Matteo Pignatelli loves Valentine’s Day – it’s a chance for him to wind people up.
“I’ve got a little Tiffany’s bag, and I’ll go up to the table and say to the guy, ‘Now? Now?’ They look at each other and they’re trying to work out who organised it. It breaks the ice,” Pignatelli laughs, “especially when they’re young and nervous or if they’re not talking."
In his 18 years at Matteo’s, a well-loved contemporary “occasion restaurant” in Melbourne’s Fitzroy North, Pignatelli says he’s seen at least one proposal every Valentine’s Day. “One year we had three of them, and it’s not always yes. Half say, ‘I’ll think about it’, another 25 per cent say, ‘Of course!’ and another 25 per cent say, ‘No’, and ask for the bill straightaway.”
Elaborate public proposals are all part of the hyper-romance and retail-driven expectations of the night. At Daylesford's Lake House, Larissa Wolf-Tasker says they've had light planes sporting "will you marry me?", banners, fireworks displays, white dressage horses, and diamond rings in dessert. “No-one’s ever choked. We’ve all done Heimlich training though," she says.
One night, a white-tuxedoed violinist played to every table in the dining room, before stopping at the table. The fellow got down on bended knee, she said yes, and the restaurant clapped and cheered. "Some people do it very publically,” says Wolf-Tasker.
Jessica Schutt from the Bathers’ Pavilion at Balmoral Beach says her favourite proposal was when a guy cordoned off about 20-metres of beach out the front of the restaurant and wrote, “marry me” in the sand. “It took him about two hours because he raked the whole the beach and then dug the letters with his hands,” says Schutt. All went well.
No-one’s ever choked [on a ring in a dessert]. We’ve all done Heimlich training though.
Pignatelli had a good one: “About 10 years ago, I had an older couple, and his kids came in and asked her, ‘Will you be our mother?’ That was really nice actually. They were in their mid-40s, the kids would have been 11 or 12. She said yes.”
Like any successful surprise, forward planning and secrecy are all part of the theatrics, and waiters and restaurateurs are usually pre-warned, often needed for smooth stage direction, or to salve any bungled propositions – such as a public popping of the question (by poster) with two “Emilys” in the same dining room.
“Usually they engage our staff so we can help ease them into the situation,” says Wolf-Tasker, "We always recommend that they do it before the meal so the poor guy or girl doesn’t have to sweat through three courses."
“They’ll drop off the ring beforehand and bring it out for dessert,” says Pignatelli, who has also been asked to print a custom menu with “Will you marry me Rachael?” on the dessert list. “They’ll get all nervous and go to the toilet beforehand and wash their hands. It’s funny to watch.”
Loren Daniels from Vue de Monde says they’ve had all the regular cliches: roses and champagne, diners arriving by horse-and-cart, requests for whole poems to be written on plates, and over-the-top displays of affection by couples out for a smoochy date.
“Valentine’s Day brings out the love in everyone, so it takes stealth by the waiters to get through 10 courses with canoodling couples at the tables,” she says, adding that food and experience tend to take a backseat. “It’s couple city, but last year a group of 12 single girls booked the private room, which was fun.”
Daniels also recounts tears at the table and mid-degustation departures. “For some, it’s the one day of the year that can be quite definitive when weighing up the future of the relationship, and sometimes having a table for two in a restaurant on Valentine’s Day becomes a deal-breaker,” she says.
“I think there is a lot of expectation of being taken out on Valentine’s Day,” says Liz Dickson from Rubyos in Sydney’s Newtown. “One year we had a couple have a big argument. The guy stormed out, and left her sitting there." He did pay for the dinner on the way out, though. "Valentine’s Day is a day of emotion, one way or another,” says Dickson.
Pignatelli, too, tells of “many, many tears and people fighting” and says that one year a girl – on a Valentine’s Day date – gave her number to one of the waiters.
One change that Pignatelli has seen has been regarding gay couples. “We get a lot of same-sex couples,” he says. “Ten, 12 years ago, a lot of people of would look at them and, not snicker, but whisper, ‘That couple must be gay’, like it was something unusual. Now people don’t say anything. That’s been an interesting change.”
Of the restaurateurs interviewed for this story, many refrained from going into the specifics of Valentine's Day hi-jinks, including Sydney’s Aria: “We tend to keep these things private,” the manager politely declined, “We don’t really like to shout out about people’s proposals.”
Others disclosed off-the-record stories, peppered with "you cannot write about this" caveats, showing that there is dirt to dish about this topic but that clients’ confidentially is upheld, despite the juiciness of the tales.
So, rest assured that any V-Day indiscretions will stay safe this Thursday - the waiters won't kiss and tell - and good luck to any future knot-tiers.
Happy Valentine's Day.