I've heard the argument from every angle, and of course there are exceptions. However, as an old-fashioned midwestern boy who actually does still fervently believe in chivalry (even ask my roommates -- I always hold the door so they can enter a taxi first -- and not just because I hate crawling, I swear...), and endangered notions such as romance, whim, and creatively expressing affection and intimacy, let me just say up front that usually, Valentine's Day sucks serious toilet water.
For that infamous final Valentine's Day celebrated with my (now ex) fiance (to whom I shall refer as "D"), he insisted on taking the reigns... much to my hesitation and chagrin. Don't get me wrong; for literally any other cause for celebration, D's generosity could exponentially shame the Magi of Bethlehem. He was, on most occasions, an exceptional master of gift-giving.
Consider, for instance, my first semester of teaching second grade in the South Bronx. After conducting a grueling night of parent-teacher conferences that hadn't gone so well, I came home to D waiting in the doorway in a three-piece suit. "Put your bags down, baby..." He straightened my tie, hailed a cab, and whisked me off to a luxurious dinner at one of New York's highest Zagat-rated Italian trattorias, where he proceeded to give me my own personal conference of everything I had done that made him love me.
For my thirtieth birthday, I arrived home from work to D in a towel with shaving foam all over his face. "While I finish getting ready, open the card on the fireplace mantle..." He grinned, and retreated to the bathroom to continue shaving. The card contained a clue, which led me to the Starbucks down the block, where our favorite barista, Vivienne, pulled the next clue from her bright green apron.
D had spent the entirety of the day plotting out an elaborate, grand-scale scavenger hunt zigzagging across Manhattan, where bartenders, bodega cashiers, and even a computer technician awaited with clues and riddles to solve. The final hint came from a word scramble I'd had to print from a computer screen at the Kinko's on 72nd and Columbus, and led me to one of our favorite restaurants in the Meatpacking District, where 20 of my closest friends awaited as a surprise.
D had apparently signed a contract with the restaurant, weeks in advance, which included printing up menus for the party in the same font as the main dining room offerings, under the heading, "Bradley's Birthday Prix Fixe." In planning the menu he'd even considered my on-again-off-again-vegan friend, Doreen (who spent the meal neurotically itching at the scarlet hives polka-dotting her neck and chest, as she had insisted on the provencal steamed mussels in lieu of the beet salad, despite her violent shellfish allergy). All in all, it was by far my best birthday since my Madonna roller skating party in the fourth grade.
The year we couldn't spend Christmas day together because he was in Prague with his family, a lavish array of beautifully wrapped gifts waited for me under the tree at my parents' house in Indiana, all of which D had shipped days in advance of my own arrival home.
I could go on, but the point is, he inarguably knew how to make me feel like a king.
Any other day of the year.
But for some reason, the cursed 14th of February found him caught like a deer in headlights, incapable of even merely selecting a tacky Shoebox greeting card.
D had notoriously botched previous February fortnights to horrific degrees, and apparently sought an opportunity to make amends. Against my better judgment, I gave him complete freedom, except for one stipulation: I did not want to dine somewhere that we knew someone on the staff.
As enthusiastic diners, we had built a fairly healthy repertoire of restaurants where we knew managers, cooks, hosts, servers, even members of the cleaning crew. While I ordinarily enjoyed nurturing those friendships, I felt we were long overdue for an intimate, romantic one-on-one, free of chit chat about a manager's move from Astoria to Washington Heights, or catching up on the latest bickering between a server and the insensitive sous chef.
We lived in New York City, after all, and there were a seemingly infinite number of restaurants we had yet to try. I even suggested we not leave home at all, avoiding what now appeared as inevitable recurring tragedy, celebrating with some delivered sushi and a rental movie; but D smiled at me, and assured me that I needed to simply cool-it and exhibit some faith.
Fast forward to us checking in for a reservation at one of D's favorite restaurants.
"Brad... now I know what you said... but Cam is managing tonight, and she simply insisted that we come in for a romantic evening."
I wanted to scream, flip a table, and whack the rose (he had moments before purchased from a homeless man) across the host stand, but I took a deep breath and acknowledged that this was, in fact, where we were. I could throw a tantrum and spoil the entire evening, or make the best of it and see what a wonderful date might unfold with the man I loved.
This is what happened...
After arriving fifteen minutes early, yet waiting thirty minutes past our reservation time, we were finally seated at the only table that had, in fact, been available since we walked in the door forty-five minutes prior.
