My first girls' night out posse was composed of fellow preschool moms. For many of us, these evenings represented precious opportunities to ditch sweat pants and scrunchies and for a few hours forgo wiping anything, herding anyone or strongly encouraging the use of inside voices. In fact, on those early girls' nights out , we seldom used our inside voices; one of us even had a spooky ability to end evenings whooping atop the bar before doing hands-free shots (not easy; try it).
Now my preschooler is poised to go to college, but I still ritually observe girls' night. It's a different group of "girls," one we've half-ironically dubbed the Friendship Club. We bring each other little gifts; we get dressed up; we have dinner. We no longer talk about separation anxiety or room parenting, and we seldom find ourselves atop a bar. We discuss career moves and aging parents, our marriages and the economy.
Fifty years ago, it was unseemly for women to gather sans men in restaurants anywhere outside of a department store cafe. A generation ago, our moms may have played tennis or bridge together or had dinner parties at each other's houses. They didn't routinely gather together a group of gal pals for a men-free evening on the town.
But this phenomenon occurs now with women in their 20s, 40s, 60s and beyond, fueled by shows like Sex and the City and the Real Housewives franchises. This isn't women "on the make." In fact, they mostly want men to leave them alone so they can revel in each other's company.
On restaurant review outings in recent months, I've been struck by the number of dining rooms dominated by XX chromosomes (see story above), restaurants catering explicitly to girls' night out groups.
"In our society, women are doing it all, often 24/7," says Irene Levine, professor of psychiatry at New York University and author of Best Friends Forever. "We need a respite from the rest of our lives, and what better setting than meeting a group of friends at a bar or restaurant with a glass of wine as a social lubricant? It's a getaway from the pressures of work and/or home. No one has to clean the house, go shopping beforehand, set a table to entertain the group or wash dishes afterward."
Denise Mestanza-Taylor, a 42-year-old mother of three in Land O'Lakes and founder of Tampa Bay Bloggers, thinks social media has played a role in women, especially moms, stepping out together.
"If I have a problem, let's say my kid has a crazy rash, I can put it out there on social media," she says. "I'll have 10,000 different answers on what the rash is. It's a virtual world where people are social but not in a physical way. In some ways it's made people more reclusive and antisocial."
That said, Mestanza-Taylor thinks it's essential for moms to "get out, let their hair down and not talk shop."
She credits one person with driving home the importance of this: Oprah Winfrey.
"It's an Oprah moment thing. In the last 20 years, she's told us how to be good people, and she was very open about her best friend. You can have this perfect relationship with your husband and he can empathize with you. But your girlfriends understand why every 28 days you're emotional, and they're going to bring you a candy bar. Your girlfriends get it. It's a therapeutic thing."
But this particular brand of therapy seems to work exceptionally well at restaurants. Debbie Dunn, 48, a Tarpon Springs resident who works for a health insurance company in St. Petersburg, has two groups of women with whom she regularly dines. She thinks girls' nights out are a function of working women having their own money and being more independent.
"We'll have a happy hour and then dinner on an occasion like somebody's birthday," she says. "Recently we went to BellaBrava for drinks and dinner and then walked over to the Vinoy at about 11 p.m. for pastries and coffee."
That prompts the question: Why are some restaurants "women friendly" and others not so much?
Joe Orsino, chief executive officer of Caledon Concept Partners, will launch Rococo Steak in downtown St. Petersburg next month. He says this new concept is actively courting female diners.
"In the last few decades, I think diners have changed. More women are going out now and women have more buying power," he says. "They are taking a more predominant role in the dining scene, and they also are having a huge appreciation for great food and great drinks."
To this end, Rococo Steak will offer a range of smaller steaks, shareable appetizers, a wine list that doesn't rely too heavily on big reds and a cocktail list that isn't dark-liquor dominated. Orsino says the traditional paradigm of dark wood and "old boys' club" atmosphere is tired.
"At Rococo the bar and lounge will be central to the concept so the energy emanates from there."
Energy. Maybe that's the key. On the other hand, it could just be cheese.
Sharon Stewart owns the Wine Studio in Tampa, a wine bar with a tremendous following among women. She says women like to graze, and thus nearly everything on her menu is meant for sharing. There are cheese and fruit plates, gourmet pizzas and cheese fondues. Women, evidently, dig cheese. And chocolate. And wine.
Stewart says most of her clientele is baby boomers, a group with whom girls' night out is immensely popular.
"Boomers have a higher disposable income," she says. "We're working five days a week; our kids are mostly out of the home. And we like to get together with our girlfriends."
Tampa resident Akemi Williams, 34, runs the mommyguru.com blog and organizes women's events such as Passion for Fashion Girls Night Out on Sept. 18 at Lending Luxury in Tampa. She has noticed a subtle shift in recent years.
"Restaurants are now seeking our business," she says. "They are offering signature cocktails, appetizers we can share, happy hour pricing and a range of unique martinis. We love to try different martinis. We pick a different restaurant every month, and we may plan an outing around what we want to drink."
Levine, the psychiatry professor and author, sees female friendships as gifts we give to ourselves. Of these regular outings, she says, "People are always comforted by rituals, and getting together weekly or monthly with a group of women can be something to look forward to."
And the cocktails don't hurt, whether it's the cosmo made famous on Sex and the City or the more contemporary caipirinha from shows like The Real Housewives of Orange County. I caught up with OC housewife Tamra Barney at a cachaca tasting at Total Wine in Tampa.
I asked her why girls' nights out are so popular.
For her, that was an easy one.
"It's that escape, getting away, living a little. Women need that, and girlfriends are key."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.