Happy Valentine's Day. Don't forget the pepperoni (National Post February 14, 2007)

Today is Valentine's Day. And where, Sensible Reader, will I not be found tonight? Hint: I will not be found there for New Years Eve dinner or brunch on Mother's Day either. Precisely. In a restaurant. You'll find me in restaurants celebrating other occasions: birthdays, anniversaries, graduations or even successful potty training--and on a Sunday, a Monday or a Tuesday, but never, never on a Lemmings day.

I don't mind receiving roses on Valentine's Day, or a sentimental card. However cliched the gesture, I at least get exactly what was paid for. What I object to are Hallmark holiday hostage situations. In overbooked restaurants everywhere tonight people will invest their hopes for pleasure in a transiently sellers' market, with restaurateurs doing the celebrants a big fat favour in taking their money. These "hosts" will provide a minimum of solicitude and culinary effort in an atmosphere of maximum stress, impersonality and contrived festivity.

Tonight the celebrant's heightened anticipation of the perfect evening will collide with the restaurant's diminished capacity to deliver it: The odds are not in the diner's favour.

There is a history behind my hyper alertness to high risk factors promising dining disappointment. You see, in my old-fashioned view of the world it is a man's job to respond appropriately to the indignity of receiving bad food and/ or poor service. And alas, it is my fate to have been both daughter and wife to men who suffer from the restaurant equivalent of combined Stockholm/Repressed Memory Syndrome.

It began, as I intimated, with my late father. He was an enthusiastic gourmand who demonstrated manly confidence in all other domains, but whenever a victim of poor restaurant service, he would suddenly start channelling his inner Pollyanna. Once committed to dining pleasure, he took the wish for the outcome, and would avoid disenchantment by applying instant revisionism to negative dining experiences.

On one memorable occasion he took us all to a trendy Toronto restaurant, hyped by local food critics for its "a la minute" cuisine. Well, the cooking may have been 'at the' minute, but the service was 'at the three hours. The portions were minuscule; some of us got the wrong dish hot; others got the right dish cold; and no two meals arrived simultaneously. Nothing gladdened the eye or gave joy to the palate.

But instead of demanding a refund or walking out, my father sublimated his frustration into empathy for the fulsomely contrite waiter. Each fresh apology evoked my father's ever-warmer reassurance and appreciation for his efforts. As dinner drew mercifully to its end, the waiter expansively declared the coffee to be "free." The rest of us were appalled at this nugatory recompense for our suffering, but my father, delighted, thanked this 'good cop' with whom he had psychologically

bonded, fervently declared the perfectly ordinary coffee the best he had ever drunk in his life, and plunked down an exorbitant tip.

My husband Ronny exhibits something of the same dualism -- bold free market businessman, masochistic diner -- but while my father was a compliant hostage across the restaurant board, Ronny's denial is fixated on Pizza Hut, which represents 80% of our diningout experience. Ronny loves Pizza Hut so much he has somehow gotten it into his head that he is obliged to keep the staff there happy if the relationship is to flourish, rather than the other way around.

With its limited menu, rigidly structured operations and wait staff who from my informal longitudinal observation apparently are quite dedicated to their employer, you wouldn't imagine there is much they could screw up.

You would be wrong. Amid the chaos of the busy dinner hour, things can go awry at our local Pizza Hut. Last week, typically, they forgot to put the pepperoni on a pepperoni pizza and brought my second glass of plonk, ordered mid-meal, as the table was cleared. But they're just so sweet about their mistakes, and they apologize so earnestly that ? well, it's deja vu all over again. So of course we will return next week, as we always do. By then all will have been forgiven and forgotten. By one of us.

Happy Valentine's Day. If you have reservations for dinner out, enjoy -- and if not, well, I hope the coffee tonight's the best you ever had in your life.


© National Post 2007