What will a pandemic Valentine’s Day in Tampa Bay look like?

For many restaurants, the tables are already booked solid. But some are betting on couples celebrating closer to home this year.
At Casa Santo Stefano in Ybor City guests can choose to dine in or opt for a Valentine's Day dinner to-go.
At Casa Santo Stefano in Ybor City guests can choose to dine in or opt for a Valentine's Day dinner to-go. [ Courtesy of Casa Santo Stefano ]
Published Feb. 11, 2021|Updated Feb. 11, 2021

Restaurants have been booked out weeks in advance.

Any other year, this would be par for the course on Valentine’s Day, one of the busiest and most lucrative holidays in the restaurant business. But in the middle of a pandemic?

“It’s definitely the quickest we’ve ever booked out,” said Ferrell Alvarez, whose Seminole Heights restaurant Rooster & The Till is booked solid for the weekend. Alvarez, like many of his peers in the fine dining restaurant business, put a call out on social media in January advertising reservations for a romantic multi-course meal. Less than 10 days later, they were sold out.

As Tampa Bay residents prepare to celebrate their first pandemic Valentine’s Day, the weekend appears poised to offer a welcome bump in revenue following a challenging year for those in the restaurant business.

“Restaurants are trying to capitalize on that as much as they can right now,” said David Benstock, who runs the St. Petersburg Italian fine dining restaurant Il Ritorno.

Spots that are usually a favorite for romantic date nights and special occasions like Rooster & The Till, Il Ritorno and Tampa’s Rocca and Mise en Place are all booked for the big day, and most are sold out for the entire three-day weekend.

With some restaurants still operating at a reduced capacity, this means reservations are harder to come by. Most owners interviewed said they booked up for Valentine’s Day weeks in advance.

“We just book up so much farther in advance because we don’t have as much seating,“ Benstock said. “We’re also finding that we’re not able to turn the tables as quickly — a lot of the people that are coming out right now are coming out for a special occasion and really wanting to enjoy the moment.”

Tampa fine dining restaurant Mise en Place is booked throughout the busy Valentine's Day weekend.
Tampa fine dining restaurant Mise en Place is booked throughout the busy Valentine's Day weekend. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Tampa Bay trends don’t appear to match up with what’s taking shape in other cities, where stricter COVID-19 mandates have restaurants still operating either without indoor seating or at a reduced capacity (restaurants in Florida have been allowed to operate at 100 percent of their capacity for months).

Across the country, reservations for Valentine’s Day are down more than 50 percent compared to last year, according to a recent survey from OpenTable, the online restaurant reservations platform. Based on the survey, the company estimates that roughly 40 percent of Americans plan on ordering takeout for the holiday. While reservation data for the entire Tampa Bay area wasn’t available, in Tampa, reservations were down 19 percent compared to last year.

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Because Valentine’s Day falls on a Sunday this year — typically one of the slowest nights of the week in the restaurant world — some restaurants are offering additional dining options throughout the weekend for diners unable to snag a seat on the actual holiday.

Tampa’s Mise en Place is booked all weekend for dinner, but also features two Valentine’s Day-themed brunches on Saturday and Sunday with cocktails for two. An optional take home special features several wines and appetizers to-go and is coupled with a live Zoom tasting on Friday evening to accommodate guests who either couldn’t get reservations or simply prefer to celebrate at home.

Many places have added take home options for couples looking to play it safe.

The Columbia Restaurant Group, which includes the Columbia Restaurant locations, Ulele and Italian newcomer Casa Santo Stefano, is offering Valentine’s Day couples menus both for curbside takeout and in-house dining. For diners who want to recreate the magic of a Sicilian-themed night out at Casa Santo Stefano, a to-go menu includes heart-shaped red beet ravioli filled with ricotta and served with sage brown butter; char-grilled tenderloin with cannellini bean ragout and lobster beurre blanc; and a dark chocolate cake with a wild berry “heart.” The meal runs $120 and comes with an optional bottle of prosecco ($35) for pickup.

The Valentine’s to-go deal is a new one for the company, and a spokesman for the restaurant group said they saw “great success” with takeout options on Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Super Bowl.

Ben Pomales, who runs Pickford’s Counter in Tampa with partner Adrianna Siller, designed a take home menu that includes a three-course dinner with cooking instructions, a bottle of bubbly and a s’mores kit for $150.

The casual breakfast and lunch counter restaurant isn’t usually open on Sunday evenings, and the couple decided that it wasn’t worth trying to compete with some of the higher-end fine dining options. Instead, their menu includes pre-cooked upscale dishes (a striploin steak is cooked sous-vide beforehand) with reheating instructions for couples to prepare within minutes at home.

“They’re pretty approachable and you can kind of look like that person who just threw together this four-course meal while still being safe,” Pomales said. “Especially right now, after the Super Bowl, I know people are definitely more apprehensive about going out.”