Doing the restaurant thing

Going out to eat is one of the most common first date activities. But it doesn't have to be routine. To make your date a notch above ordinary, put a spin on the restaurant theme:

1 Go to a coffeehouse. Unless you're meeting at a Starbucks and ordering two grande skim lattes and roasted pepper and goat cheese sandwiches (which is about the same price as the national debt), compared to a traditional restaurant, this is a pretty cheap date. It's the '90s version of a singles bar: relaxed, casual, and no time pressure.

1 Go to an interesting restaurant. Food is good. Good food is even better. Good, unusual food is the best and often less pricey than the usual, boring steak or fried chicken. It doesn't have to be the culinary experience of your life, but fun and interesting food (maybe ethnic, but easy on the spices) on a first date is a cool idea. I'm partial to weekend lunch and brunch dates, myself. It's relaxed, liquor's not required, there's plenty of time to get to know each other, and it's in the daytime.

Food can be incredibly sexy and fun, as Hollywood readily attests: Rent the videos Like Water for Chocolate, Babette s Feast, Big Night, or even 9'A Weeks.

There are some way cool ways to enhance the enjoyment of a restaurant date. First, for any restaurant you consider, think about the following:

1 Noise level: You got together so that you can get to know each other. It makes sense to be able to hear what your date has to say and talk without seriously harming your vocal chords.

1 Price: Go to a place you can afford. You can't enjoy yourself if you worry about your date ordering an appetizer and a dessert.

1 Service: You want the service to be attentive, without hovering. And who wants to be rushed out the door?

1 Spaciousness: Adequate space is an animal need (see the related sidebar, "You're invading my space" in this chapter). That's why we all feel a little uneasy in a packed elevator or an overcrowded restaurant.

1 Lighting: You don't want it too dark or too light. Too dark and he can't see the great job you did on your makeup, or she won't notice that your tie matches your eyes; too light, and no matter what you did, you'll still end up looking like a delivery to the morgue.

You're invading my space

Reconnaissance is valuable: Scout out the locale to make sure that you're closer to your date than the dude at the next table. Turf counts. Like all other cultures, Americans have well-defined territorial areas:

I Intimate space is about 18 inches away from our heads. According to anthropologist Edward Hall, you'll only let close companions and pets into this private area for any stretch of time.

I Personal space is two to four feet all around us. Friends are allowed in this space, but that's it.

I Social space expands to about four to eight feet away. Co-workers or acquaintances at a party are invited in.

I Public space is all areas beyond.

After you narrow your list of potential restaurants down to those that meet your economic and ambiance requirements, narrow the list down even more by doing the following:

I Pick a place you know. Menu familiarity reeks of confidence. You'll sound like Cary Grant if you lean over and say, "Try the duck. It's out of this world." Also, knowing a restaurant well means that you're comfortable with the service, the all-important table spacing, the lighting, the wine list, the taste, the presentation, and payment procedures. It's the way to ensure you'll have a good time. And if you're happy, your date stands a better chance of being happy, too.

Avoid trendy new hot spots. Number one, they are often very difficult to get into, and number two, they can be very expensive — you don't want to put your MasterCard into meltdown. Number three, these days, they tend to be noisy! It isn't the type of place you want to be on a first date. Save the trendy, expensive hot spots until the two of you know each other better. Scout out some very nice quiet restaurants that will not keep you waiting. Getting drunk at the bar while waiting for your table will not make you look suave. Another added advantage of by-passing the bar wait is that you'll find yourself with money left over for your college education or braces on your eventual children's teeth. Most importantly, make it someplace quiet where you can talk.

I Pick a place that knows you. What could be cooler than a maitre d' smiling widely when you walk in or a waiter saying, "Nice to see you again!"? Better, though, is the fact that regulars usually get the best tables and most prompt service — both of which go a long way in creating a great first date.

il Pick a place where your date can eat. There's the obvious (don't take a vegetarian to a steak house) and the more subtle (if his cholesterol count is above 300, steer clear of the Wisconsin Cheese Fest). Chances are, unless you already know each other well, you won't know the intricacies of your date's dietary preferences. Simple solution: Ask ahead of time. Less simple: Keep everyone's options open by selecting neutral territory, such as a restaurant with a large menu or a coffeehouse with a small one.

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