Of romantic meals, fibbers and fish knives
February 14th, 2012
09:15 AM ET
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Once upon a time, I had a perfect romantic meal. It was ten years ago, but that doesn't much matter. The restaurant, by design, existed outside of time – mid-century French fanciness, untouched by fad or fashion. It seemed not outside the realm of possibility that the same tuxedoed waiters had been escorting the same fresh-faced and helium-bosomed young ladies (and their uncomfortably collared "uncles") to starched and sumptuous banquettes since the restaurant's opening in 1960, and that the maitre d' had air-kissed the same doyenne's surgically-taut cheek with the exact vim and deference he had since the year her Chanel suit was new.

It was Valentine's Day, and for a girl who frequently sported combat boots and a battle-scarred heart, this was as close to Hollywood l'amour as I'd ever gotten. In previous Februaries, I'd poured my heart into handmade cards, meticulously-chosen poetry volumes (and the occasional glass of single malt for myself), and had received, on various occasions a power drill, "I dunno - where do you wanna eat?", "Oh shoot...we're doing this?" and inevitably the bill for whatever entertainment ensued.

Red roses - delivered to my door, not snatched last-second and half dead fom the corner deli - were new, to say the least, as was a suitor in an actual suit. I did my best to rise to the occasion, with a festive vintage cocktail dress, thigh-high stockings thick enough to (mostly) obscure my tattoos, and shoes with enough lift and point to be sufficiently posh, but not quite dwarf my handsome, but vertically compact date. I studied up on the use of fish knives and the pronunciation of "quenelles," then breathed deeply at my reflection in the mirror. "You're worth it," I exhaled - and half believed it.

None of this quelled my nerves as I tottered under the front canopy and down the hall once trod by the likes of Diana Vreeland, Truman Capote and various members of the Kennedy clan. But then - those waiters. They of pristine jackets and seamless, boundless grace knew in a heartbeat that they had an haute dining virgin on their manicured hands, and were as gentle as could be.

To this day, I have never had that dinner's equal in elegance. No Champagne flute drained past the halfway point, the Dover sole (which I may have ordered specifically for fish knife deployment) was butter-drenched to the point of obscenity, and everyone - from "niece" to chic nonagenarian - sparkled expensively against the backdrop of pale, tasteful draperies and Parisian murals.

Eventually, the toque-sized soufflé arrived. The waiter drizzled a thin stream of Grand Marnier-augmented crème anglaise through a fissure in the top crust, discreetly ignoring my date's increasingly cheeky snaps of my garter belt straps. I was sold - both on the tufted jewel box room and the treasures within, as well as the kind of man who deemed me worthy of such grandeur.

When I nestled against my paramour's chest later that night, drunk on the splendid Champagne and headiness of the night, I exhaled. "I am worth it..." And this time I almost completely believed it.

As it turned out, to my shock and horror (and no doubt hers) when I found out some months later, it was his wife who'd actually deserved the petals and pomp that night. He'd kept her existence from me, and mine from hers, and for a very long time after, anything that hinted at "romance" took on a very bitter flavor, indeed.

The next Valentine's Day found me dining alone amongst nuzzling couples at the swankest restaurant in Reno (these things are relative) in a sort of self-punishment. "Can I get the Valentine's Day prix fixe, but cut in half? I can eat it alone in my room if you don't want to spare a two-top. Oh, you have a table for me at the center of the room? Uh...thank you."

The thinly-mustached waiter sidled over to see how I was enjoying my venison medallions, likely noting that I was just pushing them around the plate in a grim approximation of someone actually dining. He leaned in, "You are the loveliest woman in the room, yet you are the only one who is alone."

Thanks, I hadn't noticed. It seemed I could do fancy all by myself, but finding any joy in it was beyond my grasp.

The Valentine's Day after that was marginally better, with thoroughly forgettable food, and a kind enough heart across the table, beating for me warmly, if briefly.

And the year after that - I remember the menu exactly, because it's what I've eaten across the dining room table from my boyfriend, and now husband every year since. It's steak (heart-shaped the first year), pattypan squash and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms with a bottle of ink-black madiran. The closest thing to a hovering waiter is our greyhound, hoping he'll get a scrap or two at the end of the meal.

Once upon a time, we shared a perfect romantic meal. He and I sat in our ancient, drafty Jeep in the parking lot of a North Carolina Harris Teeter supermarket. We were cold and tired after a long holiday slog through snow-packed highways and ice-skimmed streets and just needed something to eat before we went any farther.

We strode into the store for provisions, then went back to the car to take turns quietly dragging Captain's Wafers through a small communal tub of pimento cheese. No fish knives were required.

