For New York’s bars and restaurants, the start of fall usually means a change in menu to one that features warming, heartier flavors with root vegetables and squash and a hot cocktail or two. For the city’s single population, autumn can also mean the beginning of “cuffing season”: a time when single people start to think about finding partners they can hunker down with come winter. But with COVID-19 still a threat, dating at bars and restaurants has never been more complicated — especially as people across the country brace for a potential second wave of outbreaks, and resulting citywide shutdowns.
For some, dating right now feels like a reality show about finding someone to copulate with, but with a series of increasingly complicated hoops to jump through in hopes of finding a person with whom to weather the remainder of a global pandemic. Some said that the restlessness of quarantine — and the anxieties unique to this period — has made them more open to meeting up with people they wouldn’t typically classify as their type. But others have found themselves being more selective with whom they’ll give their proverbial rose. Sure, any casual dater in the city would be conscientious of whether their date follows safety protocols and how they treat service workers. But now more than ever, how dates conduct themselves while dining out or meeting for a drink can bring a much swifter end to the dating game than before.
In an article for Vogue, Emma Specter lamented the particular dance new partners must endure when figuring out how to ask about COVID-19 tests — the type of frank discussion that used to be reserved for broaching the topic of a love interest’s sexual health. In the style of Carrie Bradshaw, Specter “couldn’t help but wonder: Could a casual, should-be-spontaneous sexual encounter possibly survive the requisite amount of health-info processing beforehand?”
Hashing out the details before a date also now extends to gauging how comfortable both parties are with the prospect of visiting a bar or restaurant. Merely trying to plan a first date, which people used to approach with an attitude, however feigned, of carefree ease, now prompts questions big and small: Will the experience be to-go only, outdoors, or indoors — certainly one of the most charged decisions to make? If the daters do choose to meet up, then where? How many people will be there? How many of them are actually going to be following safety protocols?
Certain bars and restaurants in New York have long been considered romantic — or the perfect place to meet a hookup. But with so many changes to the city’s hospitality landscape, the criteria for what makes a good setting for a date have shifted. While once the priority may have been a cozy spot with sexy mood lighting, that’s been shelved in favor of bars and restaurants that have ventilation and are taking social distancing seriously.
“I used to love the intimacy of being in a crowded bar and being pushed into each other,” says Nico*, a graphic designer. Now, of course, bodies less than six feet apart can be a source of fear. Yet for Nico, the spaced nature of dates these days can also make them feel more “sterile.”
Nick Ruiz, a general manager at Patent Pending, a Nomad speakeasy that is currently offering both indoor and outdoor seating, tells us that the bar used to be a big first-date spot, in part because of the dim lighting and its element of secrecy. “I used to witness a lot of awkward first-date meetings for people who matched on Tinder,” he says. “Going to a speakeasy is already kind of awkward enough because you have to find the entrance.” Now, he says, the scene has shifted to customers who are a bit more sure of each other and therefore willing to make the effort to go out to a bar. “They aren’t strangers anymore.”
Even Union Pool, which used to be considered the “the horny utopia of 2000s Williamsburg,” no longer has the same purpose or reputation. During the pandemic, it became a food pantry to help alleviate food insecurity exacerbated by COVID-19, and recently, its owners announced that they had no plans to reopen until spring 2021. By contrast, Crown Heights’ Friends and Lovers just revealed that it would operate as a coworking space.
At the start of the pandemic, many single people (or those in nonmonogamous relationships) turned to virtual Zoom dates — a new realm of dating that even inspired a podcast, called Love in Quarantine.
By summer, though, many found themselves enjoying to-go drinks or bites and sitting in the park (New York City still has open-container laws, and some people have pointed that not everyone is afforded the privilege of flouting them). But as eager daters followed the hopeful data surrounding new cases in the city, some decided they felt comfortable enough to start meeting up at the outdoor setups springing up at bars and restaurants across the city.
