If Memorial Day weekend was any indicator of summer, the sun’s out and people are flocking to parks for masked picnics and socially distanced dates. Restaurants like Farmers Hardware in Saratoga Springs are dispatching boxed brunches while Radici Kitchen in Glens Falls has barbecue packages for six to eight that can be ordered cooked or ready to deploy on your backyard grill.
Meanwhile, matches on dating apps are meeting in Trader Joe queues that double as essential shopping and responsible first dates, albeit 6 feet apart in single-flow aisles. Dating site Bumble reported an 84 percent increase in U.S.-based video calls in March, Hinge registered a 30 percent increase in worldwide messaging, and OKCupid’s video dates quadrupled. Everyone else logged onto Zoom happy hours, dialed up cocktails and takeout and downloaded HouseParty onto phones.
New York Times writer and cookbook author Alison Roman, a 30-something singleton, wrote about quarantine dating as “one long quest for phone sex” while experts extolled the slowing of hook-up culture and predicted better connections and long-term benefits from lockdown courtships fueled by phone calls and WhatsApp messages. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested people should skip a kiss, and Vice.com dug into the (current) belief that COVID-19 is not sexually transmitted, making breathing and kissing the acts of highest risk.
Where does it leave us for the classic dinner date or shared casual meal?
The coronavirus shutdown may have flattened the curve on Friday-night bar-hopping and cafe-going, but it also stoked twin desires for dating and food. And since a return to going out will not involve standing three-deep in a bar or catching someone’s eye over a hand-stitched mask, the question of how to dine-n-date hangs unanswered in the air.
We’ve seen bubble dining and white circles painted on park lawns to strategically distance the masses. In France, designer Christophe Gerignon launched the Plex’Eat for restaurants, a guest-encasing, clear plastic lampshade that shields diners from their dates while dining in.
How is it affecting people of different ages, I wondered, and reached out for advice. Adrian Lewis, a Troy-based solo R&B musician in his mid-20s, confirmed Instagram has outplayed Tinder as the unexpected dating site of choice, with people casually sliding into direct messages. As a musician, posting a face photo or new music tease spikes a flurry of DMs, which he sees as a good test of “how the kid’s doing.” But from “popping DMs” at the start of the pandemic, he’s found himself exclusively talking to one woman downstate whom he’s met only once. “My bachelor game has to be on point now. It’s not the way I acted before, taking time to talk and really learn about someone over so many weeks. Physical beauty is what normally attracts, but now it’s shared values and passions. That’s really sexy.”
What about dining out? Where would he take her for an in-person date? “I’d want to meet outside. We’d get takeout, take it to a park. Or I could cook for her at my place, but that’s a more confined space, and it might not be fair to my roommates. It’s like a whole new first-date format to decide to link up face to face. I’d have to ask, ‘Who have you been around? Have you been safe in your interactions with others?’”
It seems there’s accelerated intimacy in these virtual relationships. And then, scrolling Instagram, I was struck by a photo in which a table had been set, golden light spilling from a tiny lampshade for an intimate feel and a bottle of chilled rosé waiting to be poured. But the setting was for one, and, opposite, where a date might sit, a tabletop tripod held an iPad so that Truemaster Trimingham, familiar as DJ Trumastr, could see his girlfriend in a matching dinner-date scene. Trimingham, a full-time DJ and sometime photographer, designer and practitioner of feng shui, had jazz playing in the background as he put the finishing touches on his stylish look. At home in White Plains, his girlfriend, Andrea, was slightly late for their digital dinner date.
Trimingham, in his late 40s, says the virtual date night is a recurring part of a long-distance relationship, and while they carefully quarantine from others, they meet biweekly downstate. The virtual date night is reason to dress up and capture a more romantic mood. In an intimate move, Andrea orders Truemaster’s food — this night from Curry Leaf, an Indian restaurant on Central Avenue in Albany — and surprises him with an added sweet treat: delivery from Nocturnal Cookies.
Leah Cheng, a 32-year-old Brooklyn designer, comedy event host and sex worker who spends time upstate, says she “finds dating apps exhausting” and that she “did not vibe with the other person” on her only lockdown virtual date. Like Lewis, she anticipates takeout in the park on future first dates. “I think COVID-19 has put into perspective how we invest our time with people. We have slowed down our lives; we listen a little more carefully and have come to a realization of how temporary life is. I personally have become more selective: I only put in time with the people that I could also have hours and hours of conversations with, whereas before I’d pull one-night stands all the time.”
As restaurants work through the new requirements to protect staff and guests in a return to dining in, polls suggest customers are still cautious. One poll found 66 percent of respondents plan to wait beyond the reopening before dining inside, while others feel safest eating on patios and decks outside.
Which brings us back to the fate of the dinner date as we begin to move off-screen. Restaurants will continue to do brisk takeout business with the Saratoga Race Course likely closed to spectators and summer concerts off the social menu. Instead, we might find ourselves setting up a romantic table for one in our backyard or carrying takeout and candelabra to the park like we used to among the hordes on Tanglewood’s lawn. Sales of pre-batched cocktails and restaurant wines seems here to stay, and with relaxed open-container laws we might look decidedly European with our wine and cheese in public this year. Meanwhile, new entertainment-dating services like the Instagram-based Love is Quarantine prove there really is no end to the desire to forge connections and share a virtual bite to eat.