Our server (I shall dub her Lucy -- short for Lucifer) was a vertically-challenged, frumpy, bitter man-hater (in your mind's eye, visualize Rachel Dratch's much less attractive, goth-punk, lesbian, younger sister; then whap her over the noggin a few more times with the ugly stick, and now you've pictured her). Lucy persisted that none of the specialty cocktails were worthwhile, I believe, simply because I had exhibited über-excitement about the holiday concoctions advertised on the menu insert.
"Should I just stick with the passion cosmo, then?" I inquired. "I always like it here..."
She muttered some cursing, along with an erectile dysfunction spell under her breath, and then glared at me from beneath her draping unibrow, "no, even that tastes like crap tonight... grrrr..."
Soon after finally settling on two glasses of Chianti, and placing our order from the Valentine's-Day/Extended-Restaurant-Week prix fixe menu, Cam (our manager friend who had been nowhere to be found while we were waiting for our alleged reservation) finally popped her head out of the kitchen, spotted us, and came galloping over.
"Hey guys! Oh, I am so glad you came in! I finally got my new bed moved... Ohmigosh... who's your server? Lucy? She's my favorite... isn't she great? Let me send some extra appetizers out for you. Lucy! Come here... add the polenta fries, the lobster risotto, the calamari... oh, and give them samples of that yummy featured cocktail, Cupid's Kiss..." Lucy's head spun around a few times, and she zipped away to violently punch the order on the computer touchscreen with what sounded like concrete fingertips.
Before we knew it, Cam had pulled a chair up to our table, ordered a cocktail, and settled in for a romantic evening with her two gay boyfriends. "Bradley... why didn't you get the passion cosmo... I thought it was your favorite???"
Our bitter bar wench, Lucy, slammed down two martini glasses of Cupid's Kiss. On this, I will concede that she hadn't really exaggerated. The raspberry chocolate martini was topped with a mango foam, which looked more like the bartender had swished Citrus Listerine between his teeth, and then spit it out as a garnish.
By now, D had begun sweating profusely, and couldn't even manage eye contact with me. We had been together for four years at that point, and this was rapidly unfolding to be his worst flubbed attempt. Ever. Avoiding my glare, he whispered nervously to my forehead, "honey... there is a call I have to take... for work... it's extremely important... do you mind?"
Before I could respond, he had already excused himself from the table and made a beeline for the door. At this stage in the evening, I had traveled beyond frustration and disappointment, now reveling in the fact that I had already hands-down won our post-dinner discussion of, "see... you need to trust me to set up an evening, without telling me where we shouldn't go..."
For the following twenty-minute-slice-of-eternity, I watched in disbelief as Cam chugged three Cupid's Kisses, then ravenously nibbled from every dish in our spread like a famished refugee set loose at the Old Country Buffet. Her shift apparently over, we discussed her new bed and new neighborhood, the discord between her staff and the grumpy sous chef, as well as the extensive menu changes coming down the road. By the time D finally resurfaced from outside, each plate on the table had been licked dry, except his sirloin (from which Cam had even helped herself to two hearty pieces).
"Oh, hey! That's my boyfriend outside..." Cam giggled, as a sirloin niblet shot from her mouth."Thank you guys so much for letting me join you, but we have reservations at this new restaurant neither of us have tried... I'm so excited!" And with a click of her heels, she was on her way to what was probably the perfect Valentine's Day dinner.
We sat in silence for the remainder of the meal. When Lucy slapped the check in front of me, I nearly spewed my last gulp of Chianti backwash across the table. Not only had she charged us for our meals, but also the extra items Cam had ordered for the table, as well as her cocktails.
Our sadistic server genuinely smiled for the first time. Cam had neglected to give Lucy the manager's card to void those items off as complimentary, and had failed to mention it to the other managers, as well.
I also genuinely smiled for the first time that evening, as I slid the check presenter across the table to D.
"I think I'll let you pick this one up tonight... thanks, honey..."
* * * * * * *
Needless to say, this year when I received a text message that seven of my favorite guy friends were gathering for an anti-Valentine pub crawl across Manhattan's lower east side, I was all too eager to RSVP my confirmation. A quick glance at the roster of guys in our caravan was enough to make anybody envious... man, woman, gay, straight, or curious...
Why subscribe to an overly-hyped Hallmark holiday with one person to whom you should be expressing affection year-round, when I could spend a spontaneous evening with not one, but seven attractive, driven, talented, hilarious men who love me for what's on the inside, and aren't expecting me to put out at the end of the night? Furthermore, if one bar or restaurant was awful, we planned to simply pogo around to wherever the wind carried us.
