Good news for all you romantics out there: the Valentine's Day dinner is alive and well. It's good news for restaurants and hotels too, as 14 February continues to be a lucrative day in the culinary calendar.
But pink Champagne and heart-shaped cheesecake will no longer guarantee a money-spinning evening. Customers have become more discerning in their tastes, which prompts an endless search for novelty. The day of love is no longer viewed as just a one-night stand; increasingly there's a desire to turn it into a lasting relationship - and repeat business.
Restaurants, it seems, are as diverse as relationships. Each one provides a different take on the Valentine experience, although Champagne remains the favourite lovers' tipple. Food with an erotic reputation, such as oysters and chocolate, have also traditionally featured prominently on menus.
But extras such as jazz music, quirky cocktails and even, at Conran's Floridita in Soho, a chauffeur-driven collection service add a novel twist. And diners, it seems, are trying more varied and experimental options. Christian Sandefeldt, chef-proprietor of seafood restaurant Deep, says: "Recently we've been able to sell seafood platters when five years ago we could hardly get people to buy crab."Capitalist invention
Head chef Fredrik Bolin is more cynical. "Valentine's is an American capitalist invention that I refuse to celebrate. It also attracts restaurant amateurs, but I enjoy working on the day as it's always busy."
Although a set menu is still the standard on Valentine's Day, some chefs seem to enjoy the challenge of a busy restaurant. "Valentine's Day is always a pleasure," says Eric Tavernier, executive chef at the Hempel hotel in London. "The only problem is that when I'm in the kitchen I can't be with my wife."
Hotels also hope to boost their coffers at Valentine's, but guests, like diners, expect more than before. "A dozen roses used to do the trick - now we find customers seeking new ideas to express their romantic aspirations," says Anne Scott, general manager at the Sheraton Park Tower.
The result is the hotel's "suite-heart package", which claims to be "London's most luxurious". At £6,250 per couple, it includes a five-course dinner (with a pair of diamond stud earrings as the digestif), butler service, massage and a night in a penthouse suite, renamed in honour of the big spender's loved one.
As with love, timing is everything when it comes to making money out of the big day. For neighbourhood restaurants in particular, Valentine's Day delivers maximum benefit when it falls on a Monday or Tuesday. For hotels the opposite is true: the biggest boost to occupancy comes when Valentine's Day falls on a weekend.
Nowadays both restaurants and hotels are increasingly focusing on value for money rather than cashing in. Paul Boyce, general manager of London's Malmaison, explains: "We deliberately don't load our prices, but instead see Valentine's as part of our long-term strategy. If people enjoy themselves on the day, then it brings future gains."Increased spending
However, there's still money to be made from other people's affections. The London Malmaison expects to see food and beverage spend increase by 20% and 50% respectively, with up to 30% growth in average room rate on the night.
Jespal Sur, general manager at Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Tamarind in Mayfair, says: "Average spend will increase from £45 to £65 per head due to a fixed-price menu. We can almost certainly guarantee two sittings, so the number of covers also increases. Put the two together and the result is very lucrative."
Sam Harrison, owner of Sam's Brasserie & Bar in Chiswick, west London, agrees: "Normally we'd do 80-100 covers on a Tuesday and this year we'll probably do 100-120. Average spend is also higher, up by 25-30%, as people are more likely to have pre-dinner drinks and Champagne."
Others are less sure of the financial benefits. Martin Williams, general manager at the Gaucho Grill, at London's Canary Wharf, reckons he won't be any better off. "Valentine's Day will reduce the number of covers by a third due to smaller party sizes, but increase average spend from £45 per head up to £75, so these factors end up cancelling each other out," he says.
Another problem is waste, caused by having specialist products for one night only. As Danielle Tarento, who runs the Menier Chocolate Factory restaurant, points out: 'You can't put oysters on as a special over the rest of the week because it's obvious that they're leftovers."Wedding proposals
Despite the jaded views of some, the overall impression is that love conquers all.
"We've witnessed several proposals of marriage," says Bertrand Pierson, general manager of Plateau restaurant at Canary Wharf. "As we now have a licence to hold wedding ceremonies, we hope our customers will go from the wedding proposal to the actual marriage with us."
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