With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, we wondered which local restaurants and bars are best for making a love connection? Does Cupid prefer craft beer or Champagne? White tablecloths, low lighting and whispered sweet nothings, or a casual vibe with lively music, noisy chatter and a down-to-earth menu? Here are a few ideas for igniting, or re-igniting, that spark over food and libations, no matter what your dating status.

FIRST DATE FLUTTERS

First dates in a restaurant come with a lot of pressure, warns Noreen Rochester, founder of Cara Matchmaking in Portland. You have to decide what to order (roast chicken, or should I go for the lobster?), engage in sparkling conversation (while making sure you’ve no spinach stuck in your teeth), and when the check comes, awkwardly figure out who is going to pay. (Men usually insist on paying if the evening went well, Rochester says. Ladies, Rochester suggests that you offer to split the check, no matter how lovely or dreadful things turn out.)

So what makes a restaurant right for a first date? We asked a few dating diners.

Somewhere with good drinks and appetizers to share is a start, then add in an intimate setting, like at The Portland Regency’s Armory Lounge, or a stunning view, like at Saltwater Grille in South Portland, which looks out onto the harbor and the Portland skyline. Top of the East, the rooftop lounge in the Westin Portland Harborview, has both.

Michelle MacLean, a 52-year-old divorced lobbyist who lives in Gardiner but has an office in Portland, likes it for late-night meet-ups. “It’s very romantic, and there are some terrific views,” she said. “You can have a private conversation.”

Her No. 1 choice for a first-date dinner, though, is cocktails and appetizers at Blyth & Burrows on Exchange Street, followed by dinner at the bar at Street & Co. on Wharf Street.

“You have the bartender interacting with you, too, and there’s not as much pressure on the two of you,” she said. For a lunch date, she likes sharing small plates at Central Provisions.

MacLean says restaurant dates, whether at the bar or at a table, give her a chance to see how her dining companion treats others. She watches them interact with the staff and with other diners. “Are they respectful and kind, or are they (a jerk?)” she said. “Do they engage in conversation? Are they fun? On a first date, everyone is going to be on their best behavior, but to be able to gauge their personality and respectfulness around other people is really important.”

NIX THE COFFEE DATE

You’ve heard all the warnings about Internet dating apps, among them safe spots for a first date with that cutie you clicked with online: Always meet in a neutral, public place, say a coffee shop, in the daytime, so you’re not overcommitted time-wise. As a bonus, you get a quick sense of whether your date is actually a serial killer who left a battered van idling outside, just waiting for you to say, “Sure, you can give me a ride home!”

Matchmaker Rochester says meeting for coffee is probably good advice for a blind date that is set up online. Otherwise, she says, “Whatever you do, don’t do the coffee date.”

Why not? She says she almost always gets bad feedback from clients who have been on coffee dates. It’s not romantic enough, and the setting often makes daters uncomfortable. “It’s like an interview if you do the coffee date,” she said.

The one exception in the Portland area is Coffee By Design on Diamond Street in Portland, Rochester said, which she described as having a “warm” environment. Starbucks, she said, is “just cold. There’s no privacy, either. At Coffee By Design, you can pick a corner table, and you’re going to have privacy.”

James and Sandy Boyce play pinball at Arcadia National Bar in Portland — a great date for couples with a competitive streak. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

GAME ON

Sandy Boyce and her husband, James, like to have play dates, but these aren’t for the preschool set. The Portland couple, both 37, are regulars at Arcadia National Bar, 24 Preble Street, where they battle each other in pinball a couple of nights a week.

If your date is the type who will play Monopoly for hours,  or is obsessed with Game of Thrones (the pinball version), Sandy Boyce recommends bringing them here, where they can sip creative cocktails and eat elevated pub food while trying to defeat the Cave Troll in the Lord of the Rings game. The Chinese Take Out Fries and Veggie Nachos are “perfect for sharing,” she says.

“It’s a great place to be able to interact with each other with no preconceived notions,” Boyce said. “You can just enjoy a game together, or choose your own adventure.”

And it suits all ages. Boyce, who is manager of communications at Spurwink (her husband is a CPA), likes playing competitive pinball. Her favorites include Medieval Madness, Addams Family and Monster Bash. Arcadia also has a massive collection of board games, as well as vintage arcade games, such as Ms. Pac-Man, Tetris and yes, even Pong for those of us who grew up in the Jurassic period.

Dave Aceto, co-owner of Arcadia, says games are a natural ice breaker, so the bar gets a lot of couples on first dates. Free pinball on Wednesdays doesn’t hurt. “It puts less pressure on them than sitting down at a restaurant,” he said.

Aceto has watched relationships develop as couples bond over their shared passion for gaming. Three or four couples who met or were regulars at Arcadia have married, he said.

“If you like basketball, you’re probably not going to meet someone who shares that at a nerd bar,” Aceto said, “but if you like nerdy things, then you’re in the right place.”

THE BIG ANNIVERSARY

My parents’ 60th anniversary was approaching, and on the big day they’d be visiting me in Portland.

