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City Life: Rules of Engagement

One Dallas sommelier has witnessed his share of marriage proposals—the good, the bad, and the ugly. He offers the do’s and don’ts of popping the question in a restaurant.
By Darryl Beeson |

Guys ask a lot of stupid questions. Especially when it comes to matters of the heart. I know because I’m a guy. And a single one at that.

Usually we’re too proud (or stubborn) to ask for advice. But I’ve learned that there’s one time when men aren’t afraid to ask for help—and that’s when the questions involves the “m” word.

After all, society puts a lot of pressure on men to get this chivalrous act right. Not many of us are as suave as Cary Grant or possess the hypnotic power of Brad Pitt. Even though I have found my place in the galaxy of love from my dog-eared copy of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, I panic at the thought of planning my strategy to win the heart of the woman I love. Luckily my job has enabled me to become somewhat of an expert in the business of marriage proposals. For the last two decades, I’ve been a sommelier in the most romantic and inspirational dining rooms in town, including The French Room, The Mansion, and, most recently, Voltaire. Along the way, discreetly and with bottle in hand, I’ve observed the good, the bad, and the ugly outcomes of marriage proposals.

In an effort to enlighten you guys to the possible pitfalls, I offer my insights into this ritual. Maybe over the next few paragraphs you’ll learn enough to help make your experience less embarrassing than some of the ones I’ve witnessed.

Which brings me to another important question. Why carry out this private ritual in a public place, particularly a restaurant? Why depend on a staff of strangers to help you pull off the ultimate romantic escapade?

First of all, let’s talk dollars and sense. If you pick the right restaurant, the ambience is included free of charge. Needless to say, there is very little prep and no dishes to wash. Try to pick a classic, a place that will be around for your first anniversary celebration, not a restaurant that may—ominously—be gone by the time you actually take your vows.

As in any successful business proposal, the first rule goes back to what we all learned as Boy Scouts—be prepared. Don’t be afraid to call the owner or manager of your favorite restaurant and set up an appointment to visit the dining room before the big night. Talk to the manager or maitre’d and listen to their suggestions. Chances are they have done this many times, and they can fill you in on what has worked and what props they have to assist you.

Once you’ve found the room and gathered the restaurant’s areas of expertise, get down to the nuts and bolts with your “support group.” Jim Donohue, maitre’d of The French Room, specializes in the “marriage as an entrée” approach, where he stealthily inserts a marriage proposal in the menu in between roasted rack of lamb and sautéed sweetbreads. Michael Bonadies, a partner in the Myriad restaurant group known for Montrachet, Tribeca Grill, and Nobu, remembers a guest who asked the restaurant to create a menu with the message “Jan, will you marry me?” printed inside. The waiter initially handed the matrimonial menu to the gentlemen, enabling him to switch menus with the bride-to-be at the appropriate moment. (Or, for you cynics, it also allowed him a few minutes to change his mind.) Always bring a box of tissues, because when it’s done right, this method usually results in the predictable fairy-tale ending complete with tears and a fiancée. Better yet, a gentleman might have a clean, white handkerchief nattily folded and ready in the breast pocket of his jacket.

Phil Cobb of Salve and Mi Piaci recalls an artfully orchestrated approach a few years ago. A young lady was out to dinner at Mi Piaci with her date, a professional artist. “Knowing that one of his paintings was a particular favorite of hers,” says Cobb, “he had arranged for the painting to be on display near the entry to the restaurant. Mid-meal, while she was going to the restroom, she immediately noticed the painting and inquired with the maitre’d if they had recently bought the painting. On closer inspection, she noticed a rose attached. At that moment, her date stepped forward and offered his very public proposal to the oohhs and aahhs of the small crowd waiting to be seated.”

I’ve witnessed these techniques many times over the years, and while it may be great for the guy who’s just won the hand of his beloved, it can be a problem for husbands seated in the same room. Too many times, while I am innocently topping off refills of wine at nearby tables, married women who have just witnessed this sentimental mating behavior get teary, too, and ask their husbands why they didn’t propose in a similar manner.
I’ve saved the best reason for last. From my vantage point, I can tell you that your odds are better when you propose in a public place. Face it, even though men may be slow to commit, we usually want a direct answer to this important question. She is less likely to say, “let’s go slowly and think about this for a while” once she has been the lead in the ultimate romantic drama of her life (you hope).

 Now that you’re sold on the idea, here are some hints to help you pull it off without a hitch.

1 Don’t be cheap. You should not choose a restaurant so expensive that it raises one of your intended’s lovely eyebrows; otherwise you will certainly ruin the surprise. If you have conducted your courtship properly, you’ve taken her to enough nice places that this seems like another night on the town. In other words, do not be cheap either before or at this crucial moment. Also remember that you must dig in deeper on this occasion to pay the players. Remember to tip those that are helping you—particularly the musicians, maitre’d, the waitstaff, and to put in a word for myself, the sommelier.

2 Be cool. A theme is nice, but show restraint and don’t overdo it. Adelmo Banchetti of Adelmo’s tells a story of a lady who had told the gentleman earlier in the courtship that she would only consider marrying a man on a white horse. The restaurant, per the guest’s instructions, served a different wine with a white horse on the label for each course, including a White Horse scotch cocktail before dinner. Her reaction was one of mild irritation, as she did not make the connection. Timed near dessert, a carriage and white horse arrived. After she returned from the ride, she made the connection and said yes, in tears. But my advice is to keep the theme simple to avoid confusion.

3 Be careful with the props. In particular, avoid diamond rings submerged in cocktails. Banchetti recalls an instance in which a gentleman had the questionable creativity to place a significant yellow loose diamond in his intended’s pre-dinner scotch on the rocks. Luckily Banchetti was keeping a close watch and rushed to the table before the woman downed the peat-drenched crystal. I also warn against some of the other dubious methods I’ve witnessed, including slipping a ring around a cocktail shrimp or plunging one into a bowl of New Year’s eve black-eyed peas. You risk the happy ending.

4 Be prepared for a refusal. Phil Cobb makes a good argument for saving the sacred moment until dessert. Over the years, he’s witnessed too many long faces when the question is popped with aperitifs and the answer is no. The air on those occassions is so thick with tension that the one he remembers is the one where nothing happened, like the dog that didn’t bark. “One night a fellow proposed and the lady said no,” he recalls. “The funny thing was they continued to dine peacefully and left together with no incident.” On the other hand, Donohue at The French Room remembers a different scenario. When the man proposed, the lady responded “No!” and left the table in tears, running to the lady’s room. A woman seated at the next table, who had overheard the goings on, discreetly followed the non-bride to the restroom to console her. We’ll never know what transpired, but when she returned, composed, she changed her answer to yes. Hopefully you’ll be so lucky.

5 Watch the traffic. Though the romance of the moment may overwhelm you, think carefully before getting down on one knee to propose in a busy restaurant. Don’t misunderstand—she will love the gesture. But obviously, the downfall of proposing in a restaurant is that there is always the potential of tripping somebody carrying a huge tray of food.

As I admitted earlier, I am a single man, and with my experience, I am certainly well prepared to propose in a restaurant. But since I spend most of my time working in one, I have decided that when I take the plunge, I would like to do it in a less obvious, less predictable manner.

It occurred to me, when I was discussing this story with my editor, that I could propose in another way, taking my longtime, restaurant-jaded girlfriend by complete surprise…

Patty Marriott, will you marry me?

Darryl Beeson, cellar master of Voltaire, has twice garnered the Wine Spectator’s “Grand Award,” received two James Beard Award nominations, and appears weekly on The KRLD Restaurant Show with Jim White. Patty, what do you say?

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