Restaurants are busy on Valentine’s Day, but many couples early in their relationship avoid them.
In recent years, somewhere between endless Tinder swipes and countless OkCupid matches, the dinner date has fallen by the wayside.
As online dating surges in popularity, few millennials have the time, money, or desire to sit with a stranger over a long meal. Only 7 in 10,000 messages in a recent OkCupid
survey suggested “grabbing some dinner” and a somewhat less scientific survey this reporter conducted of several dozen actively dating 20-somethings found that dinner has become a highly taboo first date. Moody’s Investors Service recently slashed its operating-profit growth forecast for the restaurant sector. (This appears to complement another trend noted by market researcher NPD Group that suggests 57% of meals In the U.S. are eaten alone.)
There’s good reason why people don’t want to sit through a meal with a stranger for an hour or, often times, longer. One singleton this reporter spoke to called it her “worst nightmare” and another said the idea of sitting through an unspecified number of hours of food, drinks or dessert makes her anxious. A recent article in Cosmopolitan detailed, “Why First-Date Dinners Suck,” listing similar reasons: the date category is antiquated, the time frame of the event is too long if there is no chemistry, and eating is too “intimate.”
Dating online can be more miss than hit, even when you see the photo beforehand, so there is a risk that the dinner will feel even longer. “In theory, I like the dinner date, but nearly every time I’ve gone on one as a first date I feel like I’m trapped with somebody who got stale after the first 15 minutes,” said Christine Victoria Waller, a 35-year-old childhood educator who lives outside of New York City. “For beginning dates, I prefer a cocktail someplace nice, with the option of it turning into dinner if we are feeling it.”
Online dating has been instrumental in this shift toward more casual outings like coffee or drinks, said April Masini, a relationship and etiquette expert. Location-based apps like Tinder and gay dating app Grindr have made the number of potential partners endless and the prospect of buying dinner for all of them impossible. In large cities like New York and Los Angeles, a dinner tab for two at a midprice restaurant can be well over $50, not including wine and aperitifs. Even for a casual dater going on one or two dinners a week or a month, the costs quickly add up.
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“Online dating creates an enormous number of first dates in a short period of time,” Masini said, “And if you’re playing the field? You could end up having five dates a week or even five dates per weekend. This gives people on budgets good reasons to back away from pricey dinner dates “and to embrace less expensive and less time consuming beverage dates,” she added. Given that studies suggest so many people lie on dates, it makes sense to make the first date a kiss-and-run.
There is a major upside with skipping dinner and going straight to coffee, too. Rejection after a coffee or drink feels less painful than one after an all-out dinner date on a Saturday night, Masini said. It’s also probably easier to “ghost” someone after a coffee — that is, not call them back — than a romantic evening where you have to spend time sharing so many intimate details of your life over a starter, entree and dessert. In the marathon structured dating world facilitated by these apps, too many failed outings like these can be demoralizing. Drink dates also allow the serial dater to fit in multiple dates in one night, if they want.
It’s also usually harder on the man’s wallet, studies show. Three-quarters of about 1,000 people asked in a 2014 survey by personal finance site NerdWallet favored men picking up the check after dinner, with only about 20% preferring to go Dutch and an anomalous 4% saying men shouldn’t pay the bill. According to MarketWatch reporter Emma Court: “I’m paraphrasing Jane Austen — but only just. Sure, women have made tremendous gains since the famous first line of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was published, but some of the same dynamics still stubbornly persist in heterosexual relationships today.”
Other romantics say the dinner date could make a comeback as people dating online grow tired of the endless swiping and seek more intimacy. “There is going to be a trend of getting out of this digital deluge and having real life experiences,” said Brad Grossman, the founder of Zeitguide, where he advises business leaders on cultural and economic trends. This offers an opportunity for new platforms to emerge that take online dating to the next level, he said, partnering with apps to provide dinner and date deals and ideas. Indeed, Meetup.com caters to people who want to do more than have a quick drink or even hookup, although they focus on more group activities.
For those who do their research and feel sure that the relationship could have a future, it’s worth giving dinner a shot. Already some millennials see the value in the old-fashioned dinner dates—like Elizabeth Whitney, a New York-based educator who describes herself as “heteroflexible” (that is, she considers herself heterosexual, but is open to dating members of the same sex). “It’s not about the meal—more about the time investment,” she said. “If I’m unsure or uncomfortable about meeting someone for dinner, it means most likely I’m not feeling them as much as I should have.”