More on Valentine's Day dining

soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. The One Who Knows

    After twenty-three years of marriage it's still a tuxedo, a dozen red and a dozen white long-stem roses, dinner at a GREAT Italian restaurant, a horse-drawn carriage ride, and a night in a luxurious hotel room facing the rising sun of morning. When I ask my wife what she'd like for Valentines, she always says "spoil me like you did last year". She looks absolutely stunning in her gown (she too wears thigh-high stockings, but for an entirely different reason) and turns quite a number of heads. Of course, I don't need a holiday to spoil her...and I have my parente to thank for teaching me the value of appreciating a lady.

    February 17, 2014 at 8:18 am |
  2. SixDegrees

    I got a box of Girl Scout cookies.

    February 17, 2014 at 3:19 am |
  3. w

    As a chef I find any meal that someone else prepares for me alone outside of a restaurant "romantic".

    February 16, 2014 at 5:48 pm |
  4. Rupert

    V-Day...? unfortunately, we seem to get into a fight that morning – and lasts about 3 days.

    February 15, 2014 at 10:15 pm |
    • John

      Vote for Latino president of the US. Also, we need to to start using Mexican money. Since we need to speak Spanish let us merge to Spanish ideals.

      February 16, 2014 at 9:17 am |
  5. blf83

    I shall never forget the "romantic" dinner I was preparing, even thinking I could repair an already broken marriage in which my wife was having an affair, with oysters on the half shell with a champagne mignonette sauce, tournedos with a twist on a bearnaise sauce, I forget the sides, and a blackberry soufflé. However, lacking a proper oyster knife, I valiantly tried using a Henckels paring knife, the tip of which broke with the second oyster and the knife went into my left thumbnail. Hours later, a roll of paper towels, after a quick trip to the ER, stitches and a bandage worthy of a cast, the romance was long gone anyway.

    February 15, 2014 at 3:49 pm |
  6. Jute

    No matter the venue, it's always the thought that counts.

    February 15, 2014 at 2:18 pm |
  7. Dan60093

    After much trial and error, I have decided that a full stomach is detrimental to good sex (romance, right?). Come in from the beach about 2 PM and shower together. Than spend a relaxed 2 or 3 hours enjoying each other's bodies. I know a lot of guys are thinking that they don't need any 2 or 3 hours, but women can and do. As one woman once told me about her husband after saying he was the world's worst lover, she had told him that he would not get to go inside her in the future until after she has an orgasm. Also, she expected to have several. Mouths and vibrators are important to achieve that.

    February 14, 2014 at 7:03 pm |
  8. sockpuppet1984

    and why does it all revolve around eating? You don't need to spend any money or go anywhere, and gifts are definitely out of the question, Jjust spend time together.

    February 14, 2014 at 3:06 pm |
    • EW

      So how much time do you spend with someone before you get hungry?

      February 14, 2014 at 10:40 pm |
  9. Ann

    On Cape Cod, there's a particular beach, and on that beach, there's a particular life guard chair. On many summer trips, my hubby and I would stop at the local grocery store for some bread, cheese, pate and salad ... and of course a bottle of wine. We'd take it to that life guard chair in the evening, after the crowd had gone home, and have a picnic as we watched the waves.

    February 14, 2014 at 12:53 pm |
    • mplaya


      February 15, 2014 at 1:52 pm |
  10. NODAT1

    this is probably rare, but for over 22 years V day for us have been grocery store flowers, a card, a nice home cooked dinner and watch a movie together. We save the money that would be wasted on expensive roses and restaurants and buy something that we both can enjoy for more then a couple of days.

    February 14, 2014 at 10:21 am |
    • jzaks

      Nice to know we are not the only ones who do this.

      February 15, 2014 at 7:24 am |
  11. Karl Erich Martell

    What a lovely article, beautifully written. Thanks so much, Ms. Kinsman.

    February 17, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Kat Kinsman

      And thank you so much for that!

      February 23, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • mountainlady

      I agree. Lovely and well written. I also have to admire her courage and class in dining alone in a restaurant in the lean years. I hid out at home. One comment to the "home cooked dinner" crowd. If dinner is cooked at home....someone has to cook it. My husband wisely picked the cozy local joint. We don't need to impress each other with a fancy and expensive restaurant after all these years but romance to us means letting someone else cook.

      February 14, 2014 at 5:40 pm |
  12. EB in TX

    @ Kat Kinsman - what a great story, wonderfully told. This may your best eatocracy entry yet. I especially like the ending.

    If you ever manage to be in Paris with your man and you want a chance for something else truly memorable and romantic, I suggest you put Lasserre on your list. Truly one of the most romantic restaurants I know of, and you will not forget the experience or the food. If you go do try to be there on a slightly warm and rain-free evening - then you can watch the typically French muraled ceiling part to revel the night sky.

    February 15, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Thank you so much for every bit of that!

      February 15, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
  13. Jacque

    A picnic basket filled with wine, gourmet cheese and crackers, fruit, and chocolate.
    An iphone or ipod with speaker for music.
    Setting would be on a blanket at the beach at sunset or in our own backyard in the moonlight.
    Much better than "going out".

