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The Most Un-Lovely Holiday of the Year

For Southern California restaurateurs, that is.


Valentine's Day means champagne, long-stemmed roses and the whisperings of sweet nothings for many. At restaurants everywhere, romance is in the air.

But behind the scenes, it's a different story. And it begins well before the actual big day.

Try being the reservationist at Geoffrey's, a hilltop Malibu restaurant with a view of the Pacific and a reputation for romance.

"The reservations are literally a nightmare two weeks out," owner Jeff Peterson says. "You want to scream. The phones will be going crazy, all five lines at once. I wish we had a recording that said, 'We have no reservations available.' People are offering money."

Peterson has had to disappoint more than a few callers, especially men-who, he says, tend to put off planning. "[In January] the people making the reservations are all women. I think they've been burned so many times by their guy not being able to get a table and waiting to the last minute."

On several occasions, Peterson has dispensed advice to desperate gentlemen. "I tell them: Put a blanket in front of the fireplace, do candles, strawberries and roses and make dinner yourself. That's going to impress her even more."

La Cachette, a California French boite near Century City, creates a totally different reservation sheet for Valentine's Day because the physical setup of the room is dramatically changed. Owners Alie Ko and her husband, chef Jean- Francois Meteigner, rent 20 additional round tables for two and retire the larger tables for the night.

With few exceptions, all the bookings are deuces. "The reservation sheet has a whole lot of attachments and special notes," Ko says. "There are a lot of special requests. You should see the notes in the columns." These range from requests for window, banquette or quiet tables, or the ever-popular "romantic" table, to arrangements for lavish floral bouquets.

The night is challenging for the kitchen staff as well, even with a set menu developed several months in advance. "We have three times the number of tickets and tables," Meteigner says. He calls the result "controlled craziness." 'But if the book is well organized," he says, "it's OK. The great thing is, my wife is the best at seating."

Pastry chefs too are put to the test. Nearly every table, after all, enjoys one, if not two, desserts. "It is hard," says Jean Claude Bourlier, the pastry chef of 25 years at Le Dome, a dimly lit, sophisticated bistro in West Hollywood. "It is time-consuming. It's a lot of preparation."

Except for the signature creme brulee, all the sweets that Bourlier offers are heart-shaped. There are heart-shaped cookies, individual heart-shaped chocolate mousse cakes, even heart-shaped Napoleons. To create the Napoleons, the puff pastry must be cut into heart shapes by hand before baking. "Each piece has to have special attention," he says. "It's a lot of work."

Tara Thomas, chef at Traxx at Union Station, echoes the sentiments of many restaurateurs when she says, "The worst thing is that people will double-book reservations, and you get a lot of no-shows." At Traxx, the Valentine's Day no-show rate soars to 15% or 20%, compared with a 3% no-show rate on a regular night.

"A little cancellation call goes a long way," Thomas says. "We turn a lot of people away."

To discourage no-shows, a lot of restaurants take credit card numbers for confirmation. "We learned our lesson the first couple of years," Ko says. "The first year we opened we had 400 reservations and did 220 people. That's ridiculous. Now we do a form: Charge my credit card for this amount, a certain amount to cancel. We have everything on file. That's necessary."

For all the trouble and extra planning that Valentine's Day means for restaurateurs, one might expect a few spots to close for the night in protest. But the holiday is lucrative. If Eddie Kerkofs of Le Dome had his way, he says, Valentine's would come at least once a month.

In addition to dessert, people order champagne and fancier food. And restaurants get away with charging more. Geoffrey's, for example, offers a three-course prix-fixe menu for $85 per person, not including tax, tip and liquor. An average dinner check per person on a regular night, says Peterson, is in the mid-$50s. "And that's with wine," he adds.

Waiters' tips swell, and not only because checks are bigger. Diners are in good spirits and tip generously; guys want to impress their dates. But not every guest, insists one veteran waiter, is starry-eyed. "I wish I could say all the dudes were really into being there," he says. "But I can't."

Like many veterans of the business, Kerkofs has witnessed his share of holiday meltdowns. "I've seen a couple get into a fight in the middle of the main course, pay the bill, and walk out. It doesn't happen often, but it happens."

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