The Power of Love – and Tradition

“Where do you go for Valentine’s Day?”

This is a question that gets flung my way when the calendar hits early February. When it’s asked, I assume most inquiring minds think that I’ll reply with a nice restaurant. Not necessarily somewhere upscale and elegant, but at least a dining space chic enough to spark the romantic flame that Hallmark long ago deemed necessary to flicker on February 14. When I reply with the same answer that I’ve had for the last decade or so, another question arises.

“Why do you go to Red Robin for Valentine’s Day?”

It’s a fair question. Red Robin’s burgers, endless parade of seasoned fries, and walls draped in pop-culture ephemera aren’t inherently romantic. Compared to a typical Valentine’s Day-ready venue, they’re more like 50 shades of beige. I know this, and so does my wife. We still come to the chain’s closest outlet anyway. In fact, we look forward to coming there every year. There’s a perfectly rational reason for this.

My wife and I first met face-to-face at a Red Robin in Tustin, an arrangement agreed upon after a flurry of e-mails and a two-hour phone call. It was a safe, neutral site ideally suited for two people who had met through Yahoo! Personals just 48 hours prior. It was also relatively equidistant from each other’s Orange County apartments, which was logistically important since OC’s rush hour traffic is best described as Los Angeles lite. Plus, burgers and fries make terrific “getting to know you” food. They’re approachable, they help you weed out vegans – crucial for carnivores on first dates – and for the most part won’t make too gigantic of a mess. This latter part was key to me, as I didn’t want to look like a knuckle-dragging caveman during our initial rendezvous.

Our Red Robin dinner proved to be the prelude of a date that lasted into the wee small hours, one featuring a marina stroll and an impromptu board game session at a Newport Beach coffeehouse. We were married exactly one year later, and we’re still in love with each other 14 years later. Paying homage to our magical first date with a trip to Red Robin seems like the right thing to do.

It wasn’t always the case. We tried to do the fancy Valentine’s Day restaurant thing during the first few years of our relationship.  We had good meals amid the expected chaos, and we even had fun. However, it didn’t feel necessary to celebrate who we were as a couple.  One year, one of us – I can’t remember which one – decided it would be fun to forego the fancy and just stop by Red Robin to mark the day, the same Red Robin where that the rest of our lives began. The flood of giddy feelings from our initial outing came back the moment when we set foot in the place. We knew we made the right call, and a tradition was born.

That Red Robin location closed several years ago, so we can’t re-create our first encounter to the letter anymore. This isn’t as big of a deal as you may think. Since it’s a chain, there is enough decorative paraphernalia in our neighborhood’s location to remind us what the space looked and felt like, which also reminds us about how we felt about each other on that first date. The shifted location isn’t even the biggest change we’ve made to the annual ritual. These days, we bring our kids with us. It’s not exactly a romantic move, but that’s fine. My job affords my wife and I several date nights throughout the year, so we don’t mind sacrificing one-on-one time on February 14th in favor of hanging with our children over burgers and fries.

One thing our many Valentine’s Day excursions have taught us over the years is to get to Red Robin early. If not, we’ll be waiting for a table with a crush of couples young and old coming to the venue to ring in February 14th. I’ve occasionally wondered why they picked a chain restaurant to celebrate the day. Specifically, I’ve wondered if their reason is as special as ours. At the risk of sounding arrogant, I kind of doubt it.