Don’t Let This Dumb Question Wreck Your First Date

The question seems innocent enough. You’re happily chatting away with your date when your server stops at your table, delivers your pumpkin ale and Malbec and asks, “Will you be ordering food?” If you’re a guy (and I’m assuming most men pay for the first date), you feel under pressure to ask your date if she wants something to eat, or you fear you’ll look cheap.

If you’re a woman, you worry that if you refuse, you’ll send the message that you’re not interested in hanging out for the time it takes to consume said item, make a connection and find true love. On the other hand, what do you do if you mistakenly thought you were meeting for dinner, but feel awkward ordering some edamame when your date puts his hand over his stomach and loudly exclaims, “Oh no! We’re just having drinks!”

Don’t blame your server. It’s his or her job to tend to you. If you’re the man doing the asking, it’s your job to define the meeting and clearly communicate the parameters to your date.

Dating is expensive, and it doesn’t take long before “grabbing a couple drinks and some calamari” can easily top $60. Resist the temptation to meet for coffee. (See “A Case For Skipping Starbucks”) Yes, it’s cheaper, but it’s unromantic and cautious, and few people feel butterflies quaffing caffeine under bright café lights to the smell of bathroom disinfectant. That means a successful first date usually involves alcohol, and even “just drinks” can add up, especially if you’re trying to meet a few different people and keep your dating budget under control.

Here are some tips to make sure you’re both on the same page:

1) Be overly clear about what you’ll be doing on the date

Know what’s confusing? Vaguely suggesting you meet at the Fish House or this “cute place that makes the best crepes” at 7 p.m. and then waving away the menu. If you want to limit the date to drinks, be as specific as possible. “Would you like to meet for a glass of wine in the bar at Fish House?” Also, try to choose non-meal times, such as 5:30 p.m. or 8 p.m., so you don’t arrive at the peak dinner hour when you’re both likely to be starving.

2) Choose the right venue

If you want to stick to drinks, choose a lounge, pub or wine bar where food isn’t the focus. Or if you’re meeting at a restaurant, choose seats at the bar, so you don’t have to nurse your wine as the couple next to you tackles their tuna towers. Finally, it helps to arrive early and tell your server, “I’m expecting a date, but we’re just going to be ordering drinks.”

3) Find inexpensive alternatives

How’s this for romantic? Invite a date to meet you for a bottle of wine at the beach. You’re on the hook for $10, and you can bring your own snacks. Or find a fun bar that has an inexpensive happy hour. If you want to go low-brow, you can email your match, “If you’re up for an adventure, I know this funky dive bar where we can dance to Motown and play pool.”

4) Offer to share an appetizer

Of course, many men have a horror story of that “one date” who allegedly went out with them just to “score a free dinner.” In defense of my gender, I don’t think many women would sit through an awkward dinner with an uncomfortable-looking man when she can buy her own shrimp cocktail, thank you very much. Still, if you’re worried she’ll ask the server about the origin of the oysters on the raw seafood platter, you can always keep the date in drink territory by saying “I’ve already eaten. I’m just going to have a beer.”

Finally, if all else fails, it’s a nice gesture to offer a lady a “bite.” That’s especially the case if you’re hanging out for a while, you’ve both had a drink, and she’ll be driving home later. If you’re trying to contain costs, you can suggest sharing an appetizer that’s meant for more than one person, such as a cheese plate. She’ll appreciate you for being generous and financially responsible.

Have you experienced this sort of first date awkwardness? How did you handle it?

About the Author:

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist and the author of Motherhood, Rescheduled: The New Frontier of Egg Freezing and the Women Who Tried It. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Slate and Salon.

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