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Valentine's Day dinner? More like tension on Table 2

For Valentine's Day, you plan to treat your sweetheart to a candlelit dinner at a fancy restaurant, with all the requisite trimmings - champagne, roses, oysters on the half-shell, and luxurious chocolate desserts. Romantic, right?

Hardly, restaurant servers say.

Chris, a server at various top restaurants in Vancouver for nearly 25 years, says dining rooms are usually choking with tension on Valentine's evenings.

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"it's the worst night of the year to go out for dinner," said Chris, who declined to give her last name. "[Couples]aren't talking. They're just, like, 'You pay for this dinner and it'll be okay.' "

As third-party observers of Valentine's dates, many waiters and waitresses consider it one of the least romantic days of the year for dining out: an occasion when they witness more bickering, awkwardness and hostility between couples than on any other.

Chris and other veteran servers blame the social pressure that makes people prove their affection by splurging on an elaborate meal - whether they want to or not.

Added to this sense of obligation, couples who normally don't dine out together suddenly find themselves sitting half a metre apart enduring, rather than enjoying, each other's company.

"There are lots of silent tables," Chris said. "People that sit down and have their water and they don't know what to do."

"They don't know where to look. They've got nothing to say to each other, and it's pretty pathetic actually."

Anne-Marie Tannant of Richmond, B.C., who worked for six years at an upscale restaurant, remembers the dread of having to work on Valentine's.

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"There were just so many couples who were just arguing and nasty and bitter," she said. "I was not feeling the proverbial love in the air."

Ms. Tannant said she was careful not to intervene in couples' arguments, but would inevitably get dragged in anyway.

Laura Clemis, who is working her first Valentine's Day shift this year at a Vancouver waterfront restaurant, said she was warned by co-workers that the evening would be more stressful than usual.

"There's so much pressure on an evening going well that the littlest thing can set people off," she said. "Not getting a table by the window can put people in a grumpy mood."

Since restaurants tend to replace larger tables with tables for two for the occasion, dining spaces are packed, Ms. Clemis added, so it's nearly impossible to have a private conversation.

"There's you, and then a foot and a half away there's another couple," she said. "So one person could be having a great time and ... the other people [could be]throwing mussel shells at each other."

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There are few things more heartbreaking than a rejected marriage proposal, and Chris said she has overseen a few.

Once, during her shift, a woman fled the restaurant in tears after finding an engagement ring in her champagne glass. Her date was left dumbfounded and dejected.

At that point, there's nothing much a server can do but ask the customer what he'd like - whether it's to settle the bill or to order more wine to dull the pain.

Fortunately, Chris said, Valentine's Day proposals aren't as common as they were a decade or two ago.

Back then, she said, "it seemed like people would come in and say, 'You know, I'm asking my girlfriend to marry me today,' and it's, like, 'Yeah, you and 10 others.' " Not everyone is as cynical about playing Cupid.

Erin Lacourciere of Vancouver, who has been a server for about six years, said she doesn't mind working on Valentine's Day, and finds it especially adorable when teenaged boys save up to impress their dates - even though their tips usually aren't great.

At the casual fine-dining restaurant where she works, Ms. Lacourciere and her fellow servers are sometimes called upon to help carry out romantic surprises.

One Valentine's Day, her co-worker helped a customer print off a special copy of the dessert menu for his sweetheart that read, in between entries for chocolate soufflé and cheesecake: "Will you marry me?"

Ms. Lacourciere recalled that the dining room broke out in applause when the proposal was met with an ecstatic "yes."

"That was the smoothest [move]I've seen," she said.

There are, however, some demonstrations of passion that no one wants to see.

Chris remembered one Valentine's evening when a female customer at the fine-dining restaurant crawled under the table and proceeded to perform oral sex on her date.

"Her foot was sort of hanging out into the aisle. … He's leaning back. He's got his hands over his head and really enjoying it. It started to be a spectacle," Chris said, adding that the manager had to tap the man on the shoulder to get him to make her stop.

"It was just, like, 'Ugh, yuck. Just take it home,'" she said, adding she would never forget the woman's self-satisfied grin as she emerged from under the tablecloth.

As appalled as the other diners were, Chris said, the obscene display did have one positive effect.

"The people who weren't speaking to each other finally had something to say."

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