When Casen Ross and Joe Harden arrived at Peruvian-Asian fusion restaurant China Chilcano in Penn Quarter, they had two things in common: Both had applied to Date Lab at a friend’s behest, possibly while drinking. (Casen was at a bachelorette party. Joe was hanging out with a friend.) And both had, in the intervening months, forgotten they applied. But when Date Lab called, both were still single — and ready for something new.
Joe, a 25-year-old employee and graduate student at the University of Maryland, arrived early. “I have a lot of food allergies,” he said. “That’s a lot of information to throw out on a first date.” After years of enjoying tomatoes, potatoes and garlic, Joe developed an allergy to plants in the nightshade family in adulthood. “So I know what I’m missing,” he said with the kind of wry-but-sad laugh one usually hears during stories about breakups. (Can you imagine knowing french fries, then losing them?) He was excited to try a new restaurant, but he didn’t want to die.
When the meal started, the waiter outed Joe’s food allergies to his date, Casen, a 29-year-old lawyer. “He felt like it was some sort of imposition to the waitstaff, and to me, like in the ordering process he would cause a disruption,” Casen assessed by phone two days later. “But it was totally fine. That sort of thing does not bother me one whit.”
What Casen was actually judging was Joe’s style. “He has, like, a shock of blond hair in his bangs, and both of his ears are pierced,” recalled Casen, who is a lawyer for the federal government. “You can imagine how conservative all of my colleagues look — ‘conservative’ in the buttoned-down, Sunday-best way.” He asked Joe about his job, expecting “something alternative.” But Joe is a coordinator for international students at U-Md. (he speaks seven languages) and is working on a master’s degree in public policy — not so far off from Casen’s professional cohort, after all.
The style differences that took Casen aback were undetectable to Joe, who described Casen as “well dressed.” After posing for their obligatory Date Lab photos (“I think people thought that there was a proposal going on,” Joe said), they sat down for their meal. Joe said the conversation was great: “Halfway through the date, I looked up and I was like, I just totally forgot that The Washington Post set this up.”
When Joe remarked that his would be the kind of degree a secretary of state might have, Casen was charmed: “I’m in the phase of my life where I’m building my career rather than determining what my career will be. It’s fun to talk to someone who has many pathways before them. That’s not a conversation I’ve had recently. And that youthful energy and optimism is — especially these days — really attractive.”
When the pair left China Chilcano, Joe suggested going to a bar. Casen is a litigator and at the time was preparing for a big trial out of town. He told Joe he’d like to but he had an early morning — and would be traveling cross-country for his trial later that week. They exchanged numbers and said goodbye. Both men told me they were open to a second date. But were they interested enough to stay in touch across time zones and through back-to-school season and the daily struggle that is life?
Maybe. Asked later what they enjoyed most about the dinner, both raved about the obscure rose sake they drank at the end of the night. “This sake was made from this purple grain of rice that they had thought had gone extinct,” Joe explained. “And then some archaeologist ... was doing [an] excavation and found it and then repopulated it.” The rice was so old that it seemed new — and had created a new beverage. But did they like the sake, or was it a one-time novelty? And by “sake,” I obviously meant “each other,” because this is Date Lab and it is time to rate the date.
I asked each man to rate the evening on a scale of one to five. Ever the lawyer, Casen interrogated the parameters: “How would you characterize ‘one’? How would you characterize ‘five’?” One is bad and five is good, I responded. “Well, I know that. But is one like, ‘I would slap this person in the face if I ever saw him again’? And five is like, ‘I could see this being a marriage’?” I replied that if you assaulted your Date Lab partner, there would be no rating, because I would fire you from Date Lab. He settled on a three.
Joe rated it higher. “It was a good date! ... Nothing bad happened. Nobody got set on fire. Nobody got a drink spilled on them.” And the restaurant had refrained from poisoning him with potatoes.
Casen: 3 [out of 5].
Some texting, no second date. (Yet.)
Maureen O’Connor is a writer in New York.