Though they aren’t ones for big parties or fancy dinners, the occasion demanded something. Maybe a nice dinner out? But where? My parents are children of the Depression, and they just don’t understand why people pay big money for tweezered food made with unfamiliar ingredients. To them, it’s a waste of cash. Bearing that in mind, I settled on treating them to Fore Street, where the atmosphere is convivial, and the food both delicious and recognizable — even to non-foodies — with uncomplicated choices like hanger steak and pork loin. It’s a serious place, serving serious food, but doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Ray and Wilma Goad toast 60 years of marriage at Fore Street on July 7, 2011. Photo by Meredith Goad

Fore Street has a reputation as a “special occasion restaurant,” and for good reason. People go there to celebrate milestone birthdays, and “they come out to dinner after they get engaged,” according to Fore Street General Manager Robyn Violette. Anniversaries are especially popular. In December alone, the restaurant hosted more than 75 couples celebrating anniversaries, Violette said, and those are just the ones the staff knew about ahead of time.

The potential bump in the road was that my parents were married on July 7, and the July 4 holiday kicks off Portland’s busy summer dining season. So I did what Violette suggests everyone do to schedule an important anniversary dinner at Fore Street. I called well ahead (two months) for a reservation. If you try strolling in on the night of your celebration as a walk-in, you’re rolling the dice, Violette says.

If informed of the special occasion ahead of time, the staff at Fore Street will write a message in chocolate on your plate. Photo by Meredith Goad

When I called, reservationist Josh Dore helped me choose a bottle of Prosecco that would be waiting, chilled, at the table. Also on our table was a handwritten card congratulating my parents. When it came time for dessert, the plate came out with “Happy Anniversary” written in chocolate.

Violette says she thinks Fore Street’s warm, rustic atmosphere has a lot to do with its popularity for couples. “Especially in the winter,” she said, “it’s really cozy. There’s always a fire burning.”

My parents loved their night out. They felt pampered. Plus, you could see the delight on their faces when they saw the size of the bill— and realized they didn’t have to pay it.

DANCE THE NIGHT AWAY

Scott Hinkel, 46, lives in Cumberland and works in biotech. He’s also divorced and back on the dating market.

Hinkel has taken advantage of Rochester’s matchmaking services, and she’s set him up on plenty of dates. He has his own opinions on first-date-worthy restaurants and on the pluses and minuses of coffee houses. (Unlike his matchmaking mentor, he prefers them for a first date. “You’ve got to test the waters, right?”)

What’s his advice for the newly single looking to get back in the game? Head over to Bubba’s Sulky Lounge on Portland Street on a Friday night and dance the night away with a roomful of strangers in ’80s garb. It may be outside your comfort zone, but hey, you’re already jumping back into the dating pool, so why not take another leap? Bubba’s has two bars, three fireplaces, a light-up dance floor, and “it’s a really good place to connect to people,” Hinkel says.

“Everybody goes there,” he said. “It’s funny. It’s dark. You’re always going to meet people there.”

The best part, he said, is that everyone is smiling, laughing and dancing. “The energy level is very positive,” he said, “so you’re going to meet someone in an elevated state of happiness already. They’re not crying in their beer.”

BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

Then there’s the flip side. Sometimes Cupid’s evil twin comes on the scene and breaks that arrow over his chubby little knee. Your relationship is kaput.

What are the good places to break up? we asked. Turns out nobody wants to confess they even think about that question. Or maybe everyone is breaking up by text these days.

One thing’s for sure: Other restaurant goers aren’t keen on you doing the deed next to their table. That became clear when I posted something about restaurant break-ups on Twitter. One tweeter joked about doing it at “any busy diner” and envisioned this scene:

“How would you like your eggs?”

“Over easy and to go, like this relationship.”

But most people who responded to my tweet were aghast that anyone would parade such a private moment through a restaurant dining room. Even the Press Herald’s restaurant critic chimed in: “No one should inflict witnessing a break-up on other diners,” he tweeted.

A local restaurateur mentioned an “epic break-up” that had happened a couple of weeks earlier at her own establishment. “Hearing our bartenders talk about it made me feel so bad they had to watch it,” she tweeted.

Another woman shared her own break-up story. Years ago, she stopped into Horsefeathers, a popular Portland restaurant in the 1980s, to meet her boyfriend. He brought his new girlfriend along! “I stood up so suddenly my chair fell over and crashed,” she wrote. “Probably would have been better at an airport cafe.”

The consensus? No matter what kind of restaurant hosts your break-up, it’s “always a downer for anyone who witnessed it.”

Matchmaker Rochester agrees, calling restaurants “a horrible, horrible place to break up.”

“If they’ve been dating for a while, the person is going to feel awful,” she said. “No one wants to feel awful in a room full of restaurant goers. I’d rather be texted than be broken up with in public.”

Some men like using restaurants as a break-up venue because they think their partner won’t make a scene in public, Rochester and others we interviewed said. Good luck with that. I mean, when do you do it? Break up just after you order, and you’ll either have to cancel the order or sit through the most uncomfortable dinner of your life, with more steam coming of out your ex’s ears than off the vegetables. Do it in the middle of dinner, and you could find that what’s on your plate ends up on your head or in your lap.

If you are set on a public dining room breakup, at least do it at the end of the meal, Rochester advises. Then both of you can make a quick getaway.


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