It has been a long time since my last first date. Yet I maintain a certain expertise: As a restaurant critic, I work precisely where the intricacies and agonies of first dates so often play out. With the rise of eHarmony and Match.com, I have borne witness to hundreds of near strangers raising glasses, and hopes, to finding Mr. or Ms. Right before the check comes.
But it's hard.
There's the guy who "hates this place, but needed to use the two-for-one coupon." The gigglers and incessant talkers and compulsive texters. The guy who dabs his mouth, only to have his date read this as a subtle "you've got something on your mouth" sign, prompting redoubled dabbing all around. There are the battles over the bill and the "should I order the most expensive thing, or the cheapest?" second-guessing. There's the spilled red wine or the spinach in the teeth.
As a general rule of thumb, anyplace where food is eaten with a spork or can be "supersized" is probably not date-night material. But the truth is, lots of different places are suitable for different kinds of dates. Here are 10 to get the imagination flowing.
For the date that blows hot and cold
Steam and Chill in St. Pete Beach (7400 and 7410 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 360-8080) is a coffeehouse on one side and a tapas-and-sangria destination on the other. On the coffee side, it's low, comfy couches and Kahwa beans, and on the other side, chef Jacqueline Smit (a real pro who has had stints at Mad Fish, Parkshore Grill and Bern's) presides over a small open kitchen surrounded by bar seating. With live music and a tremendously warm service staff, it's a convivial place to, well, chill, especially when accompanied by Smit's thoughtful vegan, veggie and gluten-free small plates. She does interesting things in the name of saving us from carbs, whether that's dehydrating and seasoning eggplant "chips" or using spaghetti squash or zucchini "noodles" as a base for entrees from paella to Indian-inspired curries. Prices are extremely reasonable, and a smart little wine list and range of housemade sangrias add extra date-night allures.
For the food-as-foreplay date
Long before Cosmo was writing stories on sexy foods (up with the watermelon martini and its phytonutrient citrulline!), author M.F.K. Fisher explored "the almost vascular connection between love and lobster pate, between eating and romance." Whether it's the placebo effect or something legitimate about zinc, at the top of the fabled libido boosters is the oyster. Shor (301 S Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach; (727) 373-4780) may not specialize in these aphrodisiacs, but it has got them in spades: Oysters on the half shell (usually Blue Points, but often other, more far-flung species, too), king crab legs, baked oysters with bearnaise sauce, poached and chilled shrimp and steamed mussels. Now add to this a wine list of thoughtful pours that come in four sizes (glass, 1/3 carafe, ½ carafe and full bottle) and some great water views and you're on a smooth road to seduction.
For the date Mom made you go on
Face it, Mother does not always know best. Confirmation that this is going to be hazard duty: Mom said, "(S)he has a great personality!" when you asked for a physical description. There's one obvious tactic: lunch. And make it a quick one. The new culinary team at Pelagia Trattoria at the Renaissance Tampa Hotel (4200 Jim Walter Blvd., Tampa; (813) 313-3235), Andrew Basch and Brett Gardiner, has got your back. Until recently they did an official "express lunch" for business people (and for your own personal spin on speed dating), but they continue to do a number of quick and healthful lunches that ring in at just $10: a lunch salad and a cup of soup; an open-faced chicken Caesar wrap, a grilled veggie panini and a four-cheese rigatoni with sauteed chicken, all served in a gorgeous jewel-hued Mediterranean setting. (Note to self: If it does work out, negotiate how long Mom has "I told you so" privileges.)
For the short attention span date
Their Facebook page has 500 pictures of them bungee jumping, parasailing and something involving crampons and a Viking helmet. This date needs action. The new Whiskey Joe's Barefoot Bar (7720 W Courtney Campbell Causeway, Tampa; (813) 281-0770) features palapas (basically palm-frond roofs over picnic tables), five firepits on the beach, 10 corn hole set-ups, beach volleyball, boat access and live music most nights. Not to mention sunset-viewing, feet-in-the-sand drinking and dining, never an ill-advised date-night feature. Opened in November, it has one of Hillsborough County's only liquor permits on the beach. As such, it is the site of a massive beach party on Saturdays and "Latin Day" on Sundays, culminating in reggae night — still, hundreds of bikini-clad revelers may be a help or a hindrance in your date quest. Plan accordingly.
