Lots of people equate food with love, and never more so than around Valentine’s Day.
This is the time of year that couples in love give each other chocolates and go out for romantic dinners by candlelight.
Sometimes there’s a little something extra floating in the glass of Champagne or perched on top of an elaborate dessert – a diamond engagement ring.
Maine chefs and restaurateurs see plenty of marriage proposals all year round, but especially in February. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day – and to give you lovebirds a few ideas, should you be thinking of popping the question during the next few days – here are some of the more memorable proposals witnessed at local restaurants.
Usually a nervous groom-to-be calls ahead to the restaurant to ask for help with the big sparkling surprise. Sometimes they want the ring hidden in food. Other times they just want help with the presentation.
Dropping the ring in a glass of Champagne is a common request. Fern Cyr, dining room manager at DiMillo’s on the Water in Portland, has been asked to tie a ring to the inside of a menu before handing it to the bride-to-be.
A customer at Walter’s in Portland asked for the ring to be delivered in a 2-foot-tall martini glass filled with crinkled paper and lots of glitter. Abby Harmon, chef at Caiola’s in Portland was once asked to put a ring into a cupcake.
A regular customer at The Front Room on Portland’s East End approached chef/owner Harding Lee Smith one afternoon to fill him in on his plan to propose, and asked for help presenting the ring.
“It was a time of great Bowdoinham asparagus, and we were roasting some big spears with crab and hollandaise, I think,” Smith recalled. “Since they were as big as fingers, I figured, why not? So, after settling in with some bubbles, out came the asparagus fingers.”
Before chef Sam Hayward became nationally known for his work at Fore Street, he owned a restaurant in Brunswick called Twenty-Two Lincoln. Once, a friend who wanted to propose to his girlfriend brought a McDonald’s Big Mac, still in its cardboard clamshell box, into the restaurant and asked him to send it out to his table later as an hors d’ouevre, on a dressed-up dinner plate.
“The burger was totally incongruent with the slightly formal setting, and my friend’s date laughed hysterically when it arrived at the table,” Hayward said. “She gamely opened the box, and I think I recall that she attacked it with knife and fork and began to deconstruct it. Down deep among the layers of bun, cheese and garnishes, she finally unearthed a rather majestic-looking diamond ring, and let out a whoop.”
At the other end of the spectrum from the Big Mac, there are chocolate ring boxes at The White Barn Inn in Kennebunk and caramel bird cages at Hugo’s in Portland.
“The last time we did the chocolate box, it was in a heart shape and we put some rose petals in there,” said Daniel Liesener, the restaurant’s manager. More rose petals were scattered on the plate that the box sat on, and a large silver cloche covered the whole thing.
The White Barn Inn is one of the most romantic restaurants in the state, so perhaps it’s not surprising they get four or five men proposing there every other month or so. The pace picks up around Valentine’s Day.
The last proposal took place just a couple of weekends ago, an anniversary dinner where one partner was asking the other if they could renew their vows. The ring arrived with the amuse bouche, the “welcome taste” from the chef that all guests receive at the beginning of the meal. In this case, the woman’s napkin was folded into a lily shape.
“We put the (ring) box in the center of the lily and put a small sliver cloche on top of it, Liesener said. “Then we do a synchronized service, and everybody gets the same (amuse bouche), but then we say (to the woman), ‘Oh but for you, we have something extra.’ “
Liesener said that for something like the chocolate box, the staff needs 24 to 48 hours’ notice, especially if the customer wants fresh flowers on the table as well.
ADVANCE NOTICE APPRECIATED
Arlin Smith, general manager of Hugo’s in Portland, says the restaurant probably gets four proposals a year, but never around Valentine’s Day.
Smith says that chef/owner Rob Evans and his staff can pull off a nice presentation even on the day of a customer’s reservation, but they prefer to have more notice.
“A week is plenty,” Smith said. “A lot of people plan months in advance. The more time we have for planning, the nicer we can make it.”
The last man who proposed called just a couple of days ahead of time, and he and Smith set up an elaborate hand-off of the ring. The man told Smith which pocket of his coat the ring would be in, and when Smith took the coat at the door, he was able to grab the ring and get it to the kitchen.
The couple had an elaborate meal, and when it came time for dessert, the staff presented them both with petit fours. Her plate had the ring on it.
“Sometimes you get crazy requests where they want you to bake it into a cake or something like that, but we don’t do that,” Smith said. “We tell them what works for us, and tell them we can make it special for you if you just give us a little freedom. We already have tricks up our sleeve that we can show people and wow them. And then it’s not just the woman who’s surprised, it’s the man too.”
The most memorable ring presentation Smith has seen at Hugo’s involved a bird cage that Evans made out of caramel. The cage covered a board filled with confections and a display of flowers.
“In the middle of the board there was one orchid all on its own, and the ring was put around the middle of the orchid, so it was very subtle,” Smith recalled.
The bird cage was about a foot high, and Evans made several as back-ups in case it broke.
RESTAURANT USUALLY ALL IN
You might think that such an elaborate display and use of staff time might add a pretty penny to the final bill, but Arlin Smith said unless someone orders flowers for the table, the restaurant usually doesn’t charge extra for a special presentation of the ring. They view it more as an investment in the customer, because if the couple has a good experience, they often become regulars.
Indeed, just about every restaurant said that if a couple gets engaged there, they are likely to return every year for their anniversary. Sometimes they even request the same table.
That’s happened at Portland’s Five Fifty-Five, where newly engaged couples are sent off with a toast and a personalized menu to mark the occasion.
In some cases, the nature of the restaurant venue can add a little something extra to a proposal. Recently, for example, someone asked permission to propose in Caiola’s wine cellar.
At Bresca, a tiny restaurant on Middle Street in Portland, the dining room is so small that a romantic marriage proposal becomes a shared moment of intimacy, embracing everyone else who happens to be in the restaurant that evening. Bresca has had at least five marriage proposals in the five years it has been open, according to chef/owner Krista Desjarlais.
“We had one couple, about a year ago, where the young man got down on one knee in a full dining room, his girlfriend crying and the other guests holding their breath for her answer, which happily was yes,” Desjarlais said. “We popped Champagne, and the whole room celebrated with the couple.”
At Grace in Portland, the staff jokingly calls one table on the restaurant’s balcony level “the engagement table” because so many people have proposed there.
“We have had a guest request for us to tie the engagement ring around a bottle of Champagne and have it sitting at the table,” said Sabin Beckwith, manager at the restaurant. “We all watched and waited until the woman realized it was there, and then he got down on one knee where we could all clearly see him from the main level.”
A proposal at Grace, which is located in an old church, often leads to the wedding reception being held there. Once, the staff hid the bride-to-be’s family in the lobby until she said yes, then the family surprised her and they all moved to the lounge for a celebratory cocktail.
There is one common denominator in all of these restaurant proposal stories: Despite the nervousness on the part of the groom, the woman always seems to say yes. (Well, except for one case at Hugo’s, where the groom got drunk and never pulled the trigger. The restaurant doesn’t count that one.)
“And there’s always tears,” said Arlin Smith. “I don’t think I’ve seen one without tears.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org