Valentine’s Day is touted as the most romantic day of the year, but venturing out on one of the restaurant industry’s busiest nights is also increasingly difficult.
“Plus, you don’t really get the full experience—even in your favorite restaurant,” says John Birdsall, a West Coast editor of Chowhound.com. “There can be a forced quality to a Valentine’s Day menu. You end up too stuffed, and the bill is usually very high.”
Nonetheless, there are still a few solid techniques to ensure your dollar stretches further and your special day remains a rosy one. Here, we share five strategies to combat the perils—monetary and otherwise—of dining out on Valentine’s Day.
1. Be restaurant savvy
First, set a budget. Then, plan your outing. Whether organizing well in advance or waiting until the last minute, it always pays to strategize—you’ll get the most while shelling out the least.
- Relive your first date. Was it a pizza parlor? An inexpensive noodle house? Perfect.
- Call ahead. It always pays to call ahead, whether to see if your local burger joint is packed or if that favorite place is taking reservations—if only for Valentine’s Day. A good rule of thumb is to book at least one month in advance at a bigger, celebrated eatery, Birdsall says. “Two weeks before the 14th can be panic-time. At that point, it’s time to focus on charming neighborhood places that most couples overlook.” And avoid overcrowding by asking if an establishment will be adding extra tables that evening—a sure sign they will be packing people in.
- Bring your own beverage. Carry in a bottle of Italian Prosecco or a sparkling white, like Spanish Cava (both from around $13), and pay a corkage fee (from $10). One caveat: Call first to see whether it’s allowed. Discount wine shops, as well as Sam’s Club and Trader Joe’s, offer highly affordable Champagnes, too.
- Do dessert. Valentine’s Day is about sweet decadence, so a sugary treat is perfect. When paired with a bottle of wine (affordable when ordering more than two glasses), it’s perhaps the most hedonistic—and budget-friendly—fare ever.
- Go to lunch instead. You’ll avoid crowds and save money. Plus, securing a table should be easy.
2. Find something new
A little digging produces plenty of options, all within your budget—including some that are off the beaten path (and likely less crowded).
- Post a question on Chowhound.com. There, serious foodies dish on the best Czech food in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, for example, or where you can order rose-petal risotto in Atlanta. Suggested selections are often more affordable ones—and cuisine is usually top-notch. “My Valentine’s Day favorite,” says Birdsall, “is Ethiopian cuisine. The food has a certain richness and opulence. It’s also very tactile and sensual: You eat many dishes with your hands, tearing pieces of bread and dipping foods into sauces. It’s very romantic.”
- Similarly, Roadfood.com zeros in on great regional gems along highways, within smaller towns and in city enclaves alike: Think mac ‘n’ cheese joints in Chicago, Texas BBQ in Hill Country, and Indian places in Midtown Manhattan.
- The Zagat app, from Zagat.com, is a GPS-enabled app that proffers the latest restaurant reviews by professional food critics and allows you to search for food by cuisine.
3. Seek deals online
Finding deep dining discounts is really as easy as dedicating some time to surfing the web.
- Check Facebook and Twitter. Simply liking, friending, fanning, or following certain eateries virtually guarantees dining incentives—and you’ll always be aware of special events, says Birdsall. “Smaller, pop-up dining outposts have become a trend. Whether fancier or more casual affairs—those held on a hotel rooftop or inside a warehouse—they feel special. You can still experience a special menu on Valentine’s Day, and the venue is always exciting.”
- “Clip” online coupons. Eater.com, GrubStreet.com, and Restaurants.com are online authorities on dining deals. Eater’s Dealfeed emails discounts; the Grub Street blog is similar, and includes food reviews and restaurant gossip in cities like Boston, Los Angeles, and New York. Restaurants.com offers gift certificates (and eGift certificates) at participating restaurants worth $25 to $100—when you’ve spent just $10 to $40, respectively.
- Browse blogs. Budget-minded blogs such as Hip2Save.com and RetailMeNot.com link to online deals and also provide eCoupon codes.
- Use your NEA benefits. Shop for deals via the NEA Click & Save program (affiliated with Restaurants.com)—there are new ones every day—and opt for emailed notifications of upcoming discounts.
4. Take advantage of credit card perks
Most credit card companies offer incentives that can be used towards dining. A quick Google search can tell you which cards carry perks. Various blogs, such as Mint and Wisebread, also offer insider tips on foodie rewards. And don’t forget about the rewards you can earn through NEA member-only cards.
5. Yes, you CAN choose a different day!
The fourteenth is just a number: Consider designating another day to celebrate. If annoying crowds, a limited menu and inflated prices hardly seem appetizing, dine out on a day before or after Valentine’s Day. After all, some quality time, a meal and all else amorous are always romantic, no matter which day or night they’re executed.