The statistics of love
One-quarter of American adults are expected to dine out on Valentine's Day.
It is the second-busiest day at restaurants, trailing only Mother's Day.
42 percent of diners say they pick their favorite restaurant or their companion's favorite restaurant for Valentine's dinner, and 21 percent choose a restaurant for its romantic ambience. Special menus are the leading factor for 13 percent of diners.
When it comes to gift cards, 46 percent of men pick them as their preferred gift, compared to just 13 percent of women. Women's top choices? Jewelry (37 percent) and flowers (23 percent).
Source: National Restaurant Association
On Thursday, Valentine's Day, an estimated 70 million people throughout the United States will go out to eat.
The restaurants, you can bet, are ready.
They've ordered the food, the flowers, the little extras for that night. They've planned special menus. They've crunched the numbers, figured out the timing and gone over the extra staffing issues.
Many of the guests that night are not regular diners. The demographic skews young. Love is in the air. There's excitement and anticipation. But there's also occasional over-exuberance . Someone will ask the restaurant to hide an engagement ring in a glass of champagne (they won't) or inside a piece of cake (they can't) or under some rose petals (they will, and gladly).
The best restaurants have a strategy to cater to all of the needs on this night. But they also see an opportunity to win over this largely young clientele and develop a lasting relationship.
There are many restaurants in the Sacramento area that make Valentine's Day an extraordinary experience. We've picked five to highlight. If you haven't made a reservation by now, there's still time maybe. Even restaurants that are booked get cancellations.
2801 Capitol Ave., Sacramento
How big is Valentine's at Biba? It's one of the toughest tables to get in town. More than two weeks before the big day, this great Italian dining destination was booked.
If you want to get a table, you'll have to get on the waiting list.
"This is a very important day for us and it has always been popular at the restaurant," said Biba Caggiano, the restaurateur and author.
A big part of the restaurant's success is its personnel. Many of the employees have been there for years. And Caggiano is always there, greeting newcomers and chatting with regulars.
The four-course special menu is $75. It includes several options for each course. The main course, for instance, offers a choice of classic dishes with northern Italian roots: marinated grilled lamb chops with a stack of pan-fried eggplant; filet of beef with sweet and sour peppers and onions; sautéed duck breast with port wine and black cherries; or roasted salmon with a sauce of butter, capers and limoncello.
There are four desserts from which to choose, including the must-try tiramisu and the crostata di limone (lemon curd tart).
5530 Douglas Blvd., Granite Bay
This is one of the very best restaurants in the region. The food, the service, the ambience, the intangibles. Hawks does it all at a very high level.
According to executive chef Michael Fagnoni, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Molly Hawks, the special prix fixe menu is $90, with optional wine pairings for $45.
The menu includes classic courses like lobster and filet mignon, but the kitchen does it with a bit of an edge. The lobster, for instance, is roasted instead of butter-poached, and the filet mignon will come with something coveted these days by seasoned foodies bone marrow.
"For me, this is an incredibly important day in terms of a guest's satisfaction," said general manager and sommelier Matthew Walker. "This is a day you can really win hearts over. You have a chance to talk to people, get to know them, put them at ease, and do all the things a good restaurant does without being intrusive."
Enotria Restaurant Wine Bar
1431 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento
Executive chef Pajo Bruich looks at Valentine's Day differently. He doesn't want to offer menu items everyone expects. With creative combinations of ingredients and an array of classical and modern techniques, Bruich wants to inspire and challenge.
"The Valentine's (Day) diner is not your average diner," Bruich said. "It's a great opportunity for me to slide in something like duck tongue risotto without scaring them. Rather than play it safe, we will have some fun and unique things on the menu."
At press time, Bruich was still finalizing the themed menu. But he said guests can expect a Passmore Ranch sturgeon course with green apple and sturgeon tartare, along with a sturgeon chicharones. There will also be a course that conjures up the Southern favorite chicken and waffles, only this will be spicy liver pâté with waffles and spiced jelly, as well as Perigord truffles accompanied by pork belly and pomegranate.
The five-course meal costs $75, with optional wine pairings for $50.
"There's going to be a younger demographic, and it's important to us to reach out to them and show them who we are and make sure they understand how important they are to us," Bruich said. "That's what we do. We're in the service industry."
1112 Second St., Old Sacramento
If there's a classic restaurant for a Valentine's dinner, this is it. It's old world. It's grand. The service and food are top-notch.
Overseeing it all is general manager Mario Ortiz, who started at the Firehouse as a teenager 40-plus years ago and never left. He has seen it all, and he looks forward to the special energy on Valentine's.
"I love to see young people on their first Valentine's date," he said.
Ortiz's advice? "Just have fun, be realistic and not get too serious."
The Firehouse's special menu is $125 for five courses with several options. The main course, for instance, gives guests a choice of peppered lamb, pork tenderloin, filet mignon or salmon with a soy glaze.
And if you think of the Firehouse as old-fashioned, then you're the one who's out of touch. It also has a special five-course menu for vegetarians and vegans with such dishes as a Gruyère souffle and vanilla-citrus tofu with macadamia black rice and gingered apricot chutney.
Bistro La Petite France
718 Sutter St., Folsom
Chef Christophe Ehrhart believes he has an advantage on Valentine's Day.
"Yes, I think it helps to be French," he said with a laugh.
Indeed, the restaurant itself is a classic bistro and is very French. While Christophe does the cooking, his wife, Claudine, oversees the service.
The chef likes to have fun with the food on this night. The jumbo seared tiger shrimp vol-au-vent are puff pastries shaped like a heart.
The menu four courses for $79 is not necessarily for fine dining neophytes. The second course is ahi tuna and duck confit tartare with Fuji apple and sweet red pepper salad and a wasabi and honey crème frâiche.
For the robust main course, diners have to make a difficult choice: marinated beef medallions and Roquefort Napoleon or butter-poached Chilean sea bass and Maine lobster with aged goat cheese polenta and green peas veloute.
Your best bet? Order one of each and share.