Way, way back in the golden age of our nan’s curlers, going for dinner for a first date made a lot of sense. But fast forward to the chaos that is Trying Not To Die Alone in 2021, and anyone who is a regular on Hinge can tell you that investing in a three-course meal with someone who’s oversold their height/appearance/comic capabilities is a recipe for a truly bad time. That’s why we save that first romantic sit-down meal for when we know someone well enough to pretend to know how to order wine, and make highly suggestive statements like ‘should we share the courgette fritti?’ That’s where these restaurants come in. They’re perfect for making a great first impression of your restaurant repertoire, whilst not being so OTT that you scare this potential soulmate (or something) away. Good luck, don’t fuck it up, and please, in the name of all that’s holy and Prince, don’t suggest Nando’s.
FYI, if you haven’t quite reached the ‘eating solids’ stage of this romance, we also have a guide to great little places that are perfect for those early-in-the-game drinks dates.
Right, remain calm, but you’re about to eat in front of this person for the first time. No, that half-assed breakfast you made them last Friday doesn’t count - any meal involving defrosting a loaf of Hovis doesn’t whisper ‘love is food for the soul’. Luckily, Campania and Jones’ cobblestone vibe and thick slabs of tiramisu is exceedingly helpful re: your mission to fall madly in love. Or at the very least to eat some thick, rich, pappardelle with someone you don’t hate yet.
Prospective romantic meet Kudu. Kudu meet prospective romantic. You’re going to get along swell. The only risk to be found at this South African restaurant in Peckham is that you might call it quits if your date has the audacity to eat the last piece of bread topped melted bacon butter. It’s genuinely worthy of the accolade of ‘fucking tasty’. Outside of classy terracotta walls and little velvet stools you can perch on somewhat gracefully, the menu is small, punchy, and a really great read if you have a penchant for smoked meats. Don’t skip their signature Smokey Kudu cocktail.
Look, if it was socially acceptable to date restaurants, we’d throw this guide in the bin and ask Elliot’s if they’d like to be exclusive with us. No more feeding anyone else your legendary Isle of Mull cheddar puffs baby, you’re ours now. A small plates restaurant in a charming corner of Borough Market, this place is a no-brainer wine, cool counter seating, and feeling like an absolute catch because you suggested a place with fancy-schmancy wood-oven pizzas and tartare. Good for you. Hot tip: get a bottle of orange wine or one of their negronis to class yourself as a true heart stealer.
If you take the person you’re seeing to Lina Stores they’ll never guess that you once used a four-month-old Ryvita to shovel cold beans into your mouth on a particularly sad Sunday morning. No, this handmade pasta spot in Soho makes you look like the kind of person who’d invest in scented toilet paper, and own a piano you actually know how to play. This place is utterly charming, from the mint green exterior, to the cosy counter seating, to their limoncello spritz. Actually, the latter is likely to just make you more charming. There are several small starters if you just want something to pick on whilst you chat, or you can just dive into the pasta menu and a bottle of wine.
Some restaurants have just got it. Enough noise for there to be a lively atmosphere, but not so much that it’s overwhelming. Food that’s so good it’s worth talking about, whether you’re struggling to make conversation or not. A wine menu that’s really good, but not so fancy you can’t ask the staff about a recommendation for twenty quid. This is what Bright is. It’s perfect for moving from a glass to a bottle, plus a whole load of plates, all rounded-off with whatever lovely sweet thing is on their changing menu.
There’s something very right about ham, wine, and cheese on a date. We’re not suggesting five slices from Tesco and some babybels, we’re talking Iberico and award-winning dairy. It’s like you’re on holiday. But you’re not. But you could be in a year’s time. But don’t get ahead of yourself. Anyway, Llerena on Upper Street is perfect for this. It’s a cosy, straightforward tapas place that has everything you need to set a great precedent for eating out together.
