Forget the I Dos for a second. Let’s start with a You Don’t. As in: If you’re going to propose to your beloved at a restaurant, here’s what you don’t want to have happen. When Carlos Lopes, former managing director at the Hotel Bel-Air, in Los Angeles, set out to propose to his first wife, he planned the evening to perfection. He selected a fine restaurant. He hatched an elaborate plan. He schemed with the maître d’. And, at the desired moment, the waiter brought Lopes’s girlfriend a crème brûlée into which the pastry chef had discreetly tucked Lopes’s life savings, in the form of a diamond ring. “Only I was so naïve,” he remembers today, “that I didn’t realize you ate crème brûlée with a large spoon and not a small one.”
Smash went the crust. In went the spoon. And before Lopes could say, “Um, I have something to ask you,” his brilliant-cut one-carat surprise went sliding down his intended’s throat. “Our first hug was the Heimlich maneuver,” he recalls. “My advice to a man about to propose is: Use creativity only up to a point. You don’t want your girlfriend to end up in the hospital on her engagement night.”
At a time when restaurants are more like stage sets than ever, more and more diners are choosing to mark their romantic milestones in the public theater of white-tablecloth establishments. From three-ring proposals to sorry-I-screwed-up dinners, soaring amounts of time and expense are being put into courtship at the table. But from wine buckets overturned by that bended knee to lovers trapped in phone booths or wives and mistresses showing up at the same time and place, mistakes can be catastrophic. So what are the “love secrets” of restaurants? And what are the pitfalls?
Chefs and restaurateurs are delighted when customers get engaged in their dining rooms because it usually means the couple will come back every year to celebrate. But most of them suggest that engagement rings be kept far away from the food. A captain at Gramercy Tavern, in New York City, was asked to tuck a ring into a green salad. “My girlfriend always orders it,” the prospective groom assured him. She did, but the man impulsively ordered caviar to go with it, and the girlfriend found that more diverting. Her date ended up fishing the ring out of the neglected salad with a fork. The Little Door, in Los Angeles, has sidestepped the problem of newly betrotheds having to clean gooey chocolate out of a platinum setting by using a special plate with a trapdoor and a secret compartment. Waiters also dislike having to coerce a woman into ordering something she doesn’t want. (“You’re the jerk waiter trying to push dessert.”) One valentine lost interest in her flourless chocolate torte before reaching the words “Will you marry me?” that her beau had painted on the plate.
A surprising number of proposals are, in fact, turned down. At Gramercy Tavern, a woman once asked a man to marry her. When he didn’t accept the offer, the woman stood up, started cursing, and began throwing plates onto the floor. “Clearly, he made the right choice,” says the captain on duty at the time. At the Four Seasons, a prominent regular asked his girlfriend to marry him. She consented, everyone cheered, and they had a wonderful time. But at three o’clock in the morning, the customer called co-owner Alex von Bidder at home to announce that the woman was reconsidering, and to ask would he please not tell anyone what had happened.
So, if you are determined to propose in a restaurant, what advice do the experts give? First, reconnoiter the place about a week before, preferably on the same night of the week you are planning to pop the question. Confer with the manager about an appropriate table, give him your credit card, and promise to tip 20 percent. At Babbo, maître d’ John Mainieri likes to put couples in a highly visible place, since he presumes that anyone who proposes in a restaurant wants to be seen. “It’s because of reality television,” he explains. “Everyone wants to be part of the cast.” He serves the engagement ring under a cloche. At Union Square Cafe, in New York, Christopher Russell suggests that you let them print a custom menu. “Under the specials for the night, we’ll write ‘Tuna Tartare,’ ‘Ossobuco,’ ‘Jenny, Will You Marry Me?’ Then she comes upon it herself!”
Carlos Lopes advises men to propose at home, let their true love cry in private, then take her out to celebrate. One benefit to this strategy: The woman will generally share the happy news with her parents, who will often call ahead to the restaurant. “If you tip off your future mother-in-law,” Lopes notes, “chances are she’ll buy you dinner.”