Dinner in a romantic restaurant is a popular way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. But that would have been far from true in the nineteenth century when going to what was known as a romantic restaurant meant something entirely different. Something disreputable.
It took decades before a romantic restaurant dinner became part of an evening primarily meant to please the woman rather than the man.
As late as the 1920s young single women had to guard their reputations closely when they went out in public, especially in restaurants in the evening. Emily Post advised in 1923 that “It is not good form for an engaged couple to dine together in a restaurant, but it is all right for them to lunch, or have afternoon tea . . . They should take a chaperon if they motor to road-houses for meals.”
Things loosened up not long after Emily’s edict, and celebrations in romantic restaurants increased in the 1960s. Yet it wasn’t until the 1970s that the typical Valentine’s Day restaurant experience we know today with its wine, candlelight, and soft music became popular. [see London House, Fort Worth TX, 1971] In the late 1970s and 1980s February ads for candlelit dinners “for lovers only” appeared frequently.
But earlier, when many married women were primarily homemakers, it was enough just to get a night off from cooking, even if the destination restaurant was nothing more than a cafeteria or a drive-in. How odd now to see a 1930s advertisement saying, Take Your Valentine to Dinner at Mrs. Adkins’, a cafeteria where “we never embarrass your pocketbook!” What? no service, no splurging, no Champagne, no tableside theatrics?
Even that pedestrian cafeteria meal was a celebration of sorts then. Being taken out for a Valentine’s dinner was still fairly unusual in the 1940s and 1950s. For many women, the day meant more cooking, not less. Newspaper food columns of the 1950s and even the 1960s gave the impression that mothers were expected to show love for their families by making special dinners for them.
But by the late 20th century, newspapers had changed their focus from family dinners at home to romantic couples-only dinners in restaurants. Even readers living in a city less blessed with romantic restaurants could find a hotel that filled the need. A writer in the Huntsville Times admitted that “the selection of truly romantic restaurants . . . is limited in Huntsville,” but at least there was a Radisson, or a Marriott offering a Sweetheart Dinner for Two consisting of Chateaubriand, Champagne, and Strawberries Romanoff.
In 1979 a Cleveland journalist convinced his wife to travel with him all over the U.S. to verify the romantic value of ten of the country’s restaurants as recommended in an airline magazine. Several failed the test, but they were delighted with Maxim’s de Paris in Chicago, with its “beautiful wall sconces and tiny, rose-colored table lamps, all imported from Paris, and gold service plates that were originally designed for Sarah Bernhardt.” They ate Rack of Lamb that “looked like a picture from a gourmet magazine.”
Guess what kind of food was deemed most romantic – at least by those newspaper food writers who assembled lists of best places to celebrate the day? It certainly wasn’t beef stew or mixed vegetables. Better to be served something sauced, stuffed, or puffed. Many restaurants, in fact, stuck to the old standbys, steak and prime rib, but they didn’t score as high on the romance scale as did those purveying food with French names. Ah, bisque, terrine of lobster, pommes duchesse, tournedos de beef, and Grand Marnier soufflé!
Champagne and long-stemmed roses aside, could it be that the ladies especially enjoyed that their dinners had been fretted and fussed over by male chefs?
© Jan Whitaker, 2019