For the past 27 years, White Castle franchises across the country have hosted reservations-only Valentine’s Day dinners.
As a writer, I feel a profound sense of dread towards the end of January, as I anticipate the long march of content towards Valentine’s Day; pitches about pink cocktails, edible glitter and vaginal rejuvenation flood my inbox, inspiring in me an unshakeable malaise. But one moment surrounding the holiday has always piqued my interest, and that is the 27-year-old White Castle tradition of hosting reservations-only, table-service Valentine’s Day dinners in their franchises.
Starting this year, Castle fans could reserve V-day dinner through OpenTable, meaning most White Castle locations were almost entirely booked for the night of the 14th. This year, I decided to treat myself to Valentine's Day dinner at White Castle to see if the magic of fried shrimp balls and warm, smooshed sliders could thaw my icy black heart. (They set up an early seating for me on February 12, as my nearest location was all booked for the actual holiday.)
What can make Valentine’s Day, or any occasion, beautiful is the creativity it inspires; "special" days permit us to depart from routine and make something so thoroughly normal—White Castle—magical, by virtue of a little extra effort. When I entered the East New York White Castle for my reservation, the red tablecloths, cut-out hearts, “Happy Valentine’s Day” banners and glistening table cupids evoked the V-Day celebrations of my childhood—the ones that never aspired to seriousness, the ones that didn’t have to push “SEX” and “ROMANCE” and “SPECIAL OCCASION” to evoke love. If you let it, Valentine’s Day can be bigger than romance, and here, as I sat waiting for my sultry order of two sliders, two cheese sliders, three crab cakes, one fries, two fried shrimp cups and two chocolate-strawberry smoothies. Alone but surrounded by salty goods and paper decorations, I felt safe and delighted, unburdened by the pretensions that physically cannot exist inside of a fast-food establishment. The staff made me feel welcome—and I'll say it—loved.
Since beginning in 1991, White Castle’s Valentine’s Day dinners have only grown bigger every year. The East New York general manager told me that many couples come back year after year (including couples who first met at White Castle, of which there are, apparently, many.) I was also pleased to hear that some people reserve tables to eat alone on Valentine’s Day. In fact, one man makes a reservation for himself every year to celebrate his holiday with sliders in a bright, festive ambience.
How luscious to devolve into the messiest, freest version for yourself within moments of sitting down? (Somehow, I got tartar sauce on my skirt before I even opened the tartar sauce packet.) Throughout the six minutes it took for me to eat my meal, it never once occurred to me to feel sorry for myself, eating a Valentine’s Day feast alone at a 24-hour fast-food chain. Rather, I found myself feeling sorry for people who had other, non-White Castle plans on Valentine’s Day, ones that might require long waits and cloying cocktails and uncomfortable dress codes.
As for the quality of the food, well, I regret to inform you that White Castle is not Le Bernardin. But it does the trick. The sliders, soft and a little sweet, mush into satisfying savory pillows, so mind-numbingly appealing you could rush them into your mouth conveyer-belt-style long after you start to feel ill. And if that's not love, I never want to know it.