The Perfect Dinner Date

It's scientific truth: There's nothing more romantic than a meal.

Romance. You wouldn’t think math would be much help in figuring it out. But two British re-searchers, University College London’s Peter Sozou and Robert Seymour, created a mathematical model to find out the best way to woo women.

The pair discovered that if men want romantic success, they should wine and dine their dates, as extravagantly as possible.

photo: Rae Huo. shot at Chef Mavro

Sozou and Seymour did a spreadsheet of "dating decisions." In their model, a man had to decide what kind of gift to offer a woman–valuable, extravagant or inexpensive–based on how attractive he found her. The woman had to either accept or decline the gift and then decide whether to encourage a romance with the gift-giver.

The best solution for males was to give what the two termed "extravagant, but valueless gifts," like theater tickets or restaurant dinners.

Only mathematicians would think of a great meal as "valueless." What they meant was that during the early stages of romance, men were better offgiving gifts that got consumed on the spot than, say, jewelry.

I thought everyone knew that already: Early in a relationship, flowers and candy are appropriate, diamond earrings a bit much. Plus, the mathematicians, a suspicious pair, point out a woman might be willing to string along a man who gives her diamonds, but is unlikely to sit through many two-hour meals with someone she can’t stand.

We have to thank Sozou and Seymour for applying their math skills to something so constructive. As HONOLULU Magazine launched into this Singles Issue. I decided that, since restaurant meals were the optimal romantic strategy, I’d put together a guide to the perfect romantic dinner date.

I couldn’t rely entirely on personal experience. Although I spend a lot of time in restaurants, I’m often scribbling notes about the entrées–not a particularly romantic activity.

In addition, having been married for decades, my wife and I have only one hard-and-fast rule for a romantic evening: Don’t take the children.

To supplement my own experience, I picked up the phone and talked to a dozen restaurant pros. They’d seen a lot of romance, from first dates to proposals, and offered up some of their tips. (If your romance has progressed to the point of popping the question, feel free to skip ahead to the accompanying story, "Diamond Rings for Dessert" at the bottom.)

no. 1
Pick a place you enjoy.

No one agrees on what constitutes a romantic restaurant. Fast food is probably out, but any serious restaurant might do.

I was amazed at the number of restaurateurs who didn’t think their own place was romantic. That may be because for them, being there is work. Their customers don’t necessarily agree.

Allen King, manager of Momoyama at the Sheraton Princess Kai’ulani, had all sorts of tips for a romantic evening. Japanese food was not one of them. "No, no," he said. "Italian, maybe French."

Gail Ogawa of 3660 On The Rise is amazed at the number of dates and proposals in her restaurant. "To me, someplace like Bali by the Sea is romantic. We’re bustling, we’ve got tables close together. If my husband had proposed to me in a place like this, I would have said no."

On the other hand, she’s a foodie. "If there’s good food and wine, and the place is half-way decent, I guess that’s romantic enough for me." If your prospective date is all about the food, think menu as much as setting. "And maybe a date might be a little more comfortable in a place that’s a little casual," adds Ogawa. "Less pressure."

Ed Kenney, of Town, says, "Not my place, find someplace quieter."

Rainer Kumbroch, president of Roy’s Hawai’i, thinks Roy’s Hawai’i Kai is too noisy to be particularly romantic. Both Kumbroch and Kenney admit they see a lot of dating couples.

"Must work for them," says Kumbroch.

When in doubt, Kumbroch advises: "Stick to the classics. You want candlelight, flowers, booths widely spaced and a hushed environment. You’ll never go wrong sticking to that script."

no. 2
Make a reservation.

"Yes, it’s obvious. You won’t believe how many guys miss this step," says 12th Avenue Grill’s Kevin Haney.

If you forget, be patient. Never try to impress your date by throwing a fuss, demanding to see the manager and so forth. "When that happens, the guy’s date is always standing there looking extremely uncomfortable," says Keith Mallini, manager of the Hanohano Room. "The evening’s doomed."

Most of the restaurateurs suggested a late-evening reservation, at least after 7:30, maybe even 8, for a more relaxed, couple-friendly setting.

No matter what time you set, George Mavrothalassitis, of Chef Mavro, says that if a man is meeting his date at the restaurant, it’s imperative for him to be there early. "If you say 7:30, be there by 7:15," says the chef, who’s got a French sensibility. "For romance, it’s important for the man to suffer a little, to show he’s her slave."

no. 3
Remember flowers.

