You dropped the ball, plain and simple. You knew Valentine’s Day was right around the corner, and you told yourself to make a reservation. But you forgot.
You consider making a fancy dinner for your girl at home. But she’s not stupid, and no matter how nice a meal you prepare for her, she’s going to (correctly) assume you forgot to make a reservation somewhere.
Apart from Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day is the most popular day of the year to go out to eat, with roughly 70 million people dining out on V-Day, according to the National Restaurant Association. So yeah, the odds are basically zero that a decent place still has open tables. You’re screwed.
Still, don’t give up hope. Restaurant insiders say you CAN land a last-minute reservation on Valentine’s Day. It just takes some legwork — and potentially some cash.
Here are their 5 best tips.
DON’T JUST CALL. STOP BY THE RESTAURANT.
“Walking in and putting your name down is a great way to get a table on V-day at most restaurants,” says Dan Russo, the general manager at Philadelphia’s Urban Farmer Steakhouse.
Russo says it’s common for men to make multiple reservations around town on Valentine’s Day just to keep their options open, or to offer their date the choice of several great spots. A lot of these guys don’t have the courtesy to call and cancel their unused reservations — meaning there are open tables to be filled, he says.
Stop by your top three or four restaurants and ask to speak to the manager. Tell them you’re desperate for a table, and that you’re willing to take something on the early or late side (either between 5:00 and 6:00, or after 8:00).
You may not know where you’re dining until the last minute, but Russo says there’s a good chance you’ll get a call. Just plan to take your date somewhere for a drink before dinner to buy time while you wait for that call.
ASK IF YOU CAN PAY EXTRA FOR A FOUR-SEAT TABLE.
Valentine’s Day is a night out for couples, not groups. That means restaurants with larger booths or tables end up with empty seats, says Heather Rodkey, director of operations for Philly’s Sojourn Restaurant Group , which includes hotspots like Café Ynez and Rex 1516.
“Call around and ask managers if you can work out a deal for a table for four that may not be filled due to the holiday largely being couples-only,” Rodkey suggests. It may cost you an extra $50 or $100. But for the restaurant, it’s a better deal than having a half-filled table.
CONSIDER SITTING AT THE BAR.
Most restaurants have first-come, first-serve bar seating. On major holidays, walk-ins are less common — and these bar seats are often empty, says Christopher Huerte, general manager and sommelier at Philadelphia’s Square 1682.
“On a high-profile night like Valentine’s Day, people assume we’re all booked up, so they don’t bother coming in if they can’t get a reservation,” Huerte explains. “The bar area is usually slower, and can happily accommodate two for dinner.”
It’s not as romantic as having your own table. But Huerte says a lot of couples really enjoy eating at the bar. You can also tell the manager you’d prefer a table if one opens up. Since you’re already at the restaurant, you can bet they’ll do their best to accommodate you if someone else cancels, or a table is free.
GREASE SOME PALMS.
Yes, money talks.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, the general manager of two New York City restaurants says “bribing” the person in charge is a great way to score a table. But it will cost you.
How much? “At a small neighborhood restaurant, $50,” the GM says. “At a larger or fancier restaurant, $100.”
You may feel a little silly doing it. But furtively palming the manager your cash is the way to handle this transaction . Just be sure you’re slipping the money to the person in charge, not to some host or hostess who doesn’t have the power to give you a table.
“Ask to speak to the manager, and have the cash ready for when you shake his or her hand,” the GM says. Say you know it’s last minute, but you’re really hoping for a table. “If you don’t low-ball the guy, he’s going to take care of you,” he says. (You could also try this earlier in the night — around 5:00, or right when the restaurant opens — if you want to be sure a table’s waiting for you when you get there.)
This is a last-resort option—and one that will require some acting. But if you’re desperate to save face in front of your girl, consider showing up at a restaurant and pretending you have a reservation.
Of course you don’t, and the host or hostess will tell you so. But you can say you called “months ago,” and act like it’s the restaurant’s mistake—not yours.
“Yes, we see this a lot, and it’s obvious you’re full of crap,” says the New York GM. “But we’re not going to call you out in front of your date — we’re more concerned about finding a solution to your problem.”
He says you may have to hang out for a bit while the host finds a table for you. But in most cases (but not all!), you’ll be taken care of eventually.
By Markham Heid