For the date that's smokin' hot but a little light on the cerebration
It was going so well until they started talking. Did (s)he just say Gigli was the best movie of all time, "irregardless" of genre? Get thee to Fly Bar (1202 N Franklin St., Tampa; (813) 275-5000), still one of the hippest spots in Tampa, with the added benefit that on a busy night, with the band cranked, conversation is tough. This is the moment for body language, or just relaxing with chef Fred Quinones' excellent small plate menu. Best dishes: spicy tuna tartare with wonton chips, kobe sliders and the fries with three sauces, all of the above edible with fingers only. But don't get all Tom Jones-turkey-leg about it if it's a first date. Later, if you want to give conversation another chance, you can zip up to the urban-cool rooftop deck.
For the fetishist date
Well, foot fetishist. You're on your own for other kinds. SuKhoThai (18101 Highwoods Preserve Parkway, Tampa; (813) 615-2345) is the place to go because you have to take your shoes off and sit on the ground on cushions with your naked feet dangling in the dark well beneath. If that's not an invitation to footsie, what is? The menu is not a strictly Thai affair, with a sushi menu and a more pan-Asian approach that means pan-fried dumplings can coexist with panang beef and fried rice. At either location (the Dale Mabry location has been around for more than 25 years), the dining rooms are pretty and servers are sweet. The restaurants' name means "dawn of happiness," certainly an auspicious sign for new couples.
For the date with a Flo Rida soundtrack
"You spin my head right 'round, right 'round" at Spinners (5250 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach; (727) 360-1811), with a rotating restaurant on the 12th floor of the Grand Plaza Hotel. The View at CK's at the airport often gets the nod as our pre-eminent rotating restaurant, but Spinners has the better view, with water on both sides. The set-up smacks a little of the 1970s (and the menu follows suit with retro spins on steaks, stuffed grouper and dishes like chicken marsala), but it's still pretty romantic to watch the sun's rosy light show over the gulf. The room's spinning speed is variable and can be set from 45 minutes to two hours for a full rotation. Hint: if you go to the restroom, anticipate the room's rotation and don't seek your date exactly where you left them. Makes you look navigationally challenged.
For the super secret date
The clandestine assignation requires one thing: the dark. Seasons 52 in Tampa keeps things dim, but the new Grille One Sixteen (612 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, (813) 350-0216) goes a few shades grayer, requiring menus lit from within. Slide into a white leather booth at the new location in South Tampa (the original is in Carrollwood) and it's like your own personal padded cell or one of those cool Japanese micro hotels, only with room service that includes a warm pretzel loaf, grouper sliders and warm peanut butter s'mores with ice cream. For an extra $9.50, you can add a lobster tail to any entree. Pure seduction.
For the important date
I'm not saying popping the question, but for the date where quiet, earnest conversation is imperative, head to the bar at Maritana Grille (Loews Don Cesar Hotel, 3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach, (727) 360-1882). It reflects a recent renovation and features sexy, easily shared dishes such as a tasting trio of tuna tartare, beef carpaccio and gulf prawns or a plate of grilled sea scallops paired with compressed pineapple and crispy pork belly. Eric Neri's menu stays smart and contemporary, and the restaurant has been known to do Groupon and LivingSocial discounts. Plus, if all goes well, you're dining in a hotel. Get a room.
For the 'is it even a date?' date
Are we just friends out to dinner, or is there something more going on here? Moon Under Water (332 Beach Drive NE, St. Petersburg; (727) 896-6160) hits the right tone. Grab a pint, share a tikka masala with all the fixing (naan, pappadam, mango chutney and raita) and see where the evening takes you. If it is a date, there's the loveliness of a walk along waterside Straub Park to stoke the flame. If it's not a date, these days downtown St. Pete is pretty dense with other fish in the sea. Swim on.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses.