First date

Modern or old-fashioned, casual or upscale, meal or a drink? Your plans could affect the rest of your life ... or just today


There are some in this world who would argue against the importance of the First Date.

Take 20-year-old Nathaniel Fink, who insists that first dates are so passe.

"People my age aren't into going out on first dates," says Fink, a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "It's not like you court someone and then ask them out to dinner. You just meet at parties. There's no pressure involved."

Ah, youth. No pressure involved in dating. What a sweet concept.

Truth be told, Fink is technically correct. First dates aren't just for dinner anymore.

Make no mistake, the ritual has changed. But no one can dispute that a successful first date is required before the even more elusive second date, which could lead to many more dates. There's no detour past the first date on the route to finding true love.

There really is no perfect Baltimore first date, especially since they can take place at all hours of the day, in formal or informal settings, in museums or bars, for coffee or dessert, and by the water or along tree-lined neighborhood streets. To each his own.

On the cozy balcony at Kali's Court on Thames Street, you'll likely find first daters sharing a bottle of wine above the Fells Point nightlife. At the Sylvan Beach Cafe, they're known to dawdle over ice cream cones. At the Inner Harbor, they're often flitting about from the Tex Mex Grill to J.Paul's and then the Cheesecake Factory.

The key is finding a place that offers an atmosphere that is both intimate and open, relaxed and exciting, and finally, romantic, but not overpowering.

"It has to show a little bit of your character," says Chris Olthoff, a 34-year-old courier who lives near Patterson Park.

"It can't be too upscale. It can't be too downscale. It has to be fun. I like to take First Dates to Lexington Market. If they can't take real Baltimore, I don't want to date them."

But in terms of serious wooing, Olthoff later confesses that his super-secret first date places are eclectic and cozy taverns in Fells Point, including neighborhood favorites such as Peter's Inn, Henninger's and John Steven Ltd. -- all within walking distance of the water.

Olthoff must know what he's talking about; his Feb. 22, 2004, first date at John Steven is still going strong.

Choosing a good first date setting can be tricky.

It's not just a first meeting. It's also the first real conversation, first chance at chemistry, first attempt to make lasting impressions.

MICA students Margo Rolland and Sid Bodalia, who were recently sharing iPod earbuds while relaxing by the Washington Monument, check off first date do's and don'ts:

Thai restaurants are too serene. Sushi, too adventurous. Tapas Teatro Cafe is happening and fun, but seating is too tight on the bustling street next to the Charles Theatre. Movies are out. On second thought, they deem dinner "too intense."

"It's better if there's a lot of distractions," says Rolland, 24. Nodding in agreement, Bodalia, 22, suggests The Sylvan Beach Cafe. "Go for ice cream or a milkshake at Sylvan's. I would never go to dinner and a movie."

It takes careful contemplation to achieve a sense of effortlessness.

Select a place that's too loud and conversation will be impossible. Pick a place that's too quiet and uncomfortable lulls in conversation will be deafening. A fancy place requiring chic attire could set expectations too high. A hole-in-the-wall could signal lack of thought. Go with too romantic and it could alarm a companion. Heading to a remote location could be a blunder if the evening is going well enough to warrant a casual walk to the next venue.

So many elements to keep in mind, says Natlie Riley, a stage manager at Everyman Theater on North Charles Street who sticks with what she knows.

The Washington resident can often be spotted sizing up her game at nearby Cobbers Pub and Cafe, which provides three different levels of ambience. Boiled down to a science, Riley's strategy is to meet her First Date in the second-floor dining room for a drink. Should things go well, the couple might slide onto the first floor for a game of pool. Should sparks fly, her companion is lucky enough to accompany her to the sports bar in the basement.

It's a test of sorts, Riley says; the pub is filled with artsy, eccentric individuals like herself.

"If he walks in and says, 'Who are all these crazy, freaky people?' then I know it's not going to go well," Riley says. "You can decide after that initial drink whether you keep hanging out or call it a night. If you mesh and feel a vibe, you go on to the next level. If you do really well, you get to go to Fells Point the second time out."

Date with a view

With just one opportunity to leave a companion wanting more, some First Daters might choose scenery over science. "I'd go down to the Harbor, sit at J.Paul's. It's open. As the sunlight fades, it's slightly seductive. Let the night naturally evolve," says Will Parrish, 28, a Towson University economics major from East Baltimore.

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