There’s a reason that, over there in the sidebar excerpt of my “About” section, I so flagrantly display my IM handle, and slightly less obvious to lurking spambots, though no less shameless, my email address. Desperate cry for attention though it may be, the bottom line is that I love chatting with people about food and dining. The only thing that gives me greater pleasure than receiving an email or IM from a reader, is being asked for a restaurant recommendation. I have, on more than one occasion, entertained the idea of being a Concierge in a luxury hotel or community, diving deep into my personal data bank to match guests with their perfect restaurant, going to great lengths to organize a fabulous evening for them, then making sure they’re safely tucked away in their rooms after they return, buzzed, perhaps slightly disheveled, but glowing.
672 S La Brea, just north of Wilshire
Los Angeles, CA 90036
I daydream about being concierge, then I snap out of it when I remember how much actual real-life, face-to-face interaction I would have to have with total strangers. Scary.
One of the more common emails I receive filters into the category of dating, and is always some subtle flavor variation of this:
I’m taking a girl out this weekend. Any suggestions for a good first date restaurant?
Bachelor No. 1
Me? He’s asking me for a recommendation? As if I were an expert? Little Delicious me?!?! After the flattered squealing in my head dies down and I’ve caught my breath after quietly hyperventilating at my desk with excitement, I stop. I look at my laptop screen, re-read what’s there on the screen, then eager to start the slice and dice in my mental database, scroll down, anxiously looking for the rest of the email.
There isn’t anything else. That’s all the email says. The request ends with “good first date restaurant.”
Flustration (Flustered + frustration).
There are no other parameters for the request other than “good” and “first date.” How am I supposed to make a recommendation without knowing anything else besides “first date,” as if “first date” were an actual defining characteristic. Oh yeah, it has to be good. That’s not enough! I was a strategy consultant for five years. Making strategic recommendations was my job, but I always had parameters with which to work. I could give you the Executive Summary of how to turnaround your failing supply chain into an explosively efficient, cost-cutting operation, but gathering requirements was always the first, and longest, step. I need parameters! What part of town? What type of personality does she have? What type of cuisine does she like? What type of cuisine do you like? What type of cuisine would you like to pretend to like in order to manipulate impressions?
Something. Anything. At the very least, do you have any food allergies?!?!
Frustration evolves into stress. Not only do I have to make a recommendation with litle to nothing to go on, this is a first date. There’s a lot riding on the first date. This first date could be the start of a long-lasting relationship. This restaurant could be the first scene-setting venue, the place “where it all began” for them. An entire future montage of diamonds, longs walks on the beach, ivory silk and layers of tulle, white picket fences, Daddy diaper bags, Sunday night dinners, and sitting on the porch swing holding hands could be wholly dependent on the success of the first date at a restaurant that I have to choose. Oh, the pressure of that kind of responsbility! I don’t want to give a bad recommendation that could potentially end a beautiful life journey together before it even begins!
Hyperventilation from excitement has given way nervous nail-biting, palms sweating, fingers running through my three days unwashed blogger’s hair. It’s too much pressure, and I still don’t have any qualifying requirements besides “good first date!” Why? Why do I have to get these emails?!?! It’s so stressful. I can’t take it!
** As a side note, I actually lovelovelove getting requests for recommendations, so please keep them coming. Just include a few parameters so I have something to work with. This is a dialogue, this here The Delicious Life, between you and me.
How am I supposed to know what makes a restaurant good for a first date for Bachelor No. 1? Things that make a restaurant good for a first date depend on the person and what values he assigns to the usual restaurant parameters like location, vibe, and cuisine. A good first date restaurant might be cozy and candlelit on the coast. A good first date restaurant might be uptown trendy fusion. A good first date might be [email protected]$%#-cares-about-the-food. (But a good first date is never half a salad at Houston's.) There are very few restaurants that are universally good for a first date. There might be none, except that I wouldn’t be writing this post if it weren’t for Luna Park.
Luna Park! Yes, of course! Luna Park is the answer from Dear Delicious!
Dear Bachelor No. 1:
First urgent issue at hand: make a reservation for 7:52 pm at Luna Park. Go. Eat. Have a good time.
Then come back and learn these parameters so that when you email me for a recommendation for the second date, I don't have to stress out.
Ever your beloved Delicious,
Location. Location is the most urgent, though not most important, parameter. If either you or your datee live in the OC, I won’t be of much help other than a sparkling recommendation of a table on my parents’ backyard patio overlooking the back nine. I will assume you will dine on some patch of the metroq
uilt known as “LA.”
If you’re a nice guy who doesn’t want to seem to aggressive by asking for her address so you’re meeting your date at the restaurant, don’t select a restaurant that is too near your house or you will seem selfish for not wanting to drive too