Eat your feelings

Heartwarming surprises. Botched proposals. Chicago restaurant workers have a front-row seat to some of the most eye-popping Valentine's Day moments

February 13, 2013|By Tracy Swartz, @tracyswartz | RedEye

So much for best-laid plans.

A few years ago, a man asked his girlfriend to take a tour of Sixteen restaurant as they dined there. She wouldn't budge.

Nervous, the man excused himself from the table. It was time for Plan B. He expressed concern to Keith Mallini, who was working at the Near North Side restaurant at the time. They regrouped, and the man returned to the table.

Soon, the woman left the table to go to the bathroom. When she returned, there was dessert, champagne and rose petals. The man proposed. The woman said yes. Then she apologized for not playing along.

"She was like, 'Oh I didn't know [about the proposal],'" said Mallini, now general manager for Prasino in Wicker Park. The original plan was to take the woman on the tour and lead her to a special spot in the restaurant where the man was to propose.

For better or for worse, restaurant workers sometimes have a front-row seat to the ups and downs of a couple's relationship. This is never more the case than on Valentine's Day. About 75 percent of 923 respondents to an online survey said they plan to celebrate Valentine's Day at a restaurant this year, according to restaurant.com, a dining deals site based in Arlington Heights.

Sixty-four percent of survey respondents said they will spend more money on Valentine's Day than on an everyday restaurant meal. But money can't buy love. Or class.

Think of the expense that one man poured into his romantic celebration two years ago at MK, a Near North Side restaurant.

Kate Bush, 30, who works at MK, said she and the man spoke about his plans daily, and he had picked out champagne and special menus.

The big day arrived, along with a "ginormous expensive flower arrangement," Bush said. But the couple never showed. Bush said she called the man to ask what she should do with the flowers.

"He told us to throw them in the [bleeping] garbage," Bush said. "We kind of knew how that ended."

Sob stories are not uncommon at restaurants.

Michael Peterson, 36, of Edgewater, said he has worked in the restaurant business for 16 years, including the last year at Carnivale in the Fulton River District.

Peterson said he has watched breakups at the table and has seen women cry. One day, a woman left the table very upset. The guy she was with had a drink and then left.

"It is a little awkward but we have other tables to deal with," Peterson said. "I feel bad, but there's not much we can do."

Peterson has also been a part of tender moments at work.

He helped set up a successful wedding proposal at Carnivale that included corraling and hiding more than a dozen of the couple's family members.

The couple had brought along a friend on their evening. It was the friend's job to disappear for a few minutes so the man could propose to his girlfriend.

The hitch? The lead-in to the proposal took 20 minutes so Peterson was sure the woman had figured out what was going on because her friend had been gone for so long.

The man eventually proposed and the woman cried. Peterson's part in the ploy was to bring the champagne toast. Then, finally, the friends and family got to partake in the celebration.

"For the whole balcony to be clapping, it was pretty much a big deal," Peterson said. "It was pretty romantic."

A proposal that Steven Lindemann of Lakeview witnessed as a server at the Kit Kat Lounge and Supper Club involved three people: A man, a woman and Lady Gaga.

Last year, a man took his girlfriend to the Lakeview lounge to watch her favorite performer, Lady Gaga. Well, almost.

The lounge's Lady Gaga impersonator, Aurora Sexton, performed a mashup of dance songs before directing the audience's attention to the couple. The man proposed and the woman put her hand up to wave her ring around to show her answer, said Lindemann, 32.

Then Sexton sang "You and I" to the couple. "Baby, I'd rather die without you and I/You and I, you, you and I/Nebraska I'd rather die without you and I."

"All eyes were on them," Lindemann said of the couple. "It was cool to observe."

tswartz@tribune.com

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