Valentine's Day dinner can feel like being in your own perfect world. But to those on the other side of the table — the servers and other restaurant employees — the holiday means a balancing act between getting everything perfect and leaving you to your own romance.
CultureMap: How is working on Valentine's Day different from other shifts or other holidays?
Ruben Rivera: It's not different, but it's special. You'll have your good days, New Year's Eve, Saturday nights, but it means a lot especially to us. You see a lot of special things, the rooms are so romantic and beautifully done I think.
On New Year's Eve people are too worried about partying. Valentine's Day is more serious because people are really into each other, you see it in the flowers, the chocolate. It's more meaningful.
CM: Do you see a lot of proposals?
RR: Oh yeah. One I was thinking about — this took the cake — this young couple came in, and her favorite soup at Tony's was the lobster bisque so he wanted to put the ring in the lobster bisque. I said "Are you sure?" because I was scared to put a beautiful engagement ring in someone's soup.
But he wanted to, so I took it to the kitchen and we did it.
I'm watching as they are in conversation, she's deep in conversation, and she takes a spoonful and then another and finally the ring is on the spoon and she realized that everyone was staring at her. We were like, "Look down!" She finally saw it and freaked out. We cleaned it off and she said yes.
CM: Do you ever see anyone's proposal turned down?
RR: I've never seen a proposal turned down. I've seen people being chased out by their ex-wives because they're there with somebody else, though.
CM: How have Valentine's celebrations changed over the years? Are people more extravagant now?
RR: Actually it funny, it used to be bigger back then; now it's calmer. I still feel the romance in the atmosphere, but it's toned down just a tad. The economic situation has to do with it, people are more careful with their money. Back then at Tony's almost every table had a bottle of champagne, now people will spend but not as extravagantly.
CM: Do you see people coming in every year? How does that kind of tradition feel for you?
RR: Every year it's special. I was able to get close to some of my customers so I see grandparents, children and even children's children, I'll meet two or three generations. I'll see people come in when they are dating or just married and fifteen or 20 years later they call me when their kids are coming in on dates. They'll say, "Ruben, please take care of my daughter, don't let her drink . . ."
It became more special to me than serving someone for one night.
CM: If you are working on the holiday every year, how do you celebrate Valentine's Day?
RR: My wife and I have an understanding. We don't celebrate Valentine's Day because she works in the morning and I work in the evening. We're going to celebrate [Monday night] with our family — we have a family dinner every Monday with the six couples and 10 grandchildren. She's very low-key, doesn't have to have two dozen roses.
We know the most important thing is that we've been together and loved each other for these 35 years.