At some point during college, probably while I sat drunk moribund glued to a booth in a club birthed by a pomade-slick headed Philadelphian, a forgettable hip-hop jam shivering my sternum, at some point I realized this is not the best arena to showcase whatever it is I have to offer women. Now, a couple of years later and back in Los Angeles, those clubs and plenty of overcrowded, overloud bars in my rear-view mirror, the thesis hasn't changed. I have friends1 who, god-bless them, don't require that (trivial) intermediary step of exchanging coherent words in between seeing a girl and kissing her. Some sort of atavistic ceremony played out to the new Kanye. I don't know. Maybe I should let more chest hair peek out of my button-down shirts.
The point is -- I know I've missed the generational hover-craft -- if I'm trying to win over a girl, I'd much rather go on a date. Like, take her out to dinner. Talk to her. Impress her with my knowledge of wine.2 Which defense of an increasingly archaic3 form of courtship is probably making you think either a) what a chivalrous young squire or b) kids still watch Woody Allen movies? What you aren't considering is how many variables have to be weighed when deciding what place of repast will translate into the appropriate setting for a first date.
I think I can safely say that it's symptomatic of most members of my generation to project a sense of nonchalance even while navigating (rarely placid) waters; in fact, the more turbulent the current, the greater the air of detachment required. We think it translates into effortlessness, which is equivalent to facility or mastery or something.4 How this attitude impacts the selection of locale for that initial gastromantic encounter should not be underestimated.
Foremost, the restaurant should be charming enough that the spark of an amorous connection, if it develops, can be accommodated easily enough; however, overshoot the mark and you're in duck soup. Establishments on the Zagat's short list, the places you take your girlfriend on her birthday, I try to avoid them.
A friend recently had the red carpet rolled out for her on a first date. Big fancy French supper. He wore a suit. Palate-cleansers in between courses. The kind of place where one of your six waiters will approach every time you put your fork down to inquire whether or not you've "finished enjoying your yuzu-entwined chantrelle lardon puree."5 I suppose some ladies would be flattered by such a show, but her reaction seemed more endemic of those whom I've surveyed in my peer group. She felt self-conscious, stifled by the pomp. The officious milieu, she told me, was like the same thing as having a cloying friend sitting tableside watching her and this dude converse. There was no second date.
Inversely, a male friend just took a girl on their first date to what I think is one of the nicest Italian restaurants in the city. But as the date progressed and he realized she didn't really do it for him, he became resentful that such a signal experience was being wasted on this random person. And so the dilemma: where is the line between a place that induces romance and one that suffocates you with it? Because you still want the person you're ultimately trying to impress to know that you are in fact trying to impress her (even though you both know it shouldn't look like you are)--after all, that's why you're the guy who takes girls out to dinner and not the one who pins them against stalls in dive-bar bathrooms with piss-sheened floors. The bar must be set, just not so high there's no possible way of clearing it. You can always raise it if the first date goes well.6 But how to achieve such effect?
A delicate balance must be struck. The restaurant should be quiet enough that you can easily hold a conversation but loud enough that you're not afraid of those constantly lurking silences. It should be relevant (read: cool) enough that you can be sure you don't come off as having crawled out from under a rock, but not so trendy that it's a perpetual backdrop for tabloid pages. And personally, I don't want to go to a place that makes me look like a cheap asshole, but I'm not looking to spend a week's worth of pay on someone I just met either. And the food--I have no interest satisfying the conditions above if the food is going to suck. But perhaps you shouldn't go to a restaurant where you love the food so much you've never before walked out without having to loosen your belt7, because as much as it's always my goal to enjoy a good meal, in the end, it's not really the focus of the night.
So then where to go? Um. I've found this sushi place in Little Tokyo that could become an old standby. Its lack of mood lighting is made up for by novelty of setting. I like Terroni. The food's good--but do I really want a girl sizing me up against a bunch of obscenely attractive aspiring actors? Someone I discussed this dilemma with suggested the Edendale Grill. Still haven't been. See, all of these are shots in the dark, too haphazardly pulled from the shallow end of my brain to be considered credible. And as I look my words over, trying to come up with that one great recommendation that not only meets but blows out of the water the criteria laid out above, I realize this thing is filled with the sort of vague categorical suggestions that would pock an amateur advice column.8
I beg you, don't read it as such. The blind ought not lead the willing. If anything, the piece was conceived as an outlet to voice the difficulties I have selecting a first-date restaurant, not as some oracle for hungry lovers. Not that I would presume to think you would think of me as someone full of answers. Not that I want that comment to undermine the validity of the preceding paragraphs...
The circular self-doubting logic continues to tighten around itself like a slowly contracting spiral occluding the oxygen flow to my brain and I understand just a little bit better what separates me from the men who have no trouble approaching women in clubs.
1 The ones who can do this are more like acquaintances really because their ability is probably a reflection that we have some fundamentally different chemistry going on upstairs .
2 I know nothing about wine.
3 Arcane too.
4 And thinking that I understand this phenomenon doesn't exempt me from it either.
5 "No. I think I'd like to enjoy it a little more, thank you."
6 And maybe things are less stressful this way. What might be ingenious, what we might have figured out here is that, in a way, we're doing ourselves a favor by pretending not to care because at least on some levels that ethos permeates the psyche and lowers expectations into a realm so that less potential trauma is at stake, emotionally speaking. Maybe.
7 This is one I struggle with; I always want to go to the belt-loosening places.
8 Also, stay away from the following: Mexican food, hot dogs, anything that either makes you look like a fool while you're eating it or has the inherent potential to create large unpleasant stains on shirts and/or pants.
By Joey Power