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8 September 2017

When reality TV meets reality: what it’s like to eat at the First Dates restaurant

I would watch this.

By Jason Murugesu

The premise of the show First Dates is simple: let’s film real blind dates and see what happens. Participants apply with a profile of who they are and what they want in a potential partner, and get matched accordingly.

The matches are always promising. The girl who likes to rave is matched with the girl who is a DJ. Or there’s a man who’s self-conscious about his wheelchair – but when he reveals his disability midway through his date he is met with warmth and support.

There are a lot of theatrics involved in the date – what drinks should they order? How do they pay the bill? Do they go to a bar afterwards or head straight home? And then finally, sitting next to one other, they tell the cameraman whether they will go on a second date or not. The show could easily be exploitative and mean-spirited, but the complete opposite is true.

Last night I went to the restaurant where the show is filmed with my friend Chloe. We hadn’t seen each other for a while, and it seemed only fair to pay homage to a TV show we both enjoy so much. 

We weren’t being filmed and we were only friends, but eating in the same restaurant where so many potential couples had been filmed completely changed the dynamic – at least for me.

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As we entered the restaurant, the maître d’ (not Fred from the show unfortunately, according to Wikipedia, he works elsewhere) took our coats and we were seated.

The restaurant looks exactly like it does in the show, but more beautiful when candlelit, rather than camera lit. The waiters and waitresses wear the same uniforms and are just as jovial and helpful. 

Though it is a Monday evening, the restaurant was buzzing and populated, perhaps unsurprisingly, by couples on dates.

The waitress comes by and asks us whether we want tap or sparkling water. Not thinking, and wanting mark the occasion, I blurt out “sparkling”. Chloe looks unimpressed, but when the waitress comes back to double check, she says OK.

How do people do this, knowing cameras are on them? I don’t even like sparkling water!  How do people do this with people they don’t actually know, on actual dates?

The sparkling water is delightful. 

The waitress comes by again asking whether we’d like any drinks. We debate over whether we should get wine or cocktails. I am indecisive – Chloe again seems unimpressed. After some discussion, we call over the waitress once more. 

We’ve decided on cocktails, but when they arrive, Chloe realises she has not ordered the drink she thought she had. She is disappointed – but I can only imagine the drama the First Dates narrator would create with this scene. 

I excuse myself to go the “restroom”. I have never used the word restroom before, but here it feels appropriate. Chloe calls me out on it, fairly.

The toilet is exactly the same! I want to call someone and bitch about my date, like they do in the show. She doesn’t like coconut?! The cocktail had the word coconut in the title! 

Is this good TV? I would watch this. 

We order a two-course meal and split a rhubarb pie. I don’t know how restaurants like this get away with prices like these, but I’m spending like I’m a morally corrupt banker and I don’t even care. 

The meal is heavenly (you may have gathered I am no restaurant critic).

As we split the pie, I think to myself – the audience is rooting for us. They all want this to happen.

On leaving the restaurant we see the sofas where the really successful couples make out afterwards. They actually exist! We stroll around the South Bank on a breezy summer’s day, arm in arm. This is straight from a Richard Curtis film. We’re playing up to this now. 

As we are about to go our separate ways to our respective train platforms I, half-jokingly but also half not-jokingly, lean in for the kiss. She backs away – “Jason, what are you doing?”

Reality TV has entered reality.

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