Marriages aren’t just made at restaurants; they come apart there as well. Mainieri once sat a man at a secluded table so he could tell his wife he wanted a divorce. “I thought he was joking,” Mainieri says. “But he said if he had done it in their hotel room, she would have started breaking things.”
Julian Niccolini, of the Four Seasons, says that February 13 is one of their busiest days of the year. “Men bring their mistresses then, so they can bring their wives on Valentine’s Day.” Being adept at knowing what to do when a married man brings another woman into the restaurant is key. “Once, a man came in with his mistress, and his wife was already in the dining room having lunch with some of her friends,” Pasquale Vericella, of Il Cielo, in Beverly Hills, tells me. “I went up to him and said, ‘Sir, I have a phone call for you.’” Vericella promptly led him out the back door into the parking lot. “I’ll have your car brought around and send the lady home in a cab.”
One of the reasons restaurants have learned to be diplomatic is that make-up dinners can be extremely lucrative. A certain celebrity from Los Angeles, who was caught in a high-profile adulterous imbroglio, reserved the back room at Il Cielo and paid handsomely to fill it with rose petals and candles and to serve every imaginable delicacy, including heart-shaped pasta. The marriage survived.
Many couples, of course, try to do more in restaurants than just eat. The hand under the table or up the blouse is a common stunt. Most places have standard ways of dealing with the situation. One restaurant dispatches a veteran female server who tries to mother the pair (“Now, kids”) into embarrassment. In another, a silent maître d’ might hover imposingly over the table until the couple notices and is shamed into more appropriate behavior. If a man and woman should slip into the ladies’ room for a quick sauté, so to speak, says Russell of Union Square Cafe, he will generally send in a female host to oust them. “We do have couples who come out of the bathroom with smiles on their faces,” acknowledges one of the waiters at The Little Door, “but out here in L.A., it’s usually drugs, not sex.”
On some nights, too much action isn’t the problem; too little action is. A number of the restaurant pros I spoke with don’t like Valentine’s Day because their dining room loses its buzz. (One unexpected piece of advice: The easiest reservation to get at an overbooked restaurant is a six-top on February 14, because the only people who dine out that night are couples.) And what’s new, the veterans say, is the increasingly active role women play in plotting romance. Carlos Lopes once helped a woman invite 50 close friends to a supposedly routine meal with her fiancé. It quickly became a modern version of a shotgun wedding.
At Gramercy Tavern, a woman once excused herself, telling her husband she was going to the ladies’ room. She approached her server with a box, asked him to wait five minutes, then place it in front of her husband. She then slipped out the front door. When her husband opened the box, he found a hotel key. “He was pretty embarrassed when he left,” remembers a former staffer. “But all of us were congratulating him. We knew what he was having for dessert.”