Forget the I Dos for a second. Let’s start with a You Don’t. As in: If you’re going to propose to your beloved at a restaurant, here’s what you don’t want to have happen. When Carlos Lopes, former managing director at the Hotel Bel-Air, in Los Angeles, set out to propose to his first wife, he planned the evening to perfection. He selected a fine restaurant. He hatched an elaborate plan. He schemed with the maître d’. And, at the desired moment, the waiter brought Lopes’s girlfriend a crème brûlée into which the pastry chef had discreetly tucked Lopes’s life savings, in the form of a diamond ring. “Only I was so naïve,” he remembers today, “that I didn’t realize you ate crème brûlée with a large spoon and not a small one.”
Smash went the crust. In went the spoon. And before Lopes could say, “Um, I have something to ask you,” his brilliant-cut one-carat surprise went sliding down his intended’s throat. “Our first hug was the Heimlich maneuver,” he recalls. “My advice to a man about to propose is: Use creativity only up to a point. You don’t want your girlfriend to end up in the hospital on her engagement night.”
At a time when restaurants are more like stage sets than ever, more and more diners are choosing to mark their romantic milestones in the public theater of white-tablecloth establishments. From three-ring proposals to sorry-I-screwed-up dinners, soaring amounts of time and expense are being put into courtship at the table. But from wine buckets overturned by that bended knee to lovers trapped in phone booths or wives and mistresses showing up at the same time and place, mistakes can be catastrophic. So what are the “love secrets” of restaurants? And what are the pitfalls?
Chefs and restaurateurs are delighted when customers get engaged in their dining rooms because it usually means the couple will come back every year to celebrate. But most of them suggest that engagement rings be kept far away from the food. A captain at Gramercy Tavern, in New York City, was asked to tuck a ring into a green salad. “My girlfriend always orders it,” the prospective groom assured him. She did, but the man impulsively ordered caviar to go with it, and the girlfriend found that more diverting. Her date ended up fishing the ring out of the neglected salad with a fork. The Little Door, in Los Angeles, has sidestepped the problem of newly betrotheds having to clean gooey chocolate out of a platinum setting by using a special plate with a trapdoor and a secret compartment. Waiters also dislike having to coerce a woman into ordering something she doesn’t want. (“You’re the jerk waiter trying to push dessert.”) One valentine lost interest in her flourless chocolate torte before reaching the words “Will you marry me?” that her beau had painted on the plate.
A surprising number of proposals are, in fact, turned down. At Gramercy Tavern, a woman once asked a man to marry her. When he didn’t accept the offer, the woman stood up, started cursing, and began throwing plates onto the floor. “Clearly, he made the right choice,” says the captain on duty at the time. At the Four Seasons, a prominent regular asked his girlfriend to marry him. She consented, everyone cheered, and they had a wonderful time. But at three o’clock in the morning, the customer called co-owner Alex von Bidder at home to announce that the woman was reconsidering, and to ask would he please not tell anyone what had happened.
So, if you are determined to propose in a restaurant, what advice do the experts give? First, reconnoiter the place about a week before, preferably on the same night of the week you are planning to pop the question. Confer with the manager about an appropriate table, give him your credit card, and promise to tip 20 percent. At Babbo, maître d’ John Mainieri likes to put couples in a highly visible place, since he presumes that anyone who proposes in a restaurant wants to be seen. “It’s because of reality television,” he explains. “Everyone wants to be part of the cast.” He serves the engagement ring under a cloche. At Union Square Cafe, in New York, Christopher Russell suggests that you let them print a custom menu. “Under the specials for the night, we’ll write ‘Tuna Tartare,’ ‘Ossobuco,’ ‘Jenny, Will You Marry Me?’ Then she comes upon it herself!”
Carlos Lopes advises men to propose at home, let their true love cry in private, then take her out to celebrate. One benefit to this strategy: The woman will generally share the happy news with her parents, who will often call ahead to the restaurant. “If you tip off your future mother-in-law,” Lopes notes, “chances are she’ll buy you dinner.”
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.”