Mavro advises buying a single-strand ginger lei for your date. You want ginger grown in Hawai’i, not Micronesia, for the lingering scent. "Most elegant."

Of much the same mind, Michel’s Philip Shaw suggests single- or double-strand pikake or pakalana. "The scent lingers all evening, plus, of course, you get to kiss her when you give it to her."

Momoyama’s Allen King says you can take it one step further. "Have the lei delivered ahead of time to the restaurant. Or, with some preplanning, you can have her favorite flowers on the table when you arrive."

Duane Kawamoto of L’Uraku adds, "Flowers are good, but it doesn’t have to be flowers," it can be something else, like a little box of her favorite chocolates sitting on the table. "Make sure to have some little surprise during the evening. It always seems to work."

no. 4
Setting the table.

If you reserve early enough, you might be able to scout the restaurant, request a certain table or at least a certain location.

"What you want is off the main room slightly, so it’s quiet," says the Hanohano Room’s Mallini. "But not so far in a corner that you’re isolated. Women are more comfortable like that, and besides, it gives them a chance to be seen all dressed up."

Should you inform the staff you’ve got a big date? Opinions vary.

"Call well ahead and say, I really like this girl," says Alicia Antonio, manager of Bali by the Sea. "That way we’ll know and seat you away from families and children, someplace by the ocean view, where you can talk. We’ll make sure everything goes smoothly."

"An anniversary, a birthday or a proposal, be sure to tell the staff ahead of time," says Roy’s Kumbroch. "But for a date, that’s a little cheesy. If I know waiters, you’re likely to have them snickering at you behind your back."

no. 5
How to order.

Never order for your date. "But women do appreciate some cues," says Ogawa. "They don’t want to seem like pigs. If you say, ‘Oh, would you like something to start?’ They’ll know it’s OK to order an appetizer."

"Talk about your date’s likes and dislikes," says Shaw. "Don’t quiz, but listen." Find out if she’s vegetarian before you suggest a steak. You can always ask the waiter to suggest something to suit her preferences. "After all," says Shaw, "you want the waiter catering to her all evening, not to you."

And, of course, let her order first.

no. 6
To Eat or Not to Eat?

"Don’t order a whole lobster; anything you have to take apart with a hammer is bad," says Kumbroch.

"No finger food," adds 3660’s Ogawa. "That means the ribs are out."

Some restaurateurs counsel eating light. "You must," says Mavro. "There’s no romance if you fall asleep after dinner."

The Bali’s Antonio goes so far as to suggest eating a little before going out. "You don’t want to be too hungry, especially if you’re a lady. That’s not romantic."

But on the food front, opinions vary. "Never stop yourself from enjoying your meal," says Alan Takasaki, of Le Bistro. "Have all the specialties of the house."

"Order a lot of appetizers and share," says Town’s Kenney. "It breaks the ice."

"For god’s sake, eat," says Shaw. "Why else are you in a restaurant?"

no. 7
Wine Without Whining.

"There’s only one thing to order for a romantic evening," says Takasaki, "a good bottle of Champagne."

"Stick to the classics, and that means Champagne," says Kumbroch. "There’s hardly anyone who doesn’t enjoy it."

Virtually every restaurateur I talked to echoed that sentiment. "I’d order it ahead," says Haney. "It’s fabulous to have a split of Champagne chilled next to the flowers you ordered. It makes sitting down at the table a whole new experience."

If Champagne seems too much for your pocketbook or the occasion, the suggestion is lighter wines. "With a date, I’d go a little lighter and sweeter, a riesling or a Vouvray," says Shaw.

Mavro suggests lighter wines as well–sauvignon blanc or viognier, or a pinot noir if you want a red. "Never a chardonnay or a cabernet sauvignon, too much oak, tannins, alcohol."

If you’re insecure about the wine list, you can always get a copy beforehand and make your choices early.

However, if you do know your way around a list, this is not the time to show off. Order and be done with it. "You’re not trying to impress the waiter, you want to focus on your date," says Kawamoto. "I don’t think many women enjoy lots of wine speak."

Kenny says, "A date’s never the time to be a wine snob. If she loves big, buttery, oaky chardonnays and you hate them, order one anyway."

no. 8
Talk Story.

Hill suggests having a few topics of conversation prepared in advance. "Find out what she’s interested in."

