Wednesday, August 4, 2021
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Your romantic first dates? Restaurants hate them

🕐 6 min read

WASHINGTON – The guy had only left the table for a minute.

But as soon as he was out of sight, his date whipped out her phone, opened Tinder and started swiping.

“It was deceitful, a little bit,” says Chris McNeal, general manager of Bar Dupont, who’d watched the scene unfold, slightly aghast that this is how people find love in the modern age. It wasn’t even the first time he’d seen a Tinder meetup turn sour.

First dates – those angst-filled encounters when two strangers size each other up as romantic prospects – fill restaurants and bars so often that the staff is keenly aware when you’re on one.

“They’re moderating how much alcohol they drink,” McNeal says. “They have that twitchy-eye thing where, like, they don’t know each other.”

Your first-date banter? Banal. And the bartender is pretending that he hasn’t seen you twice already this week. With different women. Using the same, somewhat-creepy lines.

Greg Algie, co-owner of the Fainting Goat, one of Washington’s most popular first-date destinations, has witnessed more than one Tinderella arrive, get a glimpse of the person they’re supposed to be meeting – and head right back out the door.

Your awkward first date can amuse restaurant staff. But other patrons may not be that delighted. And because every restaurant seat is a piece of money-making real estate, the dozens of dates you’ve gone on this year may also be affecting many businesses’ bottom line.

Particularly when daters stare into their phones for 30 minutes without ordering, waiting for their match to turn up. And when they spend another two hours talking about their childhood and lactose intolerance while nursing a single, happy-hour-priced beer.

As the number of first dates taking place every night explodes – Tinder alone purports to generate 1.3 million dates per week – it’s transforming restaurants in numerous ways, affecting their ambience, their table timing, even the way they’re designed.

What’s happening in restaurants is just a trickle-down effect of what has happened to dating.

Until relatively recently, most people on a first date knew each other at least a little. They enjoyed a long dinner, followed by a romantic screening of “Amélie.”

But in the 20-plus years since the appearance of and in the five or so years since the rise of geo-locating dating apps such as Tinder, Grindr and Bumble (which let you match with someone based both on looks and whether they’re somewhere nearby) the first date has become an elaborate version of Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Because these days, nearly every first date is blind.

This has given rise to new rules: Dinner and a movie are out. Cocktails and casual, inexpensive dates are in.

In its Singles in America survey of more than 5,500 American daters last year, Match – which owns Tinder, OK Cupid and a host of other dating sites – found that an excellent way to land a second date is to have a first one over drinks. And the sweet-spot length of that successful first date is slightly more than two hours.

“By having a mixed drink, you’re going to end up being more social, more talkative, and showing more of who you are,” says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist who advises Match.

But at the same time, the unspoken rules of dating say don’t drink too much, don’t order big dinners, and talk. A lot. “The first date really should be just for cocktails, because you really shouldn’t invest a lot of money or time. It’s a look-see,” Fisher says. And the time between hour one and hour two – just as your bartender is getting itchy for you to order another round or move along – is when you really get to know each other. Was she kind to the server? Did he have good taste in wine? A just-drinks date, says Fisher, “is extremely well built to assemble data about a potential partner.”

This is what puts the modern first date fundamentally at odds with the basic restaurant business model, which is for a party to eat, drink and leave so that the next party can do the same.

So when a first date is going well, it can be bad for business. “We’ve been closed for an hour sometimes,” McNeal says, “and they’re still sitting there. It’s a big faux pas to say, ‘Hey guys, we’re closed.'”

Sometimes, he says, a couple starts making out, totally oblivious to the diners just trying to enjoy a little charcuterie, although “we try everything in our power not to seat the tables” around a first date to give them some privacy.

Or a couple is what McNeal calls “non-closers”: They drink water for an hour after they’ve paid the check.

And when the date’s a bust? Conversations come to an icy halt, and daters start eyeing the exits. Or sometimes, other attractive people.

“That’s when you can really tell they’re not having a good time,” McNeal says. “They start looking around.” And then they stop ordering.

Meanwhile, customers hoping to actually have dinner – and ring up a healthy tab – are left waiting, and waiting, for a couple to awkwardly pay up and agree never to see each other again.

The date boom may even be prompting restaurateurs to change the design of their dining rooms.

Ashok Bajaj, owner of several Washington restaurants, recalls noticing the phenomenon a few years ago. “At Bardeo, we had 10 tables, and a lot of those tables were for four. Every single table, almost every single night, was filled with couples,” he says.

When it was time to refresh the space, Bajaj did away with booths and installed tables for two, increasing the number of couples he could seat every night (which equals more money for the house).

The National Restaurant Association doesn’t have data on what the First Date Industrial Complex may be doing to dining out. But Annika Stensson, director of research communications, says that the industry has seen a shift toward smaller dining parties in the past decade or two, particularly in urban areas, as young people delay marriage.

Bajaj’s use of more small tables, as well as the rise of sprawling bar areas, makes sense. “It’s simple math. If you have four people paying $50 a head at a table for four, it’s 200 bucks,” she points out. “If you only have two people sitting there, it’s half that.”

Not everyone, of course, is bemoaning the rise of first dates.

“A lot of people complain about first dates, but I love them,” says Josh Phillips, co-owner of D.C. restaurant Espita. He met his wife, Kelly, online, but not until he’d gone on what must have been 40 first dates with women he met through Craigslist (in the pre-swipe-right era).

So he has sympathy for his customers, even though he acknowledges that the “stay relatively sober” rule means that daters sometimes ring up paltry tabs.

But some, he says, order expensive mezcals to impress their dates. And there’s always “Tinder Tuesday” – his term for daters filling seats on the slowest days of the week.

“Any time you have people come in to your business, that’s a positive thing,” Algie confirms.

And besides, maybe the date will be a bust, and they’re in and out in 40 minutes, clearing their seats for more free-spending customers.

But “I’m ultra-romantic,” says Phillips. “I’m rooting for the date to work.”

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