You’re still a good four months away from admitting that you regularly name the local squirrels, and like to unwind by listening to graphic true crime podcasts. Let’s save those gems for another day and make your way to Levan instead, a restaurant that could make even Sheldon Cooper look cool. As well as being home to some comte fries that rank highly on our list of Things To Hand Feed To The Love Of Your Life, Levan looks like the dreamy, seductive flat you’d live in if the London rental market wasn’t set on giving you the ick with its never-ending appearance of mould and single beds. There’s a moody dark blue wall of records, a shelf of artfully placed natural wine bottles, and a 99% chance that you’re getting lucky tonight.
Okay, you still don’t entirely understand their job, but it sounds like the kind of thing you need a clear criminal record and an IQ of over 160 to do. Also, they’re a good kisser, so you’re willing to find out exactly what a sociologist is. It’s time to be, or at the very least, act, like an adult. And there are few places in London better for a grown-up drink and bite to eat than Rovi. It has a great oval bar to sit at, dishes like exceptional celeriac shawarma, and a lapsang Old Fashioned with a serious kick. This place is a bit different, cool, and really good fun. Just like you, right?
You finally met someone at the gym! Just kidding, that only happens in BBC Three comedies and certain sections of Porn Hub. But whichever extremely whimsical app you used to meet this person, Peckham Bazaar is the ideal location for an evening of pretending you’ve reached that modern relationship milestone - no, not sharing your Now TV password - we’re talking about going on holiday together. Think grilled octopus, courgette fritters, and a laid-back atmosphere where one hour becomes three and three hours becomes, well, you know.
When you’ve discovered that you like this person so much that you’re physically incapable of listening to Barry White without picturing their cute little chin dimple, then it’s time to bring out Luca. A suave restaurant that should be reserved for situations where you’re pretending to be incredibly confident and not at all bitter, it’s at the top end of the still-casual spectrum. Dodge the more formal back dining room and go to the bar instead, order some parmesan fries, cross your legs, and break the mystique by dropping ragu over yourself.
Six Portland Road is the kind of charming restaurant you go to when you’re single and think ‘I would definitely bring someone here’ or alternatively, ‘look at that couple in the corner, selfish loved-up bastards’. Now it is your turn to evoke some serious jealousy from the lonelier members of society by parading your new romance around this casual spot on a quiet street at the edge of Notting Hill. Despite the white table cloths, their changing seasonal menu is full of things like buttered greens, cod with saffron sauce, and hand-rolled gnocchi. Basically, the kind of things you’d make at home if you had any kind of culinary skill beyond setting the timer on the microwave. But they don’t need to know that yet, do they?
Admittedly, suggesting drinks and a bite to eat in an old east London railway arch does make you sound like a banker these days. Or, someone saying banker with their fingers in their mouth. But Sager and Wilde isn’t like that. It’s one of your best bets if you’re looking to impress, but are on a somewhat secret budget. You can get a cocktail and a bowl of pasta for a tenner (Monday to Wednesday, after 9:30pm, terms and conditions do apply, see the back of the packet for details). It’s cool, it’s calm, and there’s even a terrace.
Nothing gets the pulses racing on that all-important first sit-down dinner like raw fish and weeping wasabi eyes, right? We thought so too. Avoid any robots or conveyer belts, and head to Sushi Atelier in Fitzrovia. Share twelve pieces of sushi, debate whether parmesan should be anywhere near it, and order an irresponsible amount of sake whatever happens.
Three words for you. Two-person lasagne. If that doesn’t whet the old romance whistle, nothing will. Except, maybe, referring to your sex drive as ‘the old romance whistle’. Despite the fact that you’re probably now questioning whether we should claim any kind of authority over dating locations, please rest assured that it’s impossible to fuck up a date at Llywelyn’s. From its quaint outdoor terrace to its Herne Hill location that will make you feel like you’ve fled to some mythical Richard Curtis land, everything here will have you using the word ‘delightful’ in an entirely non-ironic way. Also, that two-person lasagne is excellent, as is everything else on their classy seasonal menu.