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Mixing Love, Food & Money: First-Date Etiquette

photo: samantha celera

Asking the object of your affection out for a bite to eat seems innocuous — it’s a pretty common date, after all. But mixing money, love and food in a public setting can have messy results.

“Restaurants often … provide a backdrop where a relationship will either begin or end,” says Marc Hoover of SocialHearts.com. There’s plenty to tell about a person based on what he ordered, how she tipped, and who reached for the bill. Heck, you might not even make it to dessert. (Frugal Foodie once went on a date where the guy ordered for her, and then asked her to go halfsies on the final tab.)

Use these tips to show you’re well-mannered and money-smart:

Rethink first-date dinner

“Its never a good idea to have a meal as a first encounter. Coffee or a drink is the best idea,” says Dale Koppel, the author of “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Online Dating.” It’s a shorter encounter that offers an easy out if your sparks fizzle fast. Save a sit-down meal for date two, or leave it as an open possibility if drinks go well.

Collaborate on a spot

Whoever asked for the date should offer two or three choices, says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman, owner of The Protocol School of Texas. “This way the person paying knows the menu, the price point and the area,” she says. It also heads off snafus like taking someone allergic to shellfish to a seafood restaurant. Or worse. “One of the first places I took my girlfriend was to the exact restaurant where her ex-husband had asked for a divorce,” says Phil Petrie, who has hosted singles events. “Fortunately for me, their divorce was a long time ago and she held no sentimental attachment to that restaurant.”

Review your budget

Keep in mind that a blowout meal early on “is not a guarantee of a second date or fruitful relationship,” says New Yorker Andrew Golding. “It does guarantee a great dinner that she’ll remember forever; and will cost me a fortune,” he says. Pick a spot that works for your budget, says Richie Frieman, a.k.a. The Modern Manners Guy. You can steer your date’s order to some extent (see below), but only within reason — you’re not getting out of a high-end steakhouse for $10 a plate. “Don’t be upset if they order an entree that is priced for that restaurant,” he says.

Make a few suggestions

“Whoever is paying should give menu recommendations as a courtesy to the others dining with them,” says Shauna Heathman, owner of Mackenzie Image Consulting in Charleston, S.C. That’s not to say you should toss out price limits. Gottsman suggests something along the lines of: “The salads here are great, the steak and chicken dishes are the best, but save room for dessert because this restaurant specializes in Key Lime Pie.” No budget limit? Expressly tell your date to order whatever he or she would like.

Order with care

In addition to skipping anything that might drip onto you or get stuck in your teeth, avoid entrées that’s not moderately priced, unless your date says the sky is the limit. “I wouldn’t order something that is more expensive than I myself would want to pay, even if I know he is paying,” says Amy Martin of Chambersburg, Penn. But don’t go too cheap, either. It’s awkward to just have soup while your date digs into a filet mignon.

Make an offer on the bill

It’s accepted that whoever asked for the date pays, but it’s always polite to offer. Come prepared with enough cash to cover your share. Even if your date has explicitly said he or she will pick up the tab, offer to leave the tip, Koppel says.

Tip well

If you’re paying, leave the standard 10% to 20%, depending on the class of restaurant. Leaving too little won’t impress anyone; too much, only your server.

Cautiously use coupons

Most etiquette experts said they’re absolutely verboten on a first date. It’s better to pick a place with more moderate regular prices. “If you must [use a coupon], then you casually mention that you can use the savings to buy a larger box of popcorn at the movies,” Hoover says. There are also sneakier methods. Sites like Village Vines or Dinner Broker automatically take a discount off the bill when you use them to make a reservation — no print out coupon required, so your date need never know.

Leave something on the table

Or at least, don’t take home a doggie bag. “It makes you look cheap,” Gottsman says.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.