The history of the holiday dates back to ancient Rome, but the requisite romantic dinner is an American invention

By Richard Foss (richard@richardfoss.com)

It’s once again that time of year when you look at the calendar and suddenly realize you don’t have a restaurant reservation for Valentine’s Day. Somewhere between frantically scanning pictures of interiors to see if they fit your idea of romance, you might start to wonder: Just when did this tradition of going out for dinner on Feb. 14 begin, and why do we associate some restaurant atmospheres with romance?

The whole topic is murky, starting with why St. Valentine would be associated with romance in the first place. Valentine was a third-century Roman of whom nothing whatsoever is known except that he was executed and regarded as a martyr, and as early as the year 496 there was confusion about what he had done that was noteworthy. Nevertheless, a pope named Gelasius declared him a saint that year, while admitting Valentine was so obscure that “his acts are known only to God.” The first detailed stories about Valentine appeared over 700 years later, and none of them are particularly romantic.

Whatever he did to become noteworthy, Valentine would probably be horrified to hear that his feast day is now associated with Cupid, a pagan fertility god whose name means “desire” in Latin. That association of Cupid and Valentine may have come about from the Roman festival of Lupercalia, a rite of spring that was celebrated on Feb. 15, the day after Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s Day was associated with romance as early as the 1300s, when Geoffrey Chaucer stated in a poem that birds choose their mates then. This did not mean that people sought out candlelit restaurants on that particular day. First of all, restaurants as we know them wouldn’t be invented for another 300 years; and, second, since candles were all they had back then there was no particular appeal to soft mood lighting. Through the centuries the holiday came to be celebrated with the exchange of poetic cards and with small gifts that often included sweet candies and cakes.

The tradition of dining out for Valentine’s Day seems to be quite modern, and the earliest menus and restaurant ads I have found that mention doing so are from the 1930s. For help pinning that down I contacted culinary historian Charles Perry, who confirmed my suspicions.

“The tradition probably arose during the Depression, when any meal out was a special occasion,” Perry said. “Popular restaurants like Sardi’s [in New York] had some tables with curtains so that couples could choose to see and be seen or have an intimate meal while still enjoying the sounds of the orchestra.”

At some of these restaurants, the server would knock or ring a bell a moment or two before entering, which suggests that something more than dining might have been going on inside. (Keep this in mind the next time you go to a restaurant that includes heavy draperies — they were once functional rather than ornamental.) Many elegant restaurants also had a rear entrance that was not visible from the main room, which was handy if your valentine was someone else’s spouse rather than your own.

As to the style of dining at these restaurants, it was “Continental,” in which dishes had French names despite being primarily based on a mix of English and American ideas.

Though Italian cuisine is now one of the most popular for Valentine’s Day, it was a latecomer to the table. As John Mariani documents in the magnificent book “How Italian Food Conquered the World,” authentic Italian dining was long regarded as simple peasant cooking by everybody, including Italians. Though Italians established many of the best restaurants in America, most served “Continental,” American, or French food. The first high-style Italian restaurants in America didn’t open until well after World War II.

The Valentine’s Day dining out tradition is certainly well-established now, and even humble restaurants offer specials and dress the place up as much as possible. As we have become a multicultural society the variety of experiences has broadened, so that just within our coverage area you might have a romantic dinner for two in a sleek contemporary room or a reasonable facsimile of a palace in India, an English pub, Indonesian mansion or a ship at sea.

All this effort at décor aside, the most romantic dinner for many people is a return to the place where they first met, kissed or realized that they were having a meal with someone who they just might want to spend the rest of their life with. Their friends might not understand why they spend what has become a secular holiday of love in such modest surroundings, and they might or might not feel the need to explain. Shared secrets are part of the privilege of lovers, too.