'Like a morgue': Sydney restaurants prepare for Valentine's Day

Josh Dye
Valentine's Day in Sydney for Good Food. Messina rose
Valentine's Day in Sydney for Good Food. Messina rose  Photo: Supplied

As Valentine's Day approaches on Friday, the restaurant industry is preparing for one of its busiest nights of the year.

Mark Smit is the manager at O Bar & Dining, a revolving restaurant with harbour views on the 47th floor of Australia Square. Those views don't come cheap, however, and guests who choose the most expensive Valentine's Day package will pay $745 each for a four-course meal, Cristal champagne and a bunch of roses. 

Demand is high despite the hefty price-tag and Smit says the restaurant is on track for a sell-out Valentine's Day in line with previous years. 

"We still have some bookings available but they're going pretty quick."

The odds of a marriage proposal increase dramatically on Valentine's Day and Smit says he expects one this Friday. O Bar staff even have a secret code if they know a diner is set to pop the question. 

"We will call it a 'Code Muriel', derived from Muriel's Wedding," he says.

Upon the guests' arrival, the proposer discreetly slips the engagement ring to an O Bar waiter, who delivers it to the kitchen where the chef prepares a special dessert. When the moment arrives, both dessert and ring are delivered under a cloche of liquid nitrogen mist.

"As soon as it hits the table you can't see anything - it's like a big cloud," Smit says. "Then it will appear and it's up to the gentleman to do his thing." (He recalls one instance of a woman proposing to another woman, but never a woman proposing to a man.) 

"The atmosphere can be nervous at first, but that's what we're here for. We break the ice and slip them a drink." 

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O Bar limits their offering to a set menu to keep things simple, but Smit says it will still be a busy night for waitstaff because the inflated bill means guest expectations are sky-high. 

"They spend a lot of money and we are here to provide a service for them. We want them to have a fantastic experience." 

In spite of expensive set-menus, more dinner reservations are made for February 14 than any other day of the year according to data supplied by restaurant booking website The Fork. 

Last-minute romantics are plentiful too, with 31 per cent of Valentine's Day reservations are made within 24 hours of the big date.

Late reservations won't be possible at Surry Hills restaurant Nel, however, which has been booked out for the occasion for more than two months.

Nel owner and chef Nelly Robinson said there's around 15 marriage proposals a year in the restaurant, but they don't always end happily-ever-after. 

"We've had nos straight away and girls saying 'can we do this at home?' or 'can we talk about this later?'."

Robinson says when his staff know in advance about the proposal, they sometimes take bets in the kitchen about whether it will be a yes or a no. 

"Mostly I've lost. I'm not very good at gauging it." 

He says the mood on Valentine's Day is often quite low, describing it as "like a morgue". 

"People don't speak. It's a night they have to go out to show they love each other instead of going out on the other 364 days of the year." 

Citing similar hushed dining rooms and set menus, Good Food Guide editor Myffy Rigby says Valentine's Day is "unequivocally the worst day of the year to eat in a restaurant".

"If you truly loved your significant other, you'd cook for them or take them on a picnic and serenade them with a baguette and a few slices of ham," Rigby says.

"Anything rather than booking a set menu in a room packed with countless tables of people eating the same thing. I can't think of a worse torture, personally."