By this point, I should probably explain the title of this entry: "My group Valentine's date with Bradley Cooper." While that is not entirely true, it isn't completely false, either. One of my friends in our group played Bradley Cooper's butt-double in the recent movie, "New York, I Love You."
Honest. And yes, I said butt-double. How many of your friends can boast that on their resume?
Though it saddens me to spoil the magic of Hollywood, if your palms got a little sweaty during the brief love scene with Bradley Cooper, it was my friend's bare derriere upon which you were gazing, not Bradley Cooper's. How hot of a pooper must you possess to be cast to "butt in" for one of Hollywood's sexiest A-listers?! Though he shall remain nameless, you can try to guess from the picture below (I hadn't yet had enough to drink at this point to ask the group for a shot of their cabooses...)
The point is, I found myself surrounded by some of the most lovable, charming, and incredible friends a guy could have. Though we have all been in relationships, and hope to again in the future, it felt good to celebrate our individuality and the dreams we are pursuing. Besides the butt-double (who is also quickly becoming an accomplished stage and screen actor), our group contained an independent musician who regularly does gigs around the city, two other successfully working actors, two managers... basically, all men who are making a living pursuing their passions in New York City.
While I will never, ever poo-poo love or having a special someone, this Valentine's Day reminded me that even while enjoying a successful relationship, it's so important to celebrate our unique gifts and dreams as individuals.
If you ever want to plan a night focusing on a group of friends, here are some of the locations that we enjoyed that evening...
Our group slowly began to gather at Spitzer's Corner, a gastropub on the corner of Rivington and Ludlow. They offer a unique selection of over 40 high-quality beers, and a menu that will keep you ordering beer after small plate after beer after small plate. The open air room was lined with long communal tables, full of laughter and lively group conversation.
A dutch oven with steamed mussels and clams, in a saffron white wine broth, full of tiny, plump spaetzle noodles.
The beer-battered calamari and shrimp fritters with cilantro-lemon aioli disappeared instantly.
No bar snack makes a boy happier than macaroni with parmegiano reggiano, white cheddar, fontina, truffles, panko, rosemary, and thyme...
Our next stop was Paladar, a no-frills Spanish restaurant just down the street. The menu here was a little hit-or-miss, but it was a good intermediate place to grab small plates for sharing... and affordable drinks. Let me forewarn you to communicate your spice threshold upfront.
My roommate, David, had to abruptly excuse himself for a mid-chips-and-guacamole walk around the block to cool his tongue. I will acknowledge that David responds to an extra sprinkle of cracked black pepper the way the average person would to a tablespoon of wasabi smeared on their tongue. In his defense, however, even the things we requested mild came out with a lot of extra zip.
The Vampiro was a hibiscus margarita with chile-salted rim. If the food and salt had not packed such a zing, I might have actually tasted the hibiscus flower nectar. The balance of flavors was quite disproportionate, so I'd recommend just a classic Patron margarita.
The tacos were simple and delicious. Above were my favorite, featuring perfectly grilled swordfish skewers.
I also enjoyed the empanadas with goat cheese and mushrooms. Again, nothing particularly extraordinary about the dish. Sometimes, a few simple delicious flavors are all you need.
After Paladar, we walked around the corner to one of the bars that always strikes me as oddly misplaced, yet a riotous time... Mason Dixon. I suppose that in light of the holiday, the management hadn't anticipated a crowded bar. Unfortunately, they were extremely understaffed and drinks took nearly 20 minutes. But we did stick around long to enjoy our friend being bucked by the mechanical bull. We've never had a problem with service before, so I'll chalk it up to poor business speculation from the managers. Ordinarily, it's the perfect bar to head with a group of friends. And since we had already planned on moving around, it wasn't that big of a deal to gallivant elsewhere...
After pints of beer, tequila, and an electronic cow, we were happy to settle in for awhile at the Whiskey Ward. We found ourselves in trouble when the specials board advertised $7 for a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon accompanied by a shot. Let's just say the bartender seemed to like us... He eventually handed us a box of PBR, and said, "enjoy!"
Try the AK47, a shot of vodka accompanied by an espresso-dusted lemon wedge. The website details their other nightly drink specials, including whiskey flights featuring three 1oz pours. This was the ideal watering hole to end the night, pulling together a few tables, enjoying baskets of peanuts, and toasting to the gathering of incredible friends. It was a beautiful reminder that sometimes if you go out with no itinerary beyond surrounding yourself in great company, you are guaranteed to exceed your expectations...