When it comes to a first date, Jess Felton refuses to go for drinks, grab a coffee or take a walk. It’s either dinner or no date at all.
“Dinner dates used to be the standard,” said Ms. Felton, a 40-year-old influencer in Brooklyn, N.Y., who posts as @ohuprettythings on TikTok. “But dating has become so casual.”
To her, a dinner date is more than a meal. It’s a litmus test for how seriously a man takes her.
Indeed, any sort of first date can set the tone for a relationship — and presents a number of panic-inducing questions: Should you dress up, or down? Should you act like yourself (a person who spends an hour hyping herself up for a two-minute phone call) or an idealized version of yourself (a person who regularly brushes her hair)? Perhaps the most polarizing question of all: Should you go out to dinner?
The dinner date has become a contentious topic hotly debated in Reddit forums and group chats alike. Some singles demand it, like the woman who became a TikTok star by ordering 48 oysters, potatoes and crab cakes on what was meant to be a cocktail date. (She was left, unceremoniously, with the bill.)
Others warn gravely against it. You’re trapped at the table, at the whim of the service and with no exit route. And matter how much you enjoyed the company, you may be stuck with a hefty tab at the end.
Drew Daniels is not opposed to a dinner date. In fact, he prefers an even more controversial approach: cooking for his date. “It’s uncomfortable to sit across from someone,” said Mr. Daniels, 31, a graduate student. “Being stuck at a restaurant, you can’t turn to the cutting board and chop something.”
For some, the knee-jerk reaction to a proposed cooking date is that the host is either broke, cheap or just trying to hook up. But Mr. Daniels persists. “You can work things you love into dating,” he said. “If someone was a birder, I would love to go birding on a first date.”
So what is it like to cook for — or be fed by — a stranger? We talked to three pairs who met for the first time over a meal at home to hear just how such a gesture was decided on — and received. The following interviews, which were conducted individually, have been edited for clarity and length.
Mr. Daniels matched with Savannah Tate Cuff, a 30-year-old artist in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on Hinge the day she left for a trip to Nepal. The two kept in touch for the next month and decided that Mr. Daniels would cook dinner for her the day she returned.
What he made: Bucatini amatriciana
Drew: She had a layover in Rome and picked up a bottle of wine there, so I chose a pasta pairing for that. And I made a very simple salad with butter lettuce and a janky vinaigrette of lemon and olive oil.
Savannah: I think it was a great first date. It was definitely unusual. It’s the only first date I’ve had where a guy cooked for me. In normal circumstances, I probably wouldn’t have done that, especially going to a guy’s house as a first date. But since we’d already been talking for a month, it seemed like it was OK.
Drew: I love the cooking part. The eating part, sitting across from someone in your house, I find a bit awkward. We made this beautiful meal and ate it essentially standing. Something about sitting down at a table — I rarely do it.
Savannah: Generally, drinks are the way to go, because you don’t know the person. And you just need a sense for the person in real life.
For their second date, they kept things similarly unconventional. Ms. Tate Cuff visited Mr. Daniels at his school. Ultimately it didn’t work out.
“I have a boyfriend now,” she said. “And our first date was just drinks.”
Recipe: Make bucatini amatriciana for your second date
Nicole Karr, a 38-year-old private chef, and Meg Ten Eyck, a 36-year-old founder of an L.G.B.T.Q. travel site, met on Hinge. For their first date, Ms. Karr invited Ms. Ten Eyck to her apartment in Astoria, Queens.
What she made: Homemade spaghetti alla chitarra with pomodoro
Nicole: It’s very common for everyone to ask me to cook for them. It didn’t start off that way with Meg. When people ask, I don’t want to do it. But if they don’t ask, I want to.
Meg: My first thought was, “OK, stranger danger.” But we had mutual people, so I was confident she wasn’t a 70-year-old ax murderer. I did some asking around to make sure she was a reasonable human being.
Nicole: My thing is kind of, “Come over, I’ll make you pasta.” And I’ll have tomato sauce on the stove cooking so it smells good when they come in.
Meg: She’s a chef. Is this just her move to flex her skills?
Nicole: I didn’t realize it, but maybe it is.
After two subsequent dates, the two decided to be “casually friends,” Ms. Ten Eyck said. “Not like besties or anything.”
Recipe: Make pasta al pomodoro for your second date
Jack Glaser, a 26-year-old graduate student at the University of Chicago, and Leah Grynheim, a 27-year-old educator, were set up in Chicago by a mutual friend. After the weather derailed plans for coffee and a walk, Mr. Glaser suggested dinner at his apartment. (He used a New York Times Cooking recipe.)
What he made: Mapo tofu with steamed bok choy and rice
Jack: I wanted to make something that was vaguely impressive. Maybe something spicy, something stovetop where there was going to be sounds and smells.
Leah: It was a little too peppery for me, but I enjoyed it. I mostly sat there and drank wine while he cooked, but I was ready to chop something.
Jack: She offered to do the dishes and I didn’t let her, which I thought was perfect.
Leah: There was one point where I told him what to do, when I saw him start the rice cooker without the lid on. But he put the steamer with bok choy on the rice cooker, and then put the lid on. I’m used to being the one cooking, so I couldn’t get my brain out of that.
Jack: I have these tea candles in cute little holders. I lit them, and I was like, “Wait a second, it looks like you’re walking into a sauna.” So I blew them out and waited until we were about to start eating. Then I was like, “Oh, we should light these candles!” I didn’t want it to seem over-designed.
Leah: He had a dinner playlist on.
Jack: Compared to going to a bar, there are more decisions to make. You go to a bar, you’re not deciding the lighting, you’re not deciding the music, nothing can be blamed on you. With all of the variables in your control, there are that many opportunities to make a faux pas.
The two made plans to meet again over hot toddies and a game of chess at a bar. But three days before the second date, Mr. Glaser bailed. “It was a bummer,” Ms. Grynheim said. “He texted me: ‘I have to cancel, I want to be a little more conservative with my casual dating right now.’” Mr. Glaser, for his part, cited a lack of chemistry.
But he did take someone else out for drinks recently — and told her about his foray into cooking for a stranger. Over beers, his date told him she would have preferred homemade mapo tofu.