How to Stop Worrying and Actually Enjoy Valentine's Day, a New Yorker's Guide

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

At 7 p.m. on Valentine's Day last year, I walked into Maison Premiere on the heels of the city health inspector. His arrival ground the restaurant's prix-fixe dinner machine to a halt; beer and wine were flowing, but all food and cocktail service were held while he made his rounds. The servers' panic was palpable as uptight diners got more and more irate that things weren't going the way they had planned. Red roses wilted on tabletops, and stressed-out pre-dinner drinkers tried to bribe the bartender to pour them their Sazeracs anyway.

It could have been a nightmare, if you chose to let it freak you out. Instead, because we accepted the once-in-a-lifetime ridiculousness of the situation, my boyfriend and I had a couple of great glasses of wine from a bartender who was thrilled to talk varietals and left as happy as if we'd had the oysters and cocktails we had planned on.

As the Valentine's Day machine gets rolling full force, it's tempting to swear off the fuss altogether. If you care even a little about good food, creativity, or tastefulness, Valentine's Day can seem like one high-stress nightmare of prix-fixe menus, teddy bears, and chocolate martinis, forcing would-be lovers to balance on a knife's edge between doing the "right" thing and failing miserably.

It shouldn't have to be that way, because there's nothing wrong about a day where you don't have to apologize for holding hands at the dinner table. Valentine's Day is your one shot to do what you want in the name of love without judgment from the rest of the world. Doesn't that sound nice? And if you can do so while making the holiday your own, so much the better. Here are a few ways to think about going out on V-Day without driving yourself crazy.

Mixed Mezze Platter

Mezze at Sip Sak are always a good time. [Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Go to a restaurant serving its normal menu. Yes, many, many restaurants are limiting their usual, exciting menus to a set handful of safe, boring dishes, like brunchification, but with romance instead of eggs Benedict. Not only are these meals snoozefests, they can pose a real problem for couples that are one-half vegetarian, and other culinary May-December matches. But don't give up; there are still lots of restaurants that aren't changing things up today, especially those that specialize in international cuisines.

Sharing a table full of mezze at Sip Sak or dim sum at Nom Wah can be just as romantic, and each diner gets exactly what they want. The plush breads at Oda House are built for sharing and can accommodate vegetarians easily, while a few blocks up, Donostia is serving some killer Spanish bites alongside an equally impressive sherry list. Best of all? Places like these don't immediately translate to "romance," so Valentines crowds won't be as overbearing.

Carrots at Empellon Cocina. [Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Or, find a decent prix-fixe menu. Not all prix fixes are created equal. It's okay for a kitchen that knows it's going to be slammed on a certain night to pare down its offerings to the dishes it knows it can execute flawlessly over and over again. Compare a place's V-Day menu to its everyday dinner menu—are some of the same dishes listed on both? That's a good sign. On the flipside, a themed menu that puts an emphasis on supposedly aphrodisiac ingredients or "romantic" dishes (I'm looking at you, molten chocolate cake) is a serious red flag.

Places that know their strengths will serve you well: Empellon Cocina's menu reads like a greatest hits list, from their roasted carrots with mole to carnitas tacos, while sushi temple 15 East's menu includes their fabled chawan mushi and handmade soba. In Williamsburg, the aforementioned Maison Premiere is sticking to its elegant seafood roots. (Don't worry, the DOH probably won't strike two years in a row.)

Passion Fruit

Making chocolate at Kee's. [Photograph: Donny Tsang]

Plan an activity. Into the theatre? How about a Valentine's Day performance of Sleep No More, preceded by dinner at the unbelievably atmospheric restaurant the Heath? Down for some Valentine's chocolate? Go to Kee's or Jacques Torres shop and pick out an assortment of truffles together, then head home to eat the whole thing in one sitting. Or how about some head-to-head competition and Blue Ribbon fried chicken at Brooklyn Bowl?

Rather than let pre-arranged activity packages tell you what to do, pick one key element of your relationship and find a couple of activities that relate to it and to each other, even if it's tenuous.

Now tell us: what are your Valentine's survival strategies?