Shaw adds: "A meal is a chance for a couple of hours of intimate conversation. I see guys all the time, when they’re a little nervous, they spend the whole time talking about themselves. Talk about her. Isn’t that what you’re there for, to find out what she’s like?"

no. 9
Have dessert.

"When you’re out with a woman, always suggest dessert," says Ogawa. "Even if she says, ‘Oh, no, I shouldn’t,’ you should suggest getting one dessert and splitting it."

"If you’re lucky, you can end up feeding her," says Shaw. "And dessert extends the evening."

Which dessert? "Chocolate," says Antonio.

"100 percent of the time, chocolate," says Mavro.

"Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate," says Kumbroch. You get the idea.

no. 10
Don’t fumble the check.

"A date’s probably not the best time to question every item and ask for a discount," says Kumbroch. "Would James Bond do that?"

All you really need to do is handle the check normally, calculate a 15 percent to 20 percent tip quickly and move on. But if you want to make sure you pay, that there’s minimum fuss, you can slip a staffer your credit card ahead of time, with instructions on the tip. Then near the end of the meal, excuse yourself to go to the restroom, sign the tab and you’re set.

no. 11
Have a postprandial plan.

"You should always have something in mind for after," notes Hill. "Music, dancing, a nightcap, or, the best thing, a walk on the beach."

Says Shaw, "Just like you should always have the last line of a speech ready when you stand up to speak, you should have a plan for what happens after dinner. You can always change your mind."

no. 12
A final note.

"Shouldn’t you focus on having fun?" asks Le Bistro’s Takasaki. "Order everything good, you’re guaranteed a good time. The more money you spend, the better time you’ll have."

Oh, Alan, I thought, that’s the restaurateur in you talking. But then I remembered Sozou and Seymour’s calculations on optimal dating strategies: extravagant presents consumed on the spot.

I haven’t done the math, but it may work. If nothing else, it’s likely to be a dinner to remember.

Diamond Rings for Dessert

Michel’s has an elaborate silver cart which was previously used to carve meat tableside. Tableside carving having fallen out of fashion, it’s now the restaurant’s "proposal cart."

Says manager Philip Shaw, "We put the ring on it, arrange some flowers and all the accoutrements. We wheel it to the table, saying, ‘Did someone here order a special dessert?’ Sometimes the whole restaurant claps."

Proposing in a restaurant never seems to fall out of fashion. Alicia Antonio has seen hundreds of proposals, at the old Kahala Hilton Maile Room and now at the Hilton’s Bali by the Sea restaurant. After dinner, the staff brings to each table a small replica of Diamond Head molded in chocolate, filled with chocolate truffles, billowing dry-ice "smoke."

"I can’t even count the number of times I’ve put an engagement ring in a chocolate Diamond Head," she says. Of course, Antonio’s flexible. She once glued an engagement ring to a giant strawberry with chocolate.

Most restaurateurs think putting the ring in the dessert is a no-no. "With the dessert is fine, never in it," says Gail Ogawa of 3660 On The Rise. "There’s nothing romantic about biting a diamond ring."

Proposing over dessert is traditional. However, the men tend to be so nervous they don’t eat much during the meal. Consequently, proposing with the appetizer course is becoming increasingly popular. Rainer Kumbroch of Roy’s says he once had a man tell him, "I’ve heard the food is really good here. If I wait until dessert to propose, I won’t taste any of it."

With a little pre-arrangement, any restaurant will be happy to have you propose in its dining room. "We hope they’ll come back for every anniversary," says Ogawa.

If you’re so inclined, you can even get down on one knee and propose in traditional manner, though restaurants are a little ambivalent on the practice. Says 3660’s Ogawa, "Our tables are awfully close together for that sort of thing, but I’ve had men do it. They get some strange looks from the next table, but when she says yes, everyone in the restaurant has figured out what’s going on and claps."

Antonio notes she encourages kneelers to propose on the restaurant’s small private lanai. "When they come back in, we shower the lady with rose petals. Of course, we make sure she’s said yes first."

What happens if she says no? Fortunately, that’s a rare occurrence. "Never happened," said Ogawa.

"Ooh, wouldn’t that create some angst?" says Kumbroch. "Not sure whether I want to see that or not."

It did happen to Antonio once. "The lady passed the ring back and said, ‘I’m not ready.’ The staff asked me what to do, and I said, ‘Drop the check and stay away from the table.’ What else could you do?"