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.
Whatever customers are up to in the dining room, passions can also heat up in the kitchen. The Kleins met when Desta started serving at W.A. Frost during Russell's tenure as executive chef. Desta says she asked her future husband out by handing him a menu she'd supplemented with the item, "Cafe avec Desta?" In due time, she found herself following in the footsteps of her parents, a cook and waitress who met while working together. Shortly after the Kleins were married, they secured the site of their second date and their wedding reception—the former home of A Rebours—and turned it into Meritage. The events inspired Meritage's slogan: "Cooking is like love, it's all about timing and chemistry."
Chef Stewart Woodman admits he had a bit more trouble wooing his wife and namesake of his restaurant, Heidi's, whom he met working at a tony New York restaurant. "I remember the first time I saw her on the line at Le Bernardin," Woodman recalls. "I came around the corner and saw her standing there, and I thought, 'That's the woman I want to marry.'" Unfortunately, Heidi didn't feel the same initially. "She wouldn't give me the time of day," Woodman says. Three years later—after losing a bet on a Vikings game to Stewart—Heidi finally relented to a date and eventually drew him back to her home state of Minnesota.
Chef Lenny Russo of Heartland also confesses to having made a less-than-stellar impression on his wife and business partner, Mega Hoehn. When Russo took over the kitchen at the Loring Cafe, one of his first interactions with Mega, the cafe's best server, was to yell at her for breaking one of his rules. Russo recalls that after the incident Mega told her mother that she was going to have to quit her job because the new chef was "such an asshole." By the next time Mega's mom asked if things were any better with the chef, Russo says she responded, "I'm dating him." Why the change? "It was like one of those romantic comedies when the people hate each other's guts and end up falling in love," Russo says.
Chefs, for their part, tend to see Valentine's Day in terms more practical than romantic—they're always working, and often very hard. "It's kind of like blood and guts in the business," Woodman says. Fortunately, most don't seem too personally attached to the contrived celebration. "I like to think that I do not need Valentine's to have romantic nights all year long," remarks Vincent chef-owner Vincent Francoual—a tendency he attributes to his French genes. But chefs do appreciate February 14's ability to bring people into restaurants during the slow winter months. "I know it's a fake holiday," Russo says, "but it's great for our industry—it's such a shot in the arm."
If you don't have romantic plans this Valentine's Day, you may want to consider getting a job in the restaurant business. "It's a breeding ground for people hooking up," Russo says. "It's like musical chairs. You hope someone doesn't have an STD, because everybody's gonna get it." The position to shoot for, Russo says, is that of the chef, as the ability to cook is a powerful seducer. "You can be the fattest, ugliest, smelliest, homeliest guy, or the dumbest," he says, "but if you're good at it, you're going to get laid a lot."