When you think of Valentine's Day, you may think romance, flowers, candy or a nice, fancy dinner. And many people think it's an occasion worth celebrating at Russell's Steaks, Chops and More, which was just named one of the 100 Most Romantic Restaurants in America for 2017 by OpenTable.
That's no surprise to Russ Salvatore, who will serve his 67th Valentine's Day dinner this year. Not only does he plan out each aspect of dining at Russell's, he has strict specifications when it comes to his steaks. But Salvatore said it is top-notch service that makes dining at Russell's a memorable event. I talked with him about what sets the mood for a special night out, how he polices the dining room and even gets hands on in the kitchen by making peanut butter pie.
Question: You've been serving Valentine's Day dinners for years. What makes the night out so special?
Answer: It's amazing. I can't believe it went that fast. I started when I was 17 working for my dad's place and this will be my 67th Valentine's that I've worked and it's amazing. Valentine's Day, in the restaurant business, is very, very exciting. I love it because you're dealing with a lot of young couples and I must have gone through a million engagements. There's a lot of kids that get engaged on Valentine's Day and ask me, "Russ, would you bring the ring to the table for the dessert and bring the lid on the dish" and when they lift it up, it's "Oh my gosh!" We've gone as far as guys falling on their knees. It's a special day for young people.
Q: What do you do to try and make it extra romantic?
A: What's nice about it, I'm a fuss budget with society going the way it is and people dressing, coming in in jeans and not looking the way they should like years ago. But, on Valentine's Day, all the young people come in dressed so beautifully. We have more than 600 dinner reservations and a beautiful menu for them. We do put a dinner for two menu together to make it easier for them, which is about $50 or $60 average per person, which includes everything and dessert. Sometimes young people don't know how to order so the server will explain it to them.
Q: What do you think would make the perfect dinner?
A: The perfect dinner would be shrimp cocktail to share. You have a salad,you have a choice of chopped or so forth. Naturally, we are a steak house so the majority of dinners we sell are all steak. We've got your baby filet and we have a filet topped with sauteed mushrooms, which is a very big winner. Kids with a little more money will get a surf and turf. Sometimes I'll say, "Kids, the best thing to do is to order a baby filet and order one lobster tail and I'll send it out and split it in two so you've got surf and turf." I mean a big 12-ounce lobster tail and 10-ounce filet, where are you going to put all that food? It's becoming very big - splitting dinner. It's called "a dinner to share."
Q: You're an expert at wining and dining guests. Do you have any tricks to the trade?
A: The only reason for that is what goes on on Valentine's Day, goes on every day at Russell's. Everybody has good food, but I would say our restaurant has the finest service of any restaurant in New York State. You are not allowed to get another course unless your table is clean and your table is brushed course by course. How many times are you out for dinner and you're done eating and your waiter will come up to you and ask you if you're ready for dessert? That is wrong. It doesn't happen here at Russell's. You'll get the dessert menu here and they'll ask you if you want coffee and then I'll be back to serve you dessert. Everyplace I go, it upsets me. They'll ask if I want dessert. "Sir, let me ask you a question. Why would you ask me if I want dessert now? I would like a cup of espresso or cappuccino and then give me my dessert."
Q: What's your favorite dessert?
A: I make the peanut butter pie back there. It's my recipe for the peanut butter pie so I'm stuck on it. Our cheesecake is good, but the peanut butter pie, I've been making it for about four years now. I go back with my chef and we go through a lot of it. We have to make 30 to40 peanut butter pies for the week. And I time myself. I make a pie a minute!
Q: You actually make the pies?
A: Yes I do. The filling, you mix with peanut butter. I count three scoops and we go down the line like a production line.
Q: Do you keep an eye on the dining room, too?
A: We have the finest service and I overlook it. I police my dining room like a cop. Service makes the food taste good. If you have a server that's miserable, the food isn't going to taste good. We're fortunate being Russell's; we are still a white table cloth restaurant. When I first started, I changed the pizzeria with table cloths and linen napkins. There are some restaurants opening up getting $80, $90 or $100 for a dinner and you're eating on a Formica table. Where's the linen? It's got to have linen.
Q: Do you see a lot of people regularly celebrating occasions other than Valentine's Day?
A: This is what I stress with my servers - you realize people save all year to come to Russell's. If they come here and they are dissatisfied, you blew that. Our restaurant has become a special occasion place. Nine out of ten people, or even ten out of ten, come for an occasion. I stand at my podium saying, "Hello, good evening, you look so beautiful. What's the occasion?" They tell me it's our anniversary or it's my wife's birthday. I'd say every single person that comes in from the city of Buffalo is celebrating a special occasion. I bring you a little cake out. If you call the day before, we put you on the marquis.
Q: Is it rewarding that people choose to celebrate with you?
A: I've been doing it, my dear, all these years and I love it more and more and more. People say, "Russ, you've got a lot of money, why don't you throw the towel in?" I can't. I love it so much. It's my pleasure and my enjoyment - seeing people happy.