Now, as temperatures drop, people on dates can still “brave it” thanks to the new city guidelines allowing businesses to install propane heaters. BYOB (bring-your-own blankets) may soon become the new cozy going-out accessory. Meanwhile, some restaurants in Queens and Staten Island have become drive-in theaters with food, a safer way for those lucky enough to have a car to do the classic movie date. For those unwilling to partake in indoor dining, weather now plays an even bigger role: Setups must not only be socially distanced, but as temperatures drop, they have to provide some reprieve from rain or snow and the bitter cold and brisk winds.
For Sara Radin, looking at a business’s Instagram beforehand is key. “But not every place has outdoor dining, and it can be hard to figure out who does and who doesn’t without calling places directly,” she says. Research, even for a writer like herself, has become a bizarre part of the dating process — beyond the usual search for hot new openings. Radin is sober and for the majority of her pandemic she has preferred food-centric dates or ones that involve grabbing coffee and going on a walk around the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Come winter, she’s making peace with the fact that some people she’d once considered casual hookups could become something more serious if shutdowns occur or outdoor setups are no longer feasible.
Even during normal times, some people had trouble relinquishing the responsibility of selecting a date spot. But between increasingly stringent hygiene and safety guidelines now a factor, some casual daters have found themselves learning to be more flexible with the roles or preferences they once clung to in their dating lives.
“I’ve always had in my head the places that I’d never go on dates at,” says Joe Sturm, a ceramicist. “I considered them ‘my spot,’ my place that I liked to read at or eat at with friends. I don’t like the places where you might run into other people on dates.” But since the pandemic, there’s been a shift in their thinking, and they’ve started to suggest dates that would usually be in their “neighborhood off-limits zone.”
For Sturm, a good pandemic-era date spot is one that seems to care about upholding social-distancing guidelines but that doesn’t feel like too much of a hassle. Spots such as South bar in South Slope have struck the perfect balance for them. “It almost impedes the purpose if you get to a bar and you go to sit and they’re like, no, you can’t do this or that, it kind of feels like they’re your parents,” Sturm says. “And then you have to order the gross add-on food.” Though safety is of the utmost importance for them, the wrong choice can further complicate the “already weird first-date mood.”
Not to mention that between making sure to tip servers extra well and the required purchase of food that Gov. Andrew Cuomo now mandates at bars, dates can still be costly, even if there’s less to do — particularly if the spot in question has added a COVID-19 surcharge to the bill. And it can be harder for some to justify spending that on a random hookup during a time of historic unemployment.
But for William Mullan, a chocolatier and photographer, dates have also been a chance to make sure he uses his money to support the places that mean the most to him, like Caracas, an arepas joint with only one of its two locations remaining.
While some prefer to stay within walking distance of their home, Mullan has found himself down to travel wherever, especially if it means checking out the bursting pop-up food scene. When Lani Halliday hosted a pop-up at Maison Yaki in Prospect Heights, for example, he pushed for a date to meet up there, even though he’d already been. During Pride, he picked up cakes that Eric See had been selling at Hunky Dory.
But for Mullan, the biggest defining factor for what makes a good date spot right now is whether the business cares about its employees.
Emma*, a former server at the Jones, who worked at the restaurant until September, agrees, but she also hopes that the daters themselves are considerate. “It was particularly difficult to get drunk couples off the street before 11 p.m., and often no threat of what the fines or repercussions would be for us were enough to really get them going,” she says. “From time to time, even the most well-meaning couples would ask me to take off my mask to let them ‘see my smile.’” She says her decision to decline might have affected customers’ willingness to tip her adequately.
Supporting service workers has taken on new urgency. “I used to be very low-maintenance and used to let other people steer the ship,” Mullan says. But since COVID-19, he’s never felt more confident asserting his taste. Having so many friends or acquaintances who own cafes and restaurants or work at them, he’s felt like it’s especially important to introduce dates to the places he cares about to “make sure they stay around and flourish.”
*Some subjects’ last names have been removed because of concerns about privacy.
Emma Orlow is a writer for Eater, Grub Street, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and Bon Appétit (among others), where she covers the intersection of the food and design worlds. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter.