Saturday, February 14, 2015

Should You Go Out for a Romantic Valentine's Dinner?

No, say the experts: the restaurants will be busier and serving new menus, producing worse food and worse service which you’ll pay more for. If your date is a disaster, you’re stuck for three courses while surrounded by canoodling couples; even if it isn’t, your love may not be best celebrated at restaurants where you “feed each other every bite of the meal” and “discover how a fondue fork can give Cupid’s arrow a run for its money” [1]. I find these arguments compelling, but I’m biased: I’m spending Valentine’s alone this year, and it would warm my frozen heart to know the champagne-sipping couples I watch through rosy windows are secretly miserable.

But does the data actually support my Valentine’s fantasy? (The main perk of being a computer scientist: more statistical schadenfreude). Yelp just released 1.6 million reviews which you should all download right now, and from these I identified 1,778 Valentine's restaurant reviews. Here is what I learned:

1. People do not report worse experiences on Valentine’s Day. People tend to go out to slightly nicer restaurants on Valentine’s, probably because it’s a special occasion. But they do not give them lower reviews: there is no difference between the rating a restaurant usually gets and the rating it gets on Valentine’s. I was pretty disappointed by this, so I tried looking just at restaurants described as romantic, classy, or expensive. I also found no difference for these groups [2]. But I found some consolation in the fact that...

2. If you do go out, it is reasonably likely that you will have a bad experience. 19% of Valentine’s reviewers gave restaurants 1 or 2 stars out of 5, so ⅕ of couples I see are not having a very good time. And perhaps this is also a compelling argument for staying home with your sweetheart: imagine cooking a nice dinner, drinking some wine, and getting up to whatever else you get up to, or down to. If you really think there’s a higher than 19% chance you’d give that 1 or 2 stars, you might want to reconsider your relationship.

Going to a restaurant on Valentine’s may be riskier than going on another day: people were more likely to give restaurants 1 or 2 star reviews, although they were also more likely to give them 5 star reviews. If you’re willing to take the risk, I might suggest casting it as romantic, because danger is titillating: tell your date, “We’re risking everything by getting dinner tonight...but I want to take that journey with you.” 

There are some caveats to the ratings. Maybe if I have a mediocre Valentine’s meal, I’m more reluctant to admit it because I spent a lot of money and it makes me sad about my relationship. Or maybe there’s an effect in the opposite direction: I’m more willing to criticize a meal on Valentine’s because my expectations are higher. Also, Yelp reviewers probably don’t represent the general population: I’m no psychologist, but I’m pretty sure some of the people who write one-star reviews have anger management issues. Finally, there are some false positives in my dataset: not everyone who mentions Valentine’s in their review was going out for a romantic dinner.

What differentiates a good Valentine’s date from a bad one? Here are the phrases most associated with high and low ratings [3]:
Phrases Associated with High Ratings
Phrases Associated with Low Ratings
absolutely amazing, pretzel, crudo, flawless, worth every penny, intrusive, outstanding, so fresh, pistachio, it was delicious, gluten free, the farm, melted in my mouth
will never go back, horrible, apology, was the worst, was cold, sucks, pissed, undercooked, awful, ruined, ranch

Pretzels: the food of love. Of course, what makes a good date will vary depending on the type of restaurant. Here are some phrases that indicated good dates in different types of restaurants.

Good Dates in Expensive Restaurants
Good Dates in Inexpensive Restaurants
Good Dates in Romantic Restaurants
worth every penny, crudo, melted in my mouth, cheddar, fillet, black cod, vinaigrette, hamachi, sashimi, grits
Gluten free, the farm, pistachio, gyro, very fresh, cozy, sushi
creamy, tuna, rich, duck, oysters, attentive, local, cozy, green, las vegas, sorbet, bread pudding, scallops

3. Sandwiches aren’t sexy. To figure out which foods were most romantic, I compared the words people used to describe each restaurant on Valentine’s to the words they used to describe it on other days. Here are the foods most and least associated with Valentine’s:

Most Associated
Least Associated
set menu, cookie, champagne, lobster bisque, creamed, surf and turf, truffle, bruschetta, tenderloin, short ribs, rose, cherry, milk, chocolate covered, butternut squash, yellowtail, risotto
french toast, mexican food, happy hour, chicken, custard, bloody, taco, wings, eggs, pork belly, sake, halibut, french fries, mustard, sandwiches, broccoli, horseradish

The Valentine’s foods are mostly classics (“chocolate covered” is most frequently followed by “strawberry” but also describes bon bons and souffle). As for the non-Valentine’s foods: taking someone out for happy hour on Valentine’s might make you seem cheap, broccoli and french fries just aren’t romantic, and who wants to kiss someone who smells like mustard or horseradish? Some of the differences seem arbitrary: why is yellowtail sexier than halibut, short ribs than pork belly? Some may be due to nomenclature: perhaps on Valentine’s you rename your custard “creme brulee”.

4. There’s no statistically significant correlation between how expensive the restaurant is and the ratings people give it. So I’m definitely spending my next Valentine’s at Chipotle. Here are some phrases most associated with expensive and inexpensive Valentine’s dates [4]:
Expensive Dates
Inexpensive Dates
Paris, black truffle, bone in ribeye, caviar, creamed spinach, sommelier, beef wellington, foie gras, wine pairings, wagyu, souffle, amuse, black cod
burrito, slaw, pita, pizzas, diamond, gyro, fry, brisket, panini, meatloaf, sandwich, wrap, pad thai, chipotle, pastries, takeout, tilapia

Of course, many people may be hoping for more than black truffles from their Valentine. To determine which lovers had been sexually active after their dates, I performed a backtrace on the IPs used to submit the reviews, linked the IPs to home addresses, and looked for changes in electricity and water usage, ambient noise, and local seismological readings consistent with sexual activity. I found the following factors showed associations:

Haha naw I’m just messing with you. I’m not that creepy, and also it’s completely technically impossible. Finally, in case this wasn’t obvious, I don’t actually hate couples. Whether you’re single, married, or somewhere in between, have a very happy Valentine’s.


[1] I will admit I harbor a certain vitriol towards fondue -- a girl once used it to try to seduce my boyfriend -- and in general towards foods with sexual overtones. If you’re hungry, eat dinner, and if you’re horny, have sex -- but public culinary foreplay has always struck me as an awkward combination.
[2] I did find a significant difference for Yelp reviewers who had earned “elite” status: they tended to give restaurants significantly higher ratings on Valentine’s Day than the restaurants received overall. I wasn’t sure why this might be, so I consulted an expert on online restaurant reviews, who suggested that elite reviewers might be better at using the review system to filter out bad restaurants or that elite reviewers were encouraged to go to restaurants with few reviews, which might be trying harder to impress customers on Valentine’s.
[3] I filtered out phrases that were redundant or uninformative.
[4] It’s possible, of course, that the cheap dates weren’t full Valentine’s dinners, just lunches that occurred on Valentine’s Day, meaning that we’re not really comparing apples to apples.