Tag Archives: romantic restaurants

Take your Valentine to dinner

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


Filed under atmosphere, food, restaurant customs, women

Romantic dinners

No respectable person in the 19th century would have dreamed of even mentioning such a thing as a romantic dinner in a restaurant. The whole topic of “romance” and restaurants was scandalous. Basically it implied a man having sex – and maybe dinner – with a disreputable woman, probably a prostitute, in a private room in the basement or on an upper floor of a restaurant. For decades the term “French restaurant” was widely taken as a euphemism for a brothel, especially in San Francisco. There, at the start of the 20th century, the mayor and his legal counsel made thousands of dollars by shaking down restaurant owners engaged in this trade by having their liquor licenses withheld until they paid for “protection.”

The idea of private dining rooms was an explosive one. An expensive new French restaurant in New York City that wished to be patronized by best society in 1861 felt it necessary to run a special notice explaining its policy: “The Proprietor … fearing that the public has misunderstood that announcement in the papers of the opening of his house, begs leave to notify those who have already favored him with their patronage, and the public generally, that the PRIVATE ROOMS in his house are exclusively for families or dinner parties to order.” Meanwhile, to insure its reputation with society elites, particularly women, Delmonico’s banned even married couples from dining in its private rooms unless they were accompanied by others.

It seems that for a very long time in America’s history there was only one type of food purveyor that might be deemed acceptable for a romantic twosome, and that was not really a restaurant but a place that specialized in ice cream. In late-18th-century NYC this would be a pleasure garden, such as Vauxhall or Contoit’s, dotted with little vine-covered bowers with individual tables inside. There were also some bright and glittery mirrored cafes modeled on those in Paris that attracted young couples and were considered somewhat acceptable.

As late as the World War I era, when restaurants were becoming more respectable, a typical scene in today’s popular media featuring a man proposing to a woman in a restaurant would have been seen as improper. For one thing, it wasn’t really considered totally ok for an unmarried couple to have dinner unchaperoned in a restaurant until the later 1920s. In 1913 a waitress confessed that she was shocked to witness a man proposing marriage. She felt a strong negative reaction to the spectacle:“That was too much for me, and I made up my mind then that if any man ever asked me at the dinner table to marry him I would refuse him on the spot.”

Of course there were plenty of people who defied convention and went to restaurants two by two anyway, and there were restaurants that had romantic attractions such as strolling musicians in the early 20th century. Yet, it wasn’t until fairly recently that restaurants began to specifically and proudly advertise that they were the perfect spot for a romantic dinner. This began to occur in the 1960s, a decade in which more and more Americans went to restaurants in the evening for entertainment.

A popular restaurant in the college town of Columbia, Missouri, exemplified the new trend in the 1960s and the characteristics that would become regarded as romantic. Called the Mill O’Rock, it was in an old grist mill and had a circular stone fireplace in the center of the room with wooden ceiling beams radiating out from it. Young couples flocked there and the owner said it was well known as the perfect place for marriage proposals.

© Jan Whitaker, 2011


Filed under patrons, restaurant etiquette, women