The last time I had a valentine, it was my entire third grade class. I’ve spent many years disparaging, laughing at and downright ignoring the Hallmark™ holiday, but this year was different. For the first time ever, I have a real live person to spend a random Thursday in February with, and I knew I needed to do something really special if I had any chance of keeping her around for the next one.
Naturally, I took my girlfriend to White Castle for Valentine’s Day.
To be fair, she brought up the idea to me. One morning, she showed me an article about how White Castle does Valentine’s Day and I got very excited. After a Crave Case worth of promises that I’d take her to a “real” restaurant later that night, she agreed to go.
Subscribe to Observer’s Lifestyle Newsletter
I made a reservation at White Castle (you read that right, a reservation at White Castle) for 4:30 p.m. on February 14 then danced around the room for 20 minutes in a very embarrassing manner. For the first time ever, I was excited about V-Day.
The weeks passed in a whirlwind. If life were a Hallmark movie, there would have been a montage of me crossing out days on a big wall calendar while “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” played in the background.
Finally, the moment arrived. I had my flowers, which I purchased the night before and looked considerably worse after a whole day, my suit and a number of second doubts. “Is this not going to be as funny as I think it is? What if she hates me for it?” It was too late for that; the fortress of grease was calling. It loomed in the distance. The big sign outside advertised the “NEW Sloppy Joe Mac & Cheese Nibblers” and the “Impossible Burger.”
I walked into the restaurant and noticed something was very wrong. Where were the streamers? The balloons? It looked like an empty White Castle. Then a lady with a clipboard asked for my name and showed me to a table. They had broken up the restaurant into two separate sections. One was for the commoners, and a small cluster of tables was for us cultured folk who had made reservations.
The maître d’ Beatrice asked if I wanted something to drink, and I ordered a Sprite. Beatrice was the most excited person in the entire restaurant, and couldn’t stop gushing about the benefits of a White Castle Valentine’s Day.
“It’s a reasonable price, and you get exactly what you want,” she said. I nodded my head vigorously.
Beatrice moved gracefully around the Valentine’s section, playing music from her phone (the Bluetooth speaker had gone out), taking pictures like a mom on prom night, chatting up customers and giving orders to her considerably less enthusiastic staff. She was a roving Cupid with a hair net, which I found quite charming.
At 4:37 p.m., it was just me and one other couple. They were happily gorging themselves, and I overheard that the guy makes whiskey and was going to teach a whiskey and chocolate class later that night.
I sat there feeling like a damn idiot in a suit with my bouquet of wilting flowers alone at a White Castle on Valentine’s Day. The tie around my neck got very tight. My Sprite came. It was tinted pink.
“OK, I’ll be there in 5. Sorry am stuck in traffic,” my girlfriend texted. “She’s probably skipping town,” I thought, feeling nauseous.
Ten minutes went by. Another couple came in. They were dressed up and had a photographer with them. Beatrice practically fainted.
I reviewed my plan for when (if) my own girlfriend arrived. I would stand up, give her a kiss, hand her the flowers, then pull her chair out. I looked over and realized the chair was bolted to the floor. I was sweaty.
“I’m close,” she said at 4:49 p.m. “All good lol,” I responded. “She’s probably on a plane somewhere,” I thought.
The people with the photographer are trying to order a drink. “I have the coke without the rum, the ice tea without the long,” said Beatrice laughing.
Regular customers walked into the restaurant. Some were excited about the decorations. Most looked a little confused and grossed out. Eat your sliders, people.
Suddenly, the door opened and in she walked, out of breath and smiling. I stood up, kissed her and handed over the flowers. We sat down—a perfectly executed plan.
“I would have pulled your chair out for you, but it’s bolted to the floor,” I said. She laughed. The relief was overwhelming. Beatrice came back to take our drink order. I got another Sprite. My lady ordered a Coke.
We sat for a while and marveled at the decorations. A red plastic tablecloth. Heart-shaped balloons. A red table decoration—I think it was a paperweight with some streamers coming out of the top. We perused the menu, and I made a big show of telling her to get whatever she wanted because it was on me—a good joke.
