Love Bites

Couples subject themselves to speed, pressure, public exposure--and enjoy it

Laura Raymond disagrees with the conclusion of this article. "Lunch dates are for wussies," she explains. "If you really like someone, take her out at night, have a few drinks and have fun." Married now, Raymond speaks bluntly about past lunch dates.

Sure, a traditional date puts certain pressure on both parties to stay on task and upbeat for hours at a time. But alcohol and activity--dancing, for example--ease some of the demands placed on couples. Lunch dates, on the other hand, typically occur in broad daylight at sit-down restaurants. Lunch dates eliminate the alcohol advantage, the glibness and charm that ensue when brain cells die off by the thousands. First-date lunch dates are definitely not for wussies.

More than 1 million Web pages offer dating advice (approximately). Dozens of women's magazines discuss the dating scene in the few column inches available between ads. Books, movies, dating services and even Shakespeare reveal the hazards of courtship--both as tragedy and comedy.

Still, despite centuries of literary advice and decades of daytime television, people can't seem to get it right. Just about everyone suffers through a nightmare date at one time or another. We know this is true because they talk about it the next day at the office--stories that could curdle milk. But lunch dates don't drag. "It can be over in 45 minutes," says Jennifer Donnelly-Harveston, president of It's Just Lunch, a dating service. "It's just a quick introduction, each person takes separate cars, and they both have to get back to work."

But the first-date lunch date is fraught with danger. Each person must make a series of potentially disastrous decisions--smoking or non, booth or table--within an all too brief amount of time. They must also size up the other, engage in meaningful conversation and eat, all while the clock ticks. Dribble pasta sauce on your chin and you may lose several points. Chew with your mouth open and you're done for (unless your opposite recently arrived from Oklahoma). Without alcohol, movies or other distractions, the focus becomes you and your words.

"Lunch is a great way to keep a sober view of things," says sometime lunch-dater Courtney Mysliwiec.

The very intensity of the lunch date attracts many adherents. "The short amount of time can be good," Donnelly-Harveston advises. "It doesn't take that long to figure out if you like someone or not." That's a good thing. A recent National Restaurant Association survey found that 40 percent of full-time employees skip any form of "real" lunch break on any given day, and another 25 percent spend lunch running errands, shopping or sneaking out to interview for another job. Hey, it happens. Americans also work roughly 300 more hours per year today than in 1980, finally surpassing the industrious Japanese. Restaurants now concentrate on rapid noontime service, even at the more relaxed venues. "This is a place to slow down for a moment," says Mark Gilsdorf, general manager of The Grape on Greenville Avenue, "but we also focus on the important things during lunch--price, getting in and out." Time is the critical factor in American culture.

The key factor in the lunch date's current popularity, however, is the impending presence of work. "Lunch dates rule," beams frequent (he claims) dater Micah Kennedy. "You can always say, 'I gotta go back to work.'" Experienced lunch-dater Deborah Ayers agrees. "Lunch dates are a very good thing because there's a finite amount of time," she says. "If you can tell you're not compatible, you have a perfect excuse."

Therein lies the critical lunchtime dating roadblock. A man and a woman each enter the restaurant knowing an easy excuse waits a mere 45 minutes away. "I will accept a lunch date for one of two reasons," Mysliwiec explains. "First, if a guy asks me to dinner and I am not interested romantically, I will suggest a lunch date. Most guys would get the hint. Second, I will accept a lunch date if the guy asks specifically for lunch." Either way, both parties understand that one or both of them expect to offer some sort of excuse about a crisis at work. "Usually if a guy asks for a lunch date," says Mysliwiec, "he is either unsure of how he feels about me or wants to get to know me without having too many drinks." And it must be the former because the gene for the latter doesn't exist in most men.

Lunch dates proceed in the open, which presents another challenge. "You ride in separate cars and meet in a public place," Ayers points out. You'll never delay the other person, keep them in the car, play the "out of gas" trick or beg for some form of instant gratification. Not on a lunch date.

Once inside the restaurant and committed to a certain amount of time, lunch dates often stumble against other obstacles. Servers, for example, fracture intimate conversation into awkward snippets. "Unintrusive service is important," says Steve Fields, operating partner at Truluck's. A lunch date breaks down into segments defined largely by the restaurant's seating and serving procedure, with uninterrupted conversation limited to the pre-seating, pre-ordering and pre-eating periods. "I think the restaurant's atmosphere determines a good lunch-date place," says Gilsdorf. "You want something a bit dark and somewhat secluded." He says they recognize dating couples by the amount of eye contact and quiet conversation. Donnelly-Harveston suggests taking a chance on an unknown location. "Try out new places because it gives you something to talk about," she says. "Pick a place with a fun atmosphere--comfortable, cool, hip."

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