Dining out tonight? You waited too long

Restaurants: It's Saturday, it's Valentine's Day, and nearly every table in town is taken.

February 14, 2004|By June Arney and James Gallo | June Arney and James Gallo,SUN STAFF

For area restaurants, today is a match made in heaven.

With Valentine's Day falling on a Saturday for the first time since 1998, restaurants have been turning away hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of frustrated diners who didn't make reservations early enough. One restaurant had to buy more dishes, tables and silverware.

"You hear this phone ringing?" said Ken Lurie, a partner and front-of-the-house manager at Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant in Ellicott City. "Every call is for [tonight], and we're just filled. We've turned away thousands."

At restaurants across the area, the message seems to be: If you haven't secured a Valentine's Day dinner reservation by now, you might as well forget it.

That's something Kit Orloff of Ellicott City knows all too well.

Orloff, 37, said her husband started a couple of weeks ago making calls to their favorite restaurants for reservations.

Some two dozen calls later, the couple remained without a dinner spot, even though they did succeed in securing a baby sitter for their 11-year-old daughter and 2 1/2 -year-old son. By last Monday, they knew they were in trouble and considered canceling the sitter.

"They almost make you feel like you're crazy for waiting so long," she said. "It wasn't just, `No.' It was almost indignant. I'm wondering at just what point do you have to start booking for these. How do you book a babysitter three months in advance?"

But Orloff devised a solution.

"It might sound silly, but we've got a sitter, so I'm just going to pack up a nice picnic lunch," she said. "We'll just pack it up and take it on the road. We'll hop in the backseat, turn on the DVD and act like teen-agers."

She plans to pack pastries, a sampling of their favorite entrees and some sparkling apple cider in a heart-shaped basket they were given as a wedding present. The seats in their mini-van are heated and recline. She figures she may even be able to get a better movie selection at the video store - since everyone else seems to be going out to dinner.

"We don't care if we drive to the end of the cul de sac," she said. "It's just about being together. Sitting in the car with someone you love and eating a basket of picked-up food to me is a great evening."

A holiday bonanza

Warm weather, coinciding with a Saturday Valentine's Day and the Presidents Day holiday weekend, is providing a bonanza for the hospitality industry. Some area restaurants predict this will be their best weekend ever. Extra food has been ordered and additional staff called in.

"It's the Super Bowl of the restaurant business," said Paul Oliver, owner of Dalesio's of Little Italy. "It's better than Mother's Day. It's better than New Year's.

"We've been sold out for a week," he said. "The smart ones book three months in advance."

Restaurants were doing their best to steer disappointed patrons who couldn't secure a reservation for tonight to dine yesterday or tomorrow instead.

Tersiguel's is pitching a second Valentine's Day dinner a month from now, on March 14, in hope of rekindling the enthusiasm.

The restaurant, which accommodates up to 150 guests on three levels of a 19th-century house, expects to serve 650 meals today. It's starting its dinner menu at noon and serving all day.

"We've been sold out for three weeks," the restaurant's Lurie said. "We'll get some reservations as people are leaving ... for next year."

Aldo's in Little Italy has nearly 400 reservations on the books for today, roughly double its normal volume.

More dishes and tables

"We had to buy more dishes, more silverware, and more tables just to accommodate everyone," co-owner Sergio Vitale said. "This is the No. 1 highest-volume day since we've opened."

Reservations for the day began trickling in as early as December. The bulk of them came late last month.

Vitale estimates that he would have as many as 600 more reservations if he could accommodate them. Between 50 and 75 reservations a day have been turned down all this week, and between 30 and 50 people each day last week, Vitale said.

The Petit Louis Bistro on Roland Avenue in Roland Park has been booked solid since last week, manager Felicia Gibbs said.

"It's a lot of first-time guests as opposed to our regular neighborhood clientele," she said. "It's a great night for us to showcase what we can do."

The restaurant at Baltimore's Harbor Court Hotel and the hotel itself are also booked all weekend.

"We're always busy on Valentine's Day, but when it hits a weekend like this, it's tremendous," said Werner Kunz, managing director at the hotel. "All three days - Friday, Saturday and Sunday - are like Valentine's Day."

'More love in the air'

Ruth's Chris in Baltimore was one of the restaurants Kit Orloff and her husband had tried to get into, without success.

"We haven't had any space in Ruth's Chris or the Eurasian Harbor for a good 10 days," said David Sadeghi, chief operating officer of Big Steaks Management Inc.

The company owns Ruth's Chris Steak Houses in Baltimore, Pikesville, Annapolis, and Raleigh, N.C.; the Babalu Grills in Baltimore and Atlantic City, N.J.; and the Havana Club and Eurasian Harbor in Baltimore.

"Quite frankly, it's going better than we expected," Sadeghi said. "Because it's on the weekend and a four-day weekend, there's a lot more love in the air."

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