"Everyone felt so bad — what do you say?" adds Murphy. "He shot down a couple drinks and left with his tail between his legs. We haven't seen him since."

Not everyone suffers their disgrace with discretion. Now of Chez Henri, Cara Mihaliak was a server at Dante when a couple arrived dressed to the elevens. "They thought there was going to be dancing," she says. He wore a full tuxedo, and she wore a gown. Though nothing in the reservation promised a cotillion, the couple became irate. "Instead of being normal people and complaining," says Mihaliak, "he pushed a manager down the stairs."

Patrick Maguire, author of the blog Server Not Servant, says that planning dinner out on Valentine's Day is asking for trouble. "Valentine's Day is a cheesy, tacky, stupid Hallmark holiday and a terrible night to dine out," he says. "I love people, but I have a line that I like to think I made up: it's not all of humanity that I loathe, just a lot of individual people together."

In other words, it's in the long lines at the bar and the host stand where Maguire realizes that hell is other people. "When you crowd onto a subway car or a bus or Fenway Park or a crowded restaurant, they don't know how to behave with a sense of mutual respect or grace or civility, and it's magnified times a hundred on a holiday with such high expectations that are almost impossible to deliver on."

'NO, NO, NO!'

L'Espalier's Risoli was once approached by a diner, nervous and distraught over his looming Valentine's dinner proposal.

"People pretty much know what the answer is going to be," says Risoli, but this one was really unsure. When he handed over the ring, "she looked aghast, said, 'No, no, NO!' got up and left, and the guy finished the meal by himself."

Other than not forcing square-peg proposals into round holes, Risoli advises against waiting until the last minute to make reservations. Or, he suggests picking a lower-pressure night. "The days just before or after are equally romantic," he says. "Romance is what you bring to the table."

On a night when hotter heads prevail, such moderate advice could save several faces.

"I think the lesson is to make sure you know your significant other well enough before proposing in a public place," says Regal Beagle's Murphy.

But for one patron of Hungry Mother in Cambridge, a thwarted proposal lingers longer than the spoken echoes of the embarrassed. Early sponsors of the restaurant's creation contributed in exchange for a discount off their first meal, and a commemorative tile bearing their name on the wall.

"One of the 'names' is 'Will you marry me Blair?' " says co-owner John Kessen. "It was supposed to be a proposal, but he's never brought her in.

"I've been trying to find out where he is, but I don't know if now maybe Blair is Susan." He worries that one day, Blair will return with a new boyfriend, get the wrong idea, and say yes to the wrong man.

Lindsay Crudele can be reached at lcrudele@gmail.com.

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