Food for first dates

Restaurants and cinemas are among the most popular choices for a first date. But who wins in the fight between noisy snacking versus plates and napkins?

It’s a cold, late winter night and in a small Mexican restaurant, two people – who until last week were strangers – are sitting down to dinner. At the same time, another couple – who’ve known each other for exactly the same number of days – are walking into a cinema towards the queue for snacks.

These four had met for the first time just the week before. The girls, who were best friends at school, had met the two guys (who were best mates in uni). And now, as it started to rain outside, they were all heading on a first date just blocks from one another.

The venue for the first date can be critical and should by no means be left to random choice. Cherry-picked for atmosphere, coziness, cuisine, comfort (and a million other seemingly important factors), that choice leaves a first impression even before you’ve arrived.

Phil’s choice of restaurant was considered and far from random: the authentic Mexican atmosphere, he thought, would provide an entertaining background to the evening, act as a springboard for conversation and hopefully make the date (and therefore him) more memorable. Tapas sharing plates would be the backbone of intimate dining without the pressure of formality; eating with hands would bring them closer in the absence of forks. Phil felt certain he’d made a great choice.

But so did Will, Phil’s mate, who was now guiding Emma and a bucket of popcorn up the dimly lit steps to the cozy seats in row K. Not exactly a culinary extravaganza, but the movie is the headline, right? Movie aside, Will reckoned the popcorn would be pretty inoffensive – the only gripe between them likely to be on deciding between sweet and salty. It’s a one-way ticket to shared food and proximity eating. Is there a better physical ice-breaker than when two hands brush each other on the way to the bottom of the popcorn?

Yes, as a matter of fact there is, thought Phil and Helen. The conversation in the restaurant had now shifted to their mutual friends and how they might be getting on. “I just think you get a better chance to get to know someone, eating with them,” says Helen. “I’ve been on dates and realised when I got back home that we hadn’t spoken about each other the entire night.”

Phil agrees, the feeling of superiority and validation now giving him a warm glow. “We can talk at our own pace over the whole night.” He might have said that a lot can be learned about someone from the food they choose, and the way they eat it, but thought better of it and held his tongue. He probably needn’t have worried – Helen was thinking the same thing after she read it in Cosmo a few years ago.

So while Phil might be feeling good about how the date is going so far, Will is only too aware that he and Emma are gladly one milestone ahead of Phil and Helen. No, it’s not about getting to first base (or the others) – Will’s pleased because their night is already paid-up. This is a positively tranquil forecast for a date of smooth sailing.

But the shipping forecast in the Mexican waters have turned choppy. Who will elect to pay the bill? What expectations do they each have? Is it calculated out or split in half? And is that any better meeting up with friends? Should the asker at the very least have bought something for their guest?

Worrying mathematics aside, dining out rewards more of your senses. Sight, smell and taste combine to form stronger, recallable memories – so the date is at least scientifically more memorable, if not emotionally. Will’s cinema date would have been dark and probably have tasted like cardboard.

So at the end of the night, as our couples bid each other a good night with the lasting impressions of the restaurant and cinema, who is truly entitled to feel they’re winning at first dating? Maybe there’s too much pressure in a restaurant, and the senses underwhelmed in the cinema.

I can gather this much at least from cinema – Lady and the Tramp wouldn’t quite tug at the heartstrings if the spaghetti was gone, the meatballs replaced with popcorn and the accordion swapped for an episode of Lassie.

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