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When the Breakup Ruins Your Favorite Restaurant

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Food and love go hand in hand. For Valentine’s Day, we’re exploring this fiery connection in all stages of a relationship, from a first date to living together to breaking up.

When Leah Voskuil recently met friends for pizza and pasta at Leo in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, she had “what can only be described as war flashbacks,” she said. Eleven months earlier, Ms. Voskuil had been dumped at that very restaurant by a man she’d been seeing. Once she realized she’d returned to the scene of the breakup, she struggled to pull herself together.

“I saw where he told me he doesn’t have a spark,” she said.

After that meal with friends, she swore never to return. “Even if I had to go to the bathroom so badly, and there was no public bathroom available but Leo’s, I still wouldn’t,” said Ms. Voskuil, 29, a copywriter for a men’s wear brand. “It sucks, because the food is so good.”

When a relationship ends, there are many casualties. You may lose your bar-trivia friends, your rent-stablized lease in Fort Greene, your beloved terrier. But one crushing loss is often overlooked: your favorite restaurant.

The restaurant breakup is a trope in pop culture for a reason: They’re happening all around us, both in spite of and because of their public nature. In “Legally Blonde,” Reese Witherspoon’s Elle Woods wails in a restaurant when her boyfriend, Warner, tells her she isn’t serious enough to be with him. Taylor Swift describes a similar experience in her song “Right Where You Left Me”: “Help, I’m still at the restaurant / Still sitting in a corner I haunt / Cross-legged in the dim light / They say, ‘What a sad sight.’” For better or worse, restaurant breakups are often highly dramatic.

Kristen Mizzi was, bizarrely, dumped by three consecutive boyfriends at Jaleo by José Andrés in Washington, D.C. Given the histrionics of each conversation, “I’m sure that anyone who looked toward our table knew exactly what was going on,” said Ms. Mizzi, 40.

With such a high risk of public humiliation, why break up in such a public space?

For those doing the dumping, the restaurant’s atmosphere can be an insurance policy. A dining room that’s buzzing and full of distractions may temper the reactions of those being dumped.

“I’m sure that was part of these guys’ strategy, like, ‘Hopefully she won’t get too emotional, and we just can go our separate ways,’” Ms. Mizzi said. She refused to return to Jaleo for five years, even after she got married.

Erin Harper couldn’t return to her local Wendy’s in Madison, Wis., for months after a college boyfriend broke up with her over chicken nuggets and Frostys.

“It’s wrong to break up with a person in the place they love,” Ms. Harper, 29, said. “It wasn’t a place I was expecting to have that association with.”

But a waking nightmare for those directly involved is often a delight for the restaurant’s staff.

“It makes the shift so much more fun,” said Corbin Chase, 31, a former server who has seen his fair share of messy separations over dry-aged rib-eye for two. “We’re taking bets like what’s happening, whose fault is it and are they walking out together?”

Last year, when Mr. Chase was a server at Lord’s in Greenwich Village, Valentine’s Day dinner service took a thrilling turn. After their first round of drinks, a couple seated in the back began to squabble. “Another server tipped me off that it was going south,” Mr. Chase said. “They were being a little bit loud. You could kind of hear it from the kitchen.”

As the argument escalated, the woman took an unusual number of trips to the bathroom, where Mr. Chase could hear her yelling. “It’s a one-person bathroom, so she was definitely talking to herself,” he said.

“The entire staff is talking about it,” he said, and every server was looking for an excuse to stop by the couples’ table. “All of a sudden this becomes the best customer service you could ever get in a restaurant, because we all want to know what’s happening.”

Eventually, after her final trip to the bathroom, the woman walked out, leaving her partner with an exorbitant tab.

Another perk of a public argument, beyond the free entertainment? “The tip usually comes in really high,” Mr. Chase said.

The meltdown wasn’t just a treat for the staff, but for the other diners, too. “Everyone comes together over your breakup once you leave the restaurant,” Mr. Chase said. On Valentine’s Day especially, “you have all these other couples looking on, like, ‘Wow, we don’t have it so bad!’ ”

But for some, a restaurant breakup is a sign of respect. When Veesh Fox, a 24-year-old entrepreneur and poet, was dumped at Frederick’s Wine & Dine in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, she wasn’t miffed in the slightest.

“Getting dressed up and being pretty and going out to eat is one of my favorite things to do,” she said. Having her heart broken in her happy place was “the healthiest thing I’ve experienced.”

And about a month after the breakup, Ms. Fox took him back — over dinner.

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