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Romance to go: How restaurants are reimagining Valentine's Day amid COVID-19

Restaurants across the country are pulling out all the stops to make sure the most romantic day of the year is still a success.
You can expect to see more meal kits with curated menus and paired cocktails or packages that include meals, flowers and candy.
You can expect to see more meal kits with curated menus and paired cocktails or packages that include meals, flowers and candy.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Valentine's Day is normally a big night for the restaurant industry, with prix fixe dinners, decadent dessert offerings and wine pairings all designed to evoke romance. But with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing many eateries to shut their doors or limit capacity, restaurants are rethinking how to make February 14 a love-filled and lucrative day.

Steffen Schebesta, CEO of Sendinblue, a digital marketing firm for small businesses, told TODAY Food that the importance of a successful Valentine's Day can't be underestimated.

"Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest days of the year for the restaurant industry," Schebesta said. "This year, amid the pandemic, restaurants are under enormous pressure to attract new guests and offer unforgettable dine-in or takeout services. While we all can’t take our loved ones out for a romantic date at an Italian restaurant around the corner, we can still support restaurants during this difficult time."

Schebesta said restaurants will be offering prix fixe meals that can be cooked or reheated at home. He said that personalized notes, red roses and even complementary bottles of wine will be used to make guests feel special even while they're social distancing.

“Pre-pandemic, Valentine’s Day was the second busiest occasion of the year for the restaurant industry," Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association told TODAY. (The first busiest is Mother's Day.) "It’s often a chance for restaurants to innovate special offerings and promotions. This year, however, restaurant holiday specials will reflect consumers’ altered lifestyles."

Riehle said that along with the usual heart-shaped foods, guests can also expect to see more meal kits that include curated menus and paired cocktails or packages that include meals, flowers and candy.

"Also look for restaurants to find new ways to bring people together at a distance, such as virtual cooking classes that provide all the ingredients and lead couples through the steps of making a signature meal at home,” said Riehle.

At Immigrant Food in Washington DC, chef Enrique Limardo has a Valentine's Day concept that will definitely turn up the heat for couples. In addition to their to-go food menu, the restaurant is offering a Light My Fire dessert box ($79 for two people) that comes with hand torches to put the finishing touches on shareable treats like Belgian chocolate cake, crema Catalana, DIY s’mores, and creamy Brie cheese. Lovers will swoon as they watch sugar burn, chocolate melt and cheese soften.

"With this Valentine's Day box, we wanted to create a unique experience for people to enjoy at home during these times when going out is difficult," Limardo said. "The box is filled with sweets from around the world that are not just delicious, but it's also an interactive experience! You supply the love, we supply the torch!"

For guests looking for in-person dining, Rat's Restaurant located in Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, New Jersey is the ultimate place to step away from the reality of COVID-19. Guests will feel like they've stepped into a Monet painting and the gourmet country French cuisine makes it place one of the most romantic places to dine on the East Coast.

“The setting of Rat’s Restaurant is romantic by nature with soft candlelight and lush interiors, but this Valentine’s Day, it will feel more intimate than ever," general manager Michael Kurtz told TODAY Food. "Our dining room has already been converted to allow for more private seating and we know when our guests do dine out, they are craving new and unique experiences... With limited seating times available, we’ve curated the perfect menu for lovers to experience something special and upscale while also feeling safe.”

At Toro Toro in Miami, Florida, executive chef Jean Delgado is offering Toro Toro Takeaway, a Valentine’s to-go package which includes a five-course tasting menu for $99 per person which replicates the one you'd get at the restaurant.

"Traditionally, Valentine's Day at Toro Toro is a big night for the restaurant," Delgado told TODAY Food. "In a normal year our dining room would be completely booked. Knowing that many people who enjoy celebrating Valentine’s Day with a romantic restaurant experience will be staying in this year because of COVID-19, we wanted our guests to have the opportunity to enjoy a decadent meal in the comfort of their own home."

Delgado said that the Valentine's Day package includes "all of the instructions to ensure an experience that we hope will make guests feel like they are dining with us in person" and recreate the restaurant's "sexy steakhouse vibe" at home.

At Xiquet DL in Washington, DC, the Valentine's package includes much more than just food. For $450 a couple will get a dozen roses, Champagne, caviar, specialty Iberian cheese and charcuterie, seafood paella and a decadent Basque cheesecake for dessert.

"Throughout the pandemic, we've continued to develop ways to recreate a unique dining experience at home that feels just as special as dining at our restaurant," chef and owner Danny Lledó told TODAY. "Our Valentine's package for two sets that tone of celebrating with your special someone with romantic additions like roses and caviar that you wouldn't typically get with at-home dining. Through those additions we're making the package a romantic experience as well, and not just a delicious meal."

Kurtz of Rat's Restaurant said that this Valentine's Day, finding those intimate dining experiences will be more important than ever.

“With couples spending more time together than ever in 2020 — some even working from home in the same shared spaces all day — a classic date night holds a lot more importance than it used to," he said. "After a year where special occasions couldn’t really happen, we’re looking forward to welcoming couples, giving them a reason to get out of the sweatpants and dress up and giving them a five-star dining experience to remember.”