Fine Dining 101

Have reservations for two at an upscale restaurant this Valentine’s Day…and want to keep the romance rolling? Here, some must-known info.

By Phineas Mollod and Jason Tesauro

he get-to-know-you phase is over: Exchanged email addresses prompted a delightful first date over burgers, which led to a night of innocent necking and… you get the picture. Now that Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, it’s time for an elegant dinner for two at a classy joint. Upscale dining can amp up the romance and foster a budding intimacy over a starched white tablecloth even as you both look a bit spastic wrestling with unwieldy escargot tongs.

To keep the mood truly romantic, however, you should feel comfortable with the trappings. Can you navigate fancy menus? Can you ask the staff questions without sounding clueless? At best, menu mastery and connoisseurship show off your savvy and can paint you as more than an Applebee’s addict who thinks Napa cab is a Bay Area taxi company. Here’s how to pull it off.

Table for two, please?
Follow this equation: food quality + trendiness = how far ahead to call for reservations, whether it be weeks or even months beforehand.
Eat and drink slowly to avoid finishing your roast before she’s even nibbled her asparagus.
If you want particular service, explain your needs when phoning in: “We’re headed to the theatre” (meaning, we want to be seated on time and out the door quicker than a 6-1, 6-1 Sharapova victory) is far different than “It’s a special night…” (meaning, you’ll be spending some $$$, you want a decent table and unrushed romance).

Once you arrive at the restaurant, should you have to wait for your table, no need to huff like a spoiled prince. Use the extra half-hour to warm up your charm and build some pre-game rapport. Order appetizers at the bar over chitchat; play a parlor game with a drink, or relax outside and people watch. Once at your table, offer your lady the chair with the view. Although it’s OK to ask for a better table or even wait a smidge extra for patio seating, find happiness where they put you, as long as it’s not next to the sexy-vibe-killing dirty-dishes collection area.

I’ll have the…
Chivalry aside, ordering for her can come off as some strange power grab. Nevertheless, taking charge is perfect in certain instances. Has the table decided on a special tasting menu for two (“The 3 lb. porterhouse, please… two forks.”)? Or, maybe your knowledge of Indian cuisine earns off-the-menu curry specials. Moreover, to capitalize on warming vibes, confidently order a few can’t-miss starters. Also, be sure to order something different from your date’s dinner in hopes of exchanging choice forkfuls. Sharing is a good sign of budding chemistry, but wait until it’s offered (“You simply must try this”).

Entrée eccentricities
These days, most ethnic eateries have English descriptions so that you won’t have to ask what veal saltimbocca is (FYI, it’s topped with prosciutto, sautéed in butter, braised in white wine) or worse, mangle the pronunciation of Gnocchi Tre Formaggi (ny-OH-key tray for-MA-gee). If you’re truly stumped by an unpronounceable, save face by pointing out your pick on the menu when the wait staff takes your order, or speak only the easy-to-say main ingredient (“Le saumon”). There will always be a few mysteries, but the uninitiated should not be stuck ordering roasted half-chicken because that’s the only thing recognizable. If baffled, ask—often, restaurateurs place oddities on the menu to lure adventurous eaters into uncharted territory. Subtly “lead” the waiter into explanatory mode, without sounding ignorant: “The duck leg confit with flageolet beans… could you tell me a little more about it, please?”

Cork fundamentals
The well-worn rule of red for meats and white for fish is a good start, but not the entire bowl of grapes. Wine pairing is an inexact science, so it’s hard to make a truly boneheaded choice. Think balance and weight: The more delicate the food (a rainbow trout vs. a T-bone) and its preparation (steamed vs. blackened), the more delicate the
Never underestimate the joy of champagne.
wine. Thus, a robust cabernet sauvignon goes with a New York strip, but a lightweight pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc shines with fish or salad. For those too lazy to learn these basics, never underestimate the joy of champagne: It’s fun for breakfast, decadent for lunch, and sexy for dinner (and it’ll tickle her nose).

Lean on a server or sommelier’s expertise. Describe your mood (red/white/rosé), body preference (light or full), and style (buttery or crisp; soft or robust). And there’s no shame in having a modest budget in mind—memorable wines need not hit triple-digit prices. Should the sommelier suggest a pricey gem, don’t be afraid to give him the finger (not that finger…), a technique where you tap on the dollar amount next to a wine listing and emphasizing to the server, “In particular, we’re looking for something around this range that would complement our meals.”

The toast
If you’re out on a special occasion — and if it’s Valentine’s Day, that definitely counts — you’ll win extra points with your date by proposing a toast. When in doubt or possessed of poor oratory skills, keep it short and positive (“To a splendid evening with you”), but feel free to try something more elaborate if you feel up to it (“To for putting us together and those two lovely lobsters who gave their life to make this a wonderful night”). Clink and sip away.

At your service
Be courteous to the staff and judicious with fussy requests that mar the chef’s presentation and ruin the moment in a sea of dietary hang-ups. Of course, take charge if something’s off, but whether sending back the wine or an entrée, no need to make a scene. If something seems wrong or spoiled, summon the server and ask, “There seems to be a problem… what do you think?” For irregularities with the check or service blunders that require a talk with the floor manager, handle it behind the scenes on the way to the restroom to maintain seamless dinner bliss.

Forkfuls of wisdom
Remember why you’re here. True, food intake is a life necessity, but so is romance and liplock. Eat and drink slowly to avoid finishing your roast before she’s even nibbled her second asparagus spear; talk about the food, its texture and flavors so that dining feels like a cinematic experience, not just an ordinary VHS rental. In the end, fine dining may dent the wallet, but it’s a great tool of woo that provides a tasty vehicle for conversation, compliments and soft caresses. Buon appetito, bon appetit, and buen apetito!

Phineas Mollod traded his J.D. for the editorial life and is often found riding the congested E train with his wife and daughter in New York. Jason Tesauro pushes pen and ink by day and leads the lifestyle seminar series by night, ne'er far from his sweetheart and a Brady Bunch houseful 'o tots in Virginia. Together they are the authors of The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manners, Savvy and Vice and The Modern Lover: A Playbook for Suitors, Spouses, and Ringless Carousers.
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