Just say it

Sweethearts Conversation Hearts candies feature a food-related ‘Menu of Love’ sayings. The Sweethearts Conversation Hearts candies have been manufactured since 1866 by the New England Confectionary Co., better known as NECCO. 

Saying you forgot about Valentine’s Day is normally a pretty lame excuse for not having your date night plan together. It just doesn’t fly. This most Hallmark of holidays is hawked so relentlessly, how could you possibly miss it?

But this year, in New Orleans at least, is a different story. This time around, Valentine’s Day falls on Ash Wednesday. We’ve had a few other things going on.

So all-consuming is Mardi Gras and our plans around parades and parties and revelry and all its related logistics that even the long run-up of Valentine’s red may be lost in all the purple, green and gold.

For New Orleans restaurants and their potential patrons, this intersection represents uncharted waters.

Because Easter is a moveable feast, Ash Wednesday, and hence Mardi Gras, move around the calendar too. Valentine’s Day has hit in the midst of Mardi Gras weekend in recent years. But the last time it coincided with Ash Wednesday was 1945, a wartime year so far removed from the contemporary restaurant scene it bears little use in comparison.

This year’s double header Wednesday is no small matter. Dinner out is the old reliable of Valentine’s Day plans, and restaurants bank on it as an annual one-night stimulus plan. Nationwide, it annually ranks as restaurants’ second-busiest day, after Mother’s Day, according to the National Restaurant Association.

The normal dynamics of a holiday dinner rush are more complicated when you add Ash Wednesday — the beginning of Lent for Catholics, the end of a fast-paced Mardi Gras for the entire city.

For Catholics going by the book, Ash Wednesday is a day for fasting. The church allows for the equivalent of one full meal, and meat is prohibited. This year is no different. The Archdiocese of New Orleans confirms there is no dispensation for Valentine’s Day on the table.

Even those who don’t abide by Catholic rules are likely to feel repentant, and more in need of a night on the couch than a night on the town. The end of Carnival, after all, is when those deferred New Year’s resolutions actually kick in, especially the ones related to diet and temperance.

And yet, it’s Valentines Day. Love will find a way, and you still have to eat.

So restaurants are pushing ahead. The special menus are coming out, albeit with more seafood this year, and seating charts are being revised to make as many two-top tables as possible for couples.

A week before the holiday, New Orleans restaurateurs were reporting solid reservations, and some were completely booked. How many cancellations or, worse, no-shows they’ll have to contend with once the day after Fat Tuesday catches up with people is another question mark, however.

Another is how long some couples may decide to extend Valentine’s Day. It’s likely some will declare the date night its own moveable feast and push their plans to the weekend after a little downtime. Call it a Friday night Valentine’s Day observed.

Tableau has been getting some different kind of reservations. A few weeks ago, the French Creole restaurant from Dickie Brennan & Co. on Jackson Square declared it would have an officiant and photographer on hand for Valentine’s Day, performing weddings for free in one of the upper-level dining rooms. A number of couples are on the books to tie the knot here.

No matter what other curve balls the calendar throws us in the future, these soon-to-be betrothed will always remember the date of their Valentine’s Ash Wednesday anniversary. At least, they'd better. 

Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.