“What should we do for Valentine’s Day?” It’s a question I get every year. And it’s a question that—more than the one about birthdays or New Year’s Eve—always stumps me. Because romance is different from mere celebration. One couple’s gifts of Godivas and roses is another’s cause for eye rolling. While one pair might relish the ceremonial trappings—freshly ironed tablecloths, dramatically decanted wine—of a place like Restaurant Eve in Old Town, I just want to go to Shake Shack. That’s right: All I want for Valentine’s Day is a $5 burger. And not just because going to fancy three-hour dinners is part of my job.
You’ve surely heard the term “amateur night” every time V Day rolls around—the idea that cooks know they’re churning out dishes for restaurant rookies (those fabled, poorly tipping folks who would wrinkle their noses at the idea of eating sea urchin, or even monkfish) and are thus going through the motions, sending tables molten cakes and filets mignons that nobody, not least they themselves, are all that psyched about. That’s true at many places—like the neighborhood joint that all of a sudden is putting out a three-course set menu for 75 bucks. They’re just capitalizing. It’s less so for the highest echelon of restaurants (think Minibar and Fiola), which routinely stage a grand show for couples every night. They tend to keep doing what they always do.
But it’s not just about amateur night. And it’s not really about the food, either. For me, the things that kill, or at least dampen, the thrill of romance are the elements that constitute the old-school notion of a romantic restaurant. The stiffly suited servers who are perpetually hovering within earshot. The church-like quiet, so oppressive that you’re worried you’ll laugh a little too loudly. The awkward pomp. (I once spent a good six minutes watching a trembly young waiter peel an orange and cut it into segments for a tableside dessert.) When I look around at these places, I see far more couples who seem as if they’re more tensely worrying about having a good time than actually having a good time. And that’s got to make the bill, inevitably $200 and upward, sting even more.
There was a time when Washington’s restaurant scene was dominated by these sorts of dining rooms. When showing you cared directly translated to shelling out lots of cash. Nowadays, the investment you can expect to make is time. Leaving work an hour early to wait in line for one of the 28 stools at Dupont Circle’s Little Serow. (The reward: getting giddily drunk on Riesling while sharing seven searing Thai courses.) Having the foresight to book one of the prime banquettes at Le Diplomate a month ahead. Sleuthing out which wine shop carries the exact bottle of Falanghina you shared on your first date.
But if you’re a Valentine’s avoider like me, there’s always Shake Shack. It’s no bastion of romance, but it allows for spontaneity (something tells me the holiday won’t be its busiest night, so you can go whenever); the salty, diner-style ShackBurgers are fantastic; and actually, it serves a pretty good Sauvignon Blanc.