What does one wear to a 5 p.m., solo Valentine’s Day reservation at one of the most subtly exclusive dining experiences of the year?
A ball gown? A track suit? A Ronald McDonald costume? When planning one’s approach at a joint known to roll out a “literal red carpet at some locations,” nothing seems off-limits.
But when my hour came, there I stood, tugging on the doors of the White Castle at Lake Street and Blaisdell Avenue -- locked out, and pleased I was not in a ball gown.
Over and over, I scanned signs that said, “Lobby Closed for Reservations Only, Drive Thru Open.” Except I did have a reservation. And all the doors were locked. To be fair, the normal way of approaching any White Castle is always through the drive-thru (duh) and I hadn’t yet tried that window…
Just as I began to turn away, giving up all for lost, the warmest host I’ve ever met poked her head out of the door and lilted, “Do you have a reservation?” thus initiating one of the weirdest, most charming experiences of my dining life.
If the average American is set to spend just shy of $200 per person on Valentine’s Day this year, who is eating at White Castle? Also, with only one possible reservation time remaining a week in advance -- at 5 p.m., no less -- who is dining at White Castle with the sun still riding high in the sky? And how does this subset of people behave? I don’t know them. Would I be seated at a communal table, as punishment for my gall to show up stag?
To make matters even more strange, a little number-crunching via OpenTable (the platform through which White Castle coordinates their reservations) suggests a table at the home of the Crave Case may just be one of the most elusive “gets” in the city: The dining room at their Lake & Blaisdell location contains a mere 12 spots, each seating four adults (a stretch IRL), and they’re only open for five hours.
That means dining at White Castle for Valentine’s Day is a rarer brand of lightning in a jar than people realize.
The aforementioned glowing host showed me to a table in the middle row of the dining area -- set for four, despite it being, uh, just me. It was adorned with a bright red tea light and pale purple roses. At my back sat a young couple dressed in athleisure, who’d brought along their brand new babe-in-arms. Directly to my left was a double-date of retirees -- greying, wearing glasses, in fine dress of the professorial and Liz Claiborne ilk, all in reds and pinks. One man wore a bow-tie with sparkles.
Aside from the seven of us, the dining room was void of customers. The candle-and-fluorescent vibe was… comically intimate.
My server, Rae, was perfectly attentive to my needs without being overly involved as he took my order, just as any great server would be.
I was, admittedly, all over the place while ordering; it’s hard to order from White Castle while stone-cold sober, OK? No one needs a size-medium soda if you’re dining in-house, with free refills, but that’s easy to forget outside the familiar confines of one’s car. I inexplicably ordered a (delicious!) breakfast waffle slider with sausage, despite having eaten waffles for actual breakfast that morning. There may also have been (whoops!) a couple of double cheese sliders because I can’t read and all I wanted was cheese? Then I threw in some chicken rings because no one can say no to chicken rings.
At some point, a man from back-of-house leaned over a counter, whipped out his phone, and began live-videoing the dining room. To whom? I don’t know.
In between it all, there was dancing. On the part of the staff.
“You like White Castle’s food?” I asked Alice, a server.
“Oh yes ma’am. My mom worked at White Castle when I was a kid; she used to bring home Crave Cases of sliders with cheese for us. I still love them.”
“Does it feel like comfort food for you?”
“Yes ma’am,” she laughed.
“Do you like doing these special Valentine’s events?”
“They’re fun! I wish we could turn the music up though.”
After tables had paid, the glorious hostess offered tables cupcakes; given the lack of cupcakes on the menu, this gesture read as nothing short of homespun kindness.
The fast food chain’s annual tradition of hosting sit-down, table-side service began way back in 1991 -- before Al Gore claimed to have “invented” the internet, when smart phones weren’t yet a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, and nobody was doing shit “for the ‘grams.” What started as an idea by a couple of regional higher-ups to make the day’s celebration of communal love a bit more special has blossomed into today’s full-on mylar balloon, rose-strewn tablecloth spectacular. In the meantime, the tradition weathered the mid-'90s onslaught of cynicism, the 2000s tongue-in-cheek ironic “love” of kitsch, into whatever hellscape we’re surviving today -- a vapid, social-media-fueled simulation of the real, perhaps?
White Castle’s annual presentation of dinnerware, printed menus, hand-cut hearts decorating the walls, and genuine enthusiasm is built on a foundation of actual charm, predating whatever our broken minds think they’re “up to.” What’s kept this quirky tradition going all these years is an overwhelming feeling of warmth and love… in an unexpected locale. It might just be the grandfather of all pop-ups.
While taking my leave, Alice and I snapped a couple photos together -- on both her phone and mine -- in front of White Castle’s equivalent of a Valentine’s step-and-repeat. The last thing I heard while the door swung shut behind me were calls of “See you next year!”
I’d be surprised if I don’t turn up, even though I’m still burping onions as I type.