Those who say that romance is dead haven't spent Valentine's Day eating several mini-cheeseburgers beneath the fluorescent lights of the Borough Park White Castle. Nor have they met a couple of 46 years who want nothing more than to spend each February 14 sharing chicken rings in a pre-fab plastic booth. No, romance isn't dead. It isn't even past.
According to the company, at least 35,000 people dined at White Castle on Saturday evening, where, across 12 states and 400 or so outlets, the eldest of the American fast-food statesmen has been providing red linens and tableside service for swooning Valentiners for 24 years. Despite its seemingly slapdash nature, White Castle Valentine's Day isn't for the haphazard romantic—I called for a reservation three weeks in advance only to discover that a number of time slots had already been filled.
"We've got about 70 reservations tonight," said John, normally a cashier, who was moonlighting as our waiter at one of the Brooklyn locations. It was easy to see why. My
very lucky date and I were seated at a booth festooned with holiday accoutrements. There were heart balloons, plastic roses, and chocolates, a saccharine collective that would rival even the most effusive of Rumi's love poems.
As John took our order, we met Paul and Julie from nearby Bensonhurst, who were celebrating their fifth straight Valentine's Day at White Castle. I asked them what compelled a couple nearing their golden anniversary to make dinner at a fast-food joint part of their tradition. Familiarity and value led the way. "I saw a chicken cutlet on a Valentine's Day menu for $36," Paul explained. "You stumble into these things. I've been having White Castle for 60 years. Back when the burgers were 14 cents."
Outside of Brooklyn, there had been reports about the royal weddings. For the past eight years, White Castle has played host for Valentine's Day weddings, sponsoring the nuptials for winners of radio contests in eight different markets. Commentary was predictably cruel, but dispatches from those struck by Hamburger Cupid's arrow flew in from around the country.
In downtown Louisville, Amanda and Curt said they would be able to save for their honeymoon by having their Kentucky wedding at the White Castle on Market Street. "We got married in a castle," the bride said she'd tell her children someday. "A big, white one."
Had the interesting experience of attending a wedding at White Castle today... Look at that hamburger cake. pic.twitter.com/u05CY2lAps— Emily Evans (@EmilyEvansWDRB) February 15, 2015
Elsewhere, Lorri and Larry, who had spent 15 years together, finally tied the knot at the White Castle in Villa Park, Illinois. In the Bronx, Jasmine and Mariana wore matching outfits and danced to Ed Sheeran for their first song.
In Sharonville, Ohio, Kaitlin and Thomas, two high-school sweethearts partook in a white wedding at White Castle. "Their family and friends joined them in the restaurant for the ceremony and the 'Crave Crate' (100 White Castle sliders in a box) that followed," WKRC reported.
Every year, Valentine's Day arrives with its attendant criticisms. Its commercial and forced nature, its seeming insincerity, its inherent "othering" of single people, its excessive cost, and its unnecessary pressures have inspired impassioned railings against the Hallmark Industrial Complex as well as its own political countermovements.
What was most material about the White Castle Valentine's Day experience is that it manages to be both corporate and subversive. There's something satisfying about embracing an $18 Valentine's Day meal, something charming about having table service at a fast-food joint, something ironic about celebrating romance at a place with buzzer-lock bathrooms, and something reaffirming about being in a place where, for one night at least, everyone seems to generously tip an employee who never gets to work for tips.
There's also something romantic about being in a place meant for people at all stages of life. In the booth behind us were soon-to-be parents, who were fiddling with a selfie stick. Across the country, families posted pictures of themselves embracing a holiday designed for couples.
It was also a place for lost loves. At a White Castle outside of Minnesota, a table of five widows continued a tradition of gathering to reminisce about their husbands and bygone date nights at White Castle. "We would get five (burgers) for a quarter and then go to Garrick Theater for a double feature and have a big night," one woman told The Pioneer Press. According to the report, the women brought chocolates to share and three of their sons had flowers sent to the restaurant.
Then there were the new loves like Eric and Emily, who asked me to snap their picture as I ambled out. "It's our first Valentine's together," Emily explained.
I asked them how they had found out about White Castle. With one sentence, Eric also won my heart: "I just put my ears to the train tracks of romance."