    February 14, 2012 at 10:16 pm |
    • Kathleen

      This is the perfect romantic dinner.

      February 14, 2014 at 9:56 am |
  14. Harden Long

    No woman will ever be truly satisfied on Valentine's Day because no man will ever have a chocolate penis that ejaculates money.

    February 14, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • thankyou for making me laugh

      I just found out my dog (14) probably has only a couple of months to live (tumor) and I just want to thank you. I didn't think anything could make me laugh today, but you just did.

      February 14, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
      • K9zgirl

        I am sorry about your dog:((

        February 15, 2012 at 3:19 pm |
      • Kat Kinsman

        Ditto - that is gut-wrenching about your dog. Been there, and you have my full sympathy.

        February 23, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
    • Jerv@Harden Long

      LMAO! God bless ya.

      February 15, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  15. Who cares

    Bottle of cheap vodka, and tell her she has three orifices, and two hands. Pick which ones you don't want me to use!

    February 14, 2012 at 6:21 pm |
  16. Cara

    One of our most romantic was fresh peaches, a sharp chedder cheese and a fresh bauggete we picked up at a farmers market that morning. We ate our meal sitting in a small cabin in W. Va. where we celebrated our anniversary.

    February 14, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  17. Richard Ottens

    only Le Pavillon could have been more romantic than La Grenouille

    February 14, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      It was La Caravelle, but La Grenouille is on my list for...someday...

      February 14, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
  18. Romaine

    Definitely outdoors – nice isolated island beach at sunset with a gourmet picnic.

    February 14, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  19. splum

    We are getting take out dinner from the restaurant where we had our wedding dinner and (almost) every Valentine's Day & anniversary dinner since. With an infant, we just want to keep our evening low key... until she goes to bed!

    February 14, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
  20. Mildred

    I had a very similar experience for my 30th birthday (quite deliberately chosen by me, the "I grew up in a trailer park, but love fine experiences... and OMG I'm going to *bleep*/mess this up" girl)... and it went just as beautifully.

    Fortunately, my date was truer to me than yours was to you (for which you have my deepest sympathy). I'm glad you have such a wonderful husband and an appreciation that not every perfect romantic meals has to have tux-clad waiters.

    And your Valentine's dinner menu sounds wonderful... care to share recipes?

    February 14, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  21. Johnny Appleseed

    I give her a 6 pack and expect her to put out. The rest of the year she brings the beer to me.

    February 14, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Booby G

      Spoken like a true gentleman Johnny.

      February 14, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  22. Bridget

    Skip the food.
    Restaurants are too overbooked and I cook dinner every night of the week. Just take me to the bar and open up the bourbon.

    February 14, 2012 at 11:48 am |
    • Mal Content@Bridget

      Will you marry me?

      February 14, 2012 at 11:52 am |
      • CN Red

        You beat me to it, I thought the exact same thing. Haha!

        February 14, 2012 at 11:58 am |
  23. chevmostert

    What a lovely write-up, very much enjoyed! I hope you have a happy Valentines this year, what more could you ask for than to be with a man you love, who loves you back.

    February 14, 2012 at 11:28 am |
  24. Multi-Tasking @ Work

    ***sigh...my 1st Valentine alone this year. needless to say, I am a Hero who ditched the Zero. Happy Valentine's Day everyone

    February 14, 2012 at 10:51 am |
    • Mal Content

      I feel your pain. In honor, here's a brief playlist:

      Adele, "Rolling in the Deep"

      Keith Urban's "You'll think of me"

      Chicago's "Look Away"

      James Taylor's "Fire and Rain"

      February 14, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Empathetically Speaking@Hero

      ))))))Valentine's HUGS(((((( Go out someplace you've never been before and party like it's ... 2099. Whether it's a club, a book store, a bar, a gourmet grocery store, a mall or a corner ice cream store you've been meaning to try. Go out tonite and give yourself a fun time. Then tomorrow at work, people will wonder why you're wearing a Mona Lisa smile.

      February 14, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • Single&Smiling

      I agree with Empathetically Speaking@Hero!
      Take it from someone who always seems to be alone on Valentine's Day – take yourself on a date even if it is just at home with a glass of wine and a good book or a guilty pleasure movie. I cannot wait for my night because it is all stuff that I want to do and that's what today should be about...you feeling fabulous and loving yourself!

      February 14, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  25. Mtngal

    I love a great romantic restaurant and fine dining. But tonight we'll be cooking lobster at home under candlelight, which is pretty romantic, too.

    February 14, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  26. AleeD®

    I married the most romantic man on the planet and he has exposed me to the finer things in life. That being said, anything we do together is romantic enough for me.

    February 14, 2012 at 7:58 am |
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