The problem with Valentine’s Day is that although it’s ostensibly about “stuff,” what it tricks you into wanting is love.
Unfortunately, love is not an easily quantifiable gift. It cannot be perfectly conveyed in the shape of £2 daffodils from Asda, hot fish and chips wrapped in paper, carried home under a Puffa jacket, or a box of 100 garlic and herb pizza dips. Society will make you think that “stuff” equates to love; that an object can become a physical manifestation of that emotion. But this is just capitalism doing the thing that it does best.
As a result, disappointment is inevitable. When society sells you an indefinable concept, definable things (cards, choccy, booze) simply can't satisfy it. Indeed, last year, a survey by dating app Happy Couple found that 45 percent of couples want something “classically romantic, like dinner, a movie, or a stroll” on Valentine's Day, proving that there’s a whole lot of expectation to live up to.
Which is what makes Valentine’s Day so great! Imminent opportunity for disappointment, crashing arguments in public places, testing your partner to see if they’ll organise anything, and then, on the 14th of February, screaming as soon as they walk through the door, “SEE! I KNEW YOU NEVER LOVED ME!”
As a result, dinner can be a real minefield. Every minor hiccup at a restaurant, every hesitation, every moment not bursting with joy at some rose-flavoured cocktail has the potential to cause mayhem. As the pressure mounts to have “a really nice, chill dinner” (the lie you will tell your friends the next day), you are suffocated by different iterations of you, all of them sitting in the same restaurant. There are couples everywhere. Look at them, having a far better time than you, not looking at Twitter or reading about De Bruyne’s strike record on BBC Sports under the table. The themed menu will be overpriced, things won’t taste better because they’re mushed into a heart-shape, and you will feel as though you’ve just walked into a market research session for couples, except you don’t get a free John Lewis voucher at the end.
But what if you were to invert these traditions? If a heavily romantic dinner (dim lights, those really thin wine glasses, £4 olives) is an inevitable recipe for disaster, wouldn’t the least romantic dinner create hilarity, enjoyment, and a memorable night?
It is this watertight reasoning that leads me to take my boyfriend out for a crap Valentine’s Day dinner. It will not be expensive, it will not be fancy, and also I'm going to invite my dad along—because what says “I love you,” like the ever-watchful eye of a paternal figure?
When choosing the location for my anti-Valentine's Day dinner, I have a few criteria. The restaurant has to be painfully generic, somewhere you’d go to please your grandma, a mate from school you haven’t seen in six years, and a four-year-old. It has to be not life-threateningly bad, just “fine,” “eh,” “yeah, sure, I guess it’s quite convenient and close to the theatre.” There have to be screaming children, because nothing is more of a vibe-killer than a screeching emblem of your future. As I mused on my options, it became clear that the ideal venue was, obviously, Italian high street chain, Pizza Express.
On an cold, February evening, my boyfriend and I meet at one of the chain's larger branches in Central London. Vast, identical tables run as far as the eye can see, lit from above by heavy, artificial lighting. We’re seated in an oversized circular booth, made for at least eight people. A few moments later, my dad arrives, confused by the set up, but happy to be receiving a free meal courtesy of his daughter.
The waiter comes over and enquires about the menu that we’ll be trying. I let her know we’re going to have the Valentine’s Day special—a three-course themed dinner featuring various “trios” of food.
“Usually, it’s just for two, but do you want to do it for four and then just an extra main?” she asks, successfully hiding how extremely weird this scenario is. “You could take one home?”
Something that becomes immediately apparent is how uncomfortable this is going to be. What started off in my head as a hilarious, innocent dinner idea to challenge the norms of Valentine’s Day, now feels very wrong. Why am I sharing a heart-shaped dough ball with my father? Should I take the waiter to the side and explain to her that I’m not boning my dad? Would that be more weird?
Luckily, my father reliably brings up enough boring conversation topics that every ounce of romance is sapped from the occasion. Although I am not currently arguing with my boyfriend (the experiment is a success so far), I do have to endure an equal level of tedium in the form of chat about: my dad’s new toaster from Muji, the underfloor heating in his flat that he can’t turn off, and how Valentine’s Day is “sexist” for men because they have to buy everything. I make a mental note that for next year, I will test whether a fortnight in Lisbon and numerous meals of delicious Portuguese tapas are actually the best way to have a successful Valentine’s Day.
Why am I sharing a heart-shaped dough ball with my father?
We make light conversation, eat some dough balls, drink our wine. Apropos of nothing, the restaurant's manager arrives at our table, and begins to give us a lengthy, sincere pitch about the dough balls. You see, they’re in a heart shape. A heart shape. Not in his six years—SIX YEARS—of working here, has he seen the company pull out such an impressive new product. Can you say, “innovation”? He then nods, looks off to the distance, and walks away with no real summary. My father makes an offensive joke about him.
Despite some low moments, I think this meal is going OK. Although I’m slightly bored by the chat, there has been no bickering, I had no expectation that this would be fun or good or nice, and thus I feel absolutely no disappointment. Maybe I’m even having fun? It’s good to hang out with your parents, right? They’re old and, you know, looked after you, so it’s good to occasionally invite them unsuspectingly to a Valentine’s Day dinner once in a while. It’s the least you can do as a child. At one point, my father tries bring up the subject of “pulling” on Valentine’s Day, but the pizzas arrive. Not today, Satan!
My father’s sex life deftly avoided, we move onto our FOUR main courses (this alone could be a reason to go out on Valentine’s Day with extra people.) We are all pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food. The pizzas are thin, crispy and despite the fact that I obviously filled up entirely on the starter (lest I remind you of the innovation!!), satisfying. I am enjoying the creamy goat cheese and sticky caramelised onion toppings to my “Padana,” and my dad’s meat pizza has those tasty pools of oil collecting in the pepperoni. The Niçoise salad is under-dressed but also served with a large portion of ciabatta on top, basically making it an upside-down sandwich. Which, we can all agree, is better than salad.
After the mains, we share a trio of desserts, and the dinner comes to an end. Before we leave, my father turns to my boyfriend and I, and exclaims: “This has been a million times better than I could have ever expected.”
Putting to one side the low expectations my father has of my company, or of Pizza Express’ food, he has kind of proven my suspicions right. Low expectations, cheap(ish) food, and chat about toasters instead of whether your boyfriend wants to be with you forever or why he never brings you tea in the morning anymore or why he hasn’t organised to see you in the last week and a half despite playing football three times … or something, makes for an infinitely better dinner.
Perhaps you don’t have to drag your parent out to a potentially weird dinner where people think you’re in some Chat Mag-esque set up, but the less pressure, the better it is bound to be.
Just don’t forget the heart-shape dough balls.