Twin Cities restaurateurs tell saucy tales of frisky foodies

Lovebird diners often caught in the act

On Valentine's Day, the Nicollet Island Inn should be cuter than a heart-shaped box of chocolates, more intoxicating than a bottle of champagne, and at least as romantic as Prince's boudoir. With its cozy tables and pretty river views, the restaurant inside the charming old inn draws nearly 300 couples on our national night of big love. Some of the guests will book the Ultimate Romance Package to combine their dinner with a carriage ride and an overnight stay, and if things play out as they have in years past, manager Ross Long expects there will be dozens of wedding proposals. "I almost need to have a security guard on hand because there are so many diamonds," he says. As Long recounts stories of guys spreading rose petals on the restaurant's tabletops, reading poetry, and getting down on one knee, he can't help but get a little choked up. "It's like there are angels in the room," he sighs.

In talking to several other local restaurateurs, I learned some of the more popular proposal tactics: printing "Will you marry me?" on a faux menu, or writing it in chocolate ganache on the dessert plate. Hiding rings in sugar bowls, presenting them atop cakes, or dropping them into glasses of champagne. Fortunately, no one reported any accidental ingestions. "Usually the guys spend enough money on 'em to make sure they're not getting swallowed," says Leonard Anderson, chef at W.A. Frost. For all the unique proposals restaurateurs have seen, one thing remains the same: The proposer is always nervous. "They're just a wreck," says Bob Crew, Frost's manager. "Some are complete basket cases."

Much like the Nicollet Island Inn's, Frost's ornate, historic digs—replete with fireplaces, tin ceilings, and oil paintings—lure many a romantic. Crew says wedding proposals are, in fact, a regular occurrence. They happen so often (perhaps a dozen times a month, Crew estimates) that the restaurant has a customized setting in its online reservations system so that proposing couples can be assigned one of their coziest tables. After an acceptance, Crew says, the joyous screams and tears will spur the rest of the dining room to applaud. In rare circumstances, a proposal is rejected, which usually means a swift signal for the check, though once, Crew says, one poor woman locked herself in the restroom for half an hour.

La Belle Vie partner Bill Summerville describes the experience of hosting a proposal—of knowing what will happen before all the characters do—as like watching a sitcom. La Belle Vie's staff is known to be highly attuned to the needs of its guests, and they are so unflappable, Summerville says, they were almost looking forward to the challenge of an online reservation in which the booking party had written in the notes, "Possibly getting divorced." (In the end, the couple never showed.)

If you are going to propose in a restaurant, Summerville offers this advice: Go with a restaurant you trust. Be sure to contact them in advance. Try not to be nervous. And order champagne. La Belle Vie will provide the snuggle-friendly same-side seating, the dim lights, and the fine food and wine, but the rest is up to the guest. "We're the foreplay," Summerville says. "He's gotta seal the deal."

In exchange for facilitating romantic events, restaurants often secure lifelong customers. "A lot of our guests who have been proposed to here, or got married here, or had a rehearsal dinner here, tend to come back every single year and make it a tradition," says Sarah Wussow, D'Amico Cucina's manager. Desta Klein, who owns Meritage with her husband, chef Russell Klein, says they're very flattered when customers choose to celebrate such milestones at their restaurant. "It's such a compliment for a restaurateur," she says. Chef Jim Kyndberg, whose aphrodisiac-heavy menus of truffles and chocolate draw many a romantic to his Bayport Cookery, shared the secret of why men propose in restaurants: It makes anniversaries a snap. "The guy doesn't have to think about it," he says.

A restaurant's amorous ambiance can create challenges when it inspires what Ross Long at Nicollet Island Inn calls "over-romantic" behavior. Long says his staff tries to discreetly discourage any too-public displays of affection "without getting the hose out." Usually, a little "ahem" or bringing out the next course will do. If you want more privacy for your evening, consider renting a restaurant on a night it's closed (my friend proposed to his now-wife on a Monday night at Lucia's) or book one of the three tatami rooms at Fuji Ya. Inside the small, private rooms, guests take off their shoes and sit on the floor, which adds to the intimate mood. "I don't think anybody gets down and dirty," says Fuji Ya manager Dan Keefe. "But we've had a few times where a server will come to me or the other manager and say, 'We've got a knock situation,' and then you know to kick the door a little bit before you come in."

Occasionally, closing managers have discovered couples in secluded alcoves or banquet rooms doing the sorts of things, as one phrased it, "you should probably have a hotel room or a house to do." Years ago, when La Belle Vie's Summerville worked at another restaurant, he says he walked in on an amorous couple with their clothes down to their ankles. "I turned out lights so they could leave with some semblance of dignity," he says.

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