With the number of American singles at an all-time high, presumably the number of first dates is also at an all-time high. But what makes for a successful first date?
In Nick Hornby’s novel “High Fidelity,” the narrator posits that common interests are the most important: “What really matters is what you like, not what you are like.”
A few years ago, researchers analyzed audio recordings of four-minute speed dates between heterosexual strangers and found that both partners were most satisfied with the date when the conversation focused on the woman. And, of course, the whole creepy “pick-up artist” industry is based on the idea that there are quasi-scientific ways for men to make women fall into bed with them.
I have a simpler theory, though it’s taken me more than a decade, and hundreds of dates, to arrive at it. The key to a good first date, in my experience, isn’t what you and your partner talk about. It isn’t liking the same bands. It isn’t how much money you make, what you look like or what you wear. It’s about choosing the right date location. That’s right: The most important factor in determining the success or failure of a date is decided before you and your partner even meet.
I came to this realization recently while making out with my date on a black leather couch at Houston’s Boheme Cafe and Wine Bar, a romantic, European-style spot in the city’s trendy Montrose neighborhood. I connected with her on OkCupid a few weeks prior. After a desultory exchange of flirty texts, she asked if I wanted meet up for a drink that evening:
“On a scale of Soviet Communism to Chinese Communism, how free are you tonight?” she texted.
“Cuban Communism,” I texted back. “I.e., opening up rapidly.”
Naturally, I suggested Boheme. After all, my six previous first dates there had all ended the same way: in passionate make-out sessions. There was just something about the place. Was it the dim lighting? The soft music that made it possible to actually hold a conversation? The large but not claustrophobic crowd of attractive, well-dressed patrons? To test my theory, I even interrupted my winning streak at Boheme to meet a woman at a different, equally chic Midtown wine bar. We had a nice conversation, hugged, and never saw each other again.
I wish I could say I discovered Boheme, but credit is due to a former college roommate who’s been taking dates there for years. He estimated that his success rate, defined as getting a second date, is about 50 percent higher there than anywhere else he’s tried. Indeed, Boheme has made several “Best in Houston” lists, including Zagat’s and Thrillist’s.
But the only way to find the perfect spot is by trial and error. When I lived in Jersey City in my mid- to late 20s, leaving in 2013, the upscale tapas restaurant Marco & Pepe offered an Old World charm similar to Boheme’s. For dates in Manhattan, I favored the lush back patio at La Lanterna di Vittorio, an Italian cafe a block south of Washington Square Park. (“If you haven’t taken your girlfriend or wife here, you don’t really love them,” one Yelp reviewer opines.) A friend of mine who lives in Washington, D.C., favors Room 11.
What do all of these bars have in common? First, none of them have TVs, which means no sports and no jersey-wearing, beer-swilling bros. Second, they have the vibe of a Mediterranean cafe or Italian trattoria, with a mix of casualness and romance. Although a date at these spots may begin with wine, it can easily segue into dinner if the mood is right. Finally, and perhaps most important, these venues have a relaxed, intimate atmosphere. Waiters aren’t hovering, waiting for you to finish so they can seat the next pair of diners. Lingering over a bottle of wine is not just tolerated but encouraged. It’s the opposite of speed-dating.
And I admit: having plenty of couches, like Boheme does, definitely helps. That’s where I found myself snuggling with my aforementioned date. I didn’t pull any ridiculous pick-up moves. I didn’t need to; the moment just happened. And that’s what I mean about choosing the perfect spot for a first date — it’s all about creating the right atmosphere for romance to develop. If we’ve learned anything from the social sciences, it’s that humans are exquisitely sensitive to environmental cues; why should dating be any different?
Of course, there’s no guarantee that a romance kindled in a tony bar will translate into the real world. I’ve had second dates with only a few of the women I met at Boheme and no third dates. I’ve finally mastered the first date, but when it comes to love I’m as clueless as anyone.
I’m certainly not abandoning Boheme.
Although I am starting to get some strange looks from the bartenders.
Michael Hardy is a Houston-based freelance journalist whose stories have appeared in the American Scholar, the Boston Globe and the Houston Chronicle.