How to recreate a restaurant-like Valentine’s Day at home

Valentine’s Day is typically the restaurant world’s biggest holiday, when diners make reservations months in advance at their favourite local restaurants. But — surprise, surprise — everything’s different this year. Continued dining restrictions across the UK mean that we will all be celebrating Valentine’s Day at home. 

But just because you’re dining at home doesn’t mean you can’t infuse your night with a little bit of that restaurant magic. Here are some creative ideas — provided by restaurants — on how to make everything from the table settings to dessert shine on this Valentine’s Day at home. 

The table

The tip: Create some ambience through background noise and table setting.

How to execute: Half of the experience of dining at restaurants is simply being in the dining room, surrounded by murmured conversations, the clink of cutlery on plates, and the background rhythm of ice in a bartender’s shaker. But for those missing that feeling, have no fear: the internet has everything you need to bring the sounds of a restaurant to your home. Cue up some light background ASMR or take things further and play this “Every Restaurant Playlist” at the same time.

Georgea Pappas Haby, culinary research and development manager for Pappas Restaurants in Houston, has a few tricks for upping the ambience. “Add something fun and whimsical to the table,” says Pappas Haby. She suggests easy decorating touches, such as placing candles in hurricane lanterns and surrounding them with seasonal greenery, or adding colour to the table through bright cutlery or glasses.

Another way to set the scene is to set a theme. For example, relive that trip to Paris by picking up food from a local bistro, throwing on some vintage French pop, and lingering over the meal like you’re in a neighbourhood bistro in the 11th arrondissement. Missing that trip to Mexico you were supposed to take this year? Find a restaurant serving traditional dishes in your area, cue up a scenic movie set in the country, and settle in for a night of vicarious travel through food and film. 

The bar

The tip: Kick things off with a special drink. 

How to execute: “Can I start you off with something to drink?” There’s a reason this is the first question you’ll hear when sitting down at a restaurant — starting off the evening by sipping something out of the ordinary helps mark the transition from regular day to special evening. Regardless of your skill level, there are easy ways to make a restaurant-quality drink at home. To keep things relaxed, Maxwell Reis, beverage director of Gracias Madre in Los Angeles, recommends starting with the classics and prepping in advance.

“Pre-batch spirit-forward cocktails and keep them in your freezer,” recommends Reis, adding that if you dilute the cocktail when you build it, there’s no need to add ice. For example, a pre-batched Negroni for four would involve mixing four ounces of gin, four ounces of vermouth, four ounces of Campari, diluting the mixture with four ounces of water, and then freezing until chilled. Then, simply pour as you go — no real-time mixing required.

For those who want to share a bottle of wine, up the ante with a DIY wine tasting. Why not ask the sommelier at your favourite restaurant for some tips? They can recommend wines to pair with your dinner and you might even be able to purchase a bottle or two directly from the restaurant.

Of course, it can always be as simple as just pouring a glass of Champagne. Jimmy Hibbard, bar manager of Chicago’s The Dawson, recommends dropping a berry into the glass for that extra special touch and the perfect pour. “The sugars in the fruit will make it dance with the bubbles, and the acid will prevent the sparkling from bubbling-over,” he says.

The meal

The tip: Add a hands-on element to the meal. 

How to execute: From tableside salad service to watching a server carve meat, a hands-on element in a restaurant adds a theatrical element for a meal. This year, you and whomever you’re celebrating with will take centre stage by creating a dish together. It could be as simple as bringing the raw bar home by learning to shuck oysters, or experimenting with cooking a new ingredient or cuisine. If you’ve never handled bivalves before, ask your local seafood spot for some tips or follow this handy video on how to shuck. Just remember: safety first! 

Perhaps you’d like to try your hand at cooking this year but want a little help along the way. With many restaurants offering detailed instructions with their Valentine’s meal kits,  even first-time cooks can get in on the game.

“Cooking a meal for your partner has got to be one of the most romantic gestures – the perfect way to show your love,” says chef Adam Handling of London’s Frog by Adam Handling. He has created a special Valentine’s Day box for his Hame by Adam Handling home delivery service, which includes caviar, lobster tagliatelle and a whole honey-roast duck. “It’s the kind of food you wouldn’t usually cook at home but, for Valentine’s Day, you can go the extra mile and impress your partner with minimal effort,” he explains.

Check out our round-up of London’s most luxurious Valentine’s Day meal kits or ask your favourite local restaurant if they’re offering special dishes to takeaway or finish at home.

The dessert

The tip: Uplevel your dessert game with some deceptively simple restaurant tricks.

How to execute: Restaurants may have entire teams dedicated to prepping and plating desserts, but going gourmet doesn’t always mean creating something complicated: Kaity Mitchell, executive pastry chef at Portale in New York, recommends making chocolate mousse. “It can be made ahead of time, so you don’t have to worry about any last-minute preparations while you are cooking dinner,” she says. “Set the mousse in Champagne coupes for an extra-fancy look!”

Alternatively, pick up some fancy ice-cream and toppings to end the meal with a DIY sundae bar. Don’t be afraid to think like a chef and mix savoury toppings like nuts and pretzels in with sweet standards like chocolate sauce and sprinkles.

The entertainment 

The tip: Make a plan for some post-dinner fun.

How to execute: A special meal out is often coupled with entertainment of some sort. So, once dinner is done, surprise your Valentine’s Day buddy with a planned activity to mimic that. There are plenty of ways to make a night in feel like a night out, from music and comedy live streams to virtual game nights and movie marathons. Whatever you decide on, don’t forget the all-important snacks. Why not create a snack tray or hamper filled with gourmet popcorn, crisps, chocolate, and pre-bottled cocktails?

No matter how you choose to celebrate, taking advantage of the great takeaways, meal kits, drinks pairings, and service tricks from a local restaurant can help you upgrade your at-home dining game. It’s basically like giving a Valentine to your favourite restaurant: they’ll feel the love, and you’ll get to celebrate over something delicious.

Photo Credit: The Dawson, Chicago, and Tim Green for Hame by Adam Handling.