Another waitress came and we place our orders. My girlfriend had never been to White Castle before (unbelievable), so I recommended the cheese sliders. She got two. I ordered the chicken and waffle slider, which I had been meaning to try, and an original slider. We decided to split a sack of onion rings.
We took it all in. The table next to us was less than six inches away. If anybody else had come, it would have become very cramped. I explained that I had made a huge mistake by purchasing the flowers the night before. She told me that she likes dried out roses. Beatrice floated by twirling like she was in Swan Lake. The Diddy song “I’ll Be Missing You” played from her phone, followed by a commercial.
Our meal came, and I watched as she took her first bite. This was my valentine’s maiden voyage to White Castle, and it was important that she liked the food. “That’s really good.” My tie felt normal again. She dipped an onion ring into some ketchup and smiled. I smiled back.
My chicken and waffle slider was pretty good. I think they infused maple syrup directly into the waffle. The chicken crust was a little hard, but the inside was juicy and tender. It’s a very solid sandwich, and more filling than most White Castle products, but their original sliders are still king. I took a bite of mine.
“It’s all pickle,” I said to her.
“I know,” she responded. “I love that.”
The onion rings were perfectly greasy, and I opened a Zesty Zing Sauce. White Castle onion rings are best eaten before they get cold and hard. We succeeded, for the most part.
A large man in his 40s with flowers sat down next to (on top of) us. He seemed very unhappy to be there and was alone with his flowers—like some sort of Ghost of Valentine’s Day Yet to Come. His lady came and I felt a little better, so did he.
A lady with a red coat and red tinted glasses sat down at the table next to him. She had a cat-shaped pillow, which she placed on the opposite chair in defiance of the holiday. I can get behind it. Beatrice levitated up to her.
“I’m a cat person,” the lady said.
“I might need one more of these,” said my girlfriend, looking at her empty paper plate. I told her I’m not made of money (joking), and we ordered two more cheese sliders.
“I’m very happy right now,” she continued.
“Is that a direct quote?” I asked.
“Yes, yes, quote me on that, bitch.”
“This is probably one of the better decisions we’ve made,” she said, touching my hand. It was a beautiful moment, but I knew we should start the process of leaving. The sun was going down outside, and as a frequenter of White Castle, I knew that sundown can only mean trouble.
A large group of people, with a bottle of Veuve Clicquot and a toddler, sat behind us. The kid immediately started screaming. My tie was tight again. The six inches between us and the other table felt like three. They asked us to take a picture. My girlfriend took the phone and backed up into the window.
I frantically tried to get the check. Beatrice was off dancing somewhere, and the lady who brought us our food nodded and shuffled off. The Valentine’s section was filling up; I started to feel like I had checked into the Hotel California.
My girlfriend went to the bathroom. I watched her wait to get buzzed in—there are no bathroom keys at White Castle, just a buzzer in the kitchen like the doors in a mental hospital. An old man in an electric blue suit walked in and waited with her. They tried the handle.
Suddenly, my girlfriend came back to the table. “That guy just peed himself and asked me to help him clean it up.” I looked back over and he was walking into the bathroom. Nobody else seemed to notice. I didn’t want to explain it to her, but that’s a pretty standard White Castle practice. I frantically started checking the bus schedule. She called an Uber.
It was getting very claustrophobic. I couldn’t get the check. The baby behind me was screaming. How could you bring a child into a restaurant like that? It’s White Castle for goodness sake. On Valentine’s day!
Finally, the bill came—$18, no bad. I handed the lady $22. She handed me two premium heart-shaped White Castle chocolates. We ran for our lives.
Outside the air felt good again, and I breathed a sigh of relief. It felt like we had just pulled off a very slow bank robbery. We hopped in the getaway car.
“I don’t want to sound like a baby, but it was a very good time,” my girlfriend said. “Until that dude peed himself in front of me.” Fair point.
That’s the thing with White Castle—you know the bomb is going to drop at some point, but you never know when.
I looked out the window and smiled. I don’t know what drives people to go to White Castle for Valentine’s Day. It might be a love of the food, to rage against the system, for the price or out of a sense of irony. I just thought it would be a funny memory to look back on.
I took my girlfriend to White Castle for Valentine’s Day—and lived to tell the tale.