentine’s Day.
“We have also seen a trend for more sharing menus where couples can both dive into the same plate. Whether that's a seafood platter or a shared salted caramel fondue as a dessert, moving closer while you are eating increases the intimacy during a meal and helps for a memorable experience.”
Perhaps the appeal in sharing plates is the rejection of reserved etiquette. The more open-minded society becomes, the less couples expect dates to be a formal affair. Those days of dainty clinking cutlery filling the gaps in polite conversation are gone. Just as Mecca points out, couples want to ‘dive in’ and experience eating as a bonding experience. As they say, couples that eat together stay together, and sharing plates are one fantastic way to foster this culinary connection. Today, romance is found less in the mysterious lingering silences of each forkful and more in the laughter found as couples negotiate the sharing platter, forgetting their diffidence as they become lost in endless layers of flavour.
For a large proportion of Valentine’s Day diners, some level of tradition is willing to be embraced. Whilst personal touches remain key, many couples would be severely disappointed if they booked a table at their favourite restaurant with their significant other only to find that no romantic atmosphere had been created at all. The key is not to attempt to redefine romance itself, but to enhance customers’ expectations by giving them more than tired clichés.
Emmanuel points out this issue astutely:
“Your guests have booked a table with an idea of what they’ll experience when they arrive, and Valentine’s Day can be very important for some people, so I’d leave the wild and whacky ideas for another time. For Valentine’s Day, just make sure the experience is a personal one – leave the clichés in the cards!”
Your front-of-house staff are your finest asset here. You don’t need to create theatrics, but attentiveness is key. Hosts should be able to discern each guest’s expectations from the Valentine’s Day dinner and be capable of catering their service to accommodate them. If a couple has a laid-back, playful vibe, waiting staff can engage with this to make the guests feel more relaxed. On the other hand, more traditional couples may want a more discreet service. Talented front of house teams will be able to negotiate these subtleties with ease.
There are also, of course, the extra favours that waiters and waitresses can help guests with, be it the surprise presentation of a special gift or simply taking a photo to remember the evening by. As Zomato suggests, “Have your staff be attentive and ask couples if they need any help with taking pictures of them. Even candid ones. Help them make memories they can later relish in their pictures.”
Each year, restaurants around the world brainstorm in search of that extra soupçon that will really make their Valentine’s Day service stand out. Emmanuel describes the particularly special touches Le Gavroche gives couples on Valentine’s Day:
“It is so important to make each and every guest feel special, and this is even more important on Valentine’s Day. Michel Roux Jr, Chef Patron of Le Gavroche, goes round to every single table and delivers the ladies a rose each, and the gentlemen receive a cookbook.”
This very unique experience is of course largely formed by the excitement of meeting one of the world’s most famous chefs, but an interaction with your head chef is always a special touch for diners. Having the chance to thank the cook for the delicious food they have eaten is an aspiration of any foodie, and the addition of a thoughtful gift is undeniably a wonderful touch.
However, there are countless options for restaurants to ‘go the extra mile’ on Valentine’s Day. For example, the Michelin-starred restaurant in luxury country hotel Northcote offered a welcome champagne, a five-course Valentine’s Day menu and even a Lancashire breakfast to wake up to in the morning. At £385, the experience was far from cheap, but it was certainly unique.
Some couples will be seeking something different to luxury of distinction, and may appreciate the opportunity to share their love in a benevolent manner for the special day. Collective Hub compiled some of the best charitable dates in 2016, such as FareShare’s Valentine’s Day Charity Dinner in Melbourne, where volunteers used surplus food to prepare dinners for those in need. A simple way to incorporate these feel-good elements into foodservice would be to donate a proportion of meal prices to charity for the weekend, a special touch that could be the deciding factor in attracting ethical diners.
Whatever you decide on, a thoughtful gesture will make the evening one to remember for every couple.
Maintain your core ethos
Emmanuel notes that, above all, it is important to maintain your core ethos when planning a Valentine’s Day service. He says:
“I think there’s a very fine line between being unpredictable and cheesy. As I say – stick to what you know works well. Le Gavroche is a classic, fine-dining restaurant and there’s a certain standard our guests expect when they visit us. Unpredictability wouldn’t necessarily work well, so I leave that to the guests that want to propose! But what works for one restaurant might not work for another – think about what your brand stands for, the kind of experience you want to provide, what your guests are expecting, and the feeling you want to leave with them at the end of the meal.”
If guests are visiting your establishment because they love its laid-back atmosphere, they are going to be disappointed if they book for Valentine’s Day only to discover that the proceedings have suddenly become noticeably more conservative. As Emmanuel advises, think about your brand ethos and enhance it – if yours is a quirky tapas restaurant, cultivate an atmosphere of intimate and easy-going sharing with a couple of fun twists to distinguish the occasion. If you have a reputation for your exquisite sommelier service, consider a wine matching experience for the evening of Valentine’s Day, where guests can learn about romantic pairings of wine and food.
Whatever your unique selling point may be, work out how it interacts with the principles of Valentine’s Day, and use this to create a customised experience that makes each couple’s date feel as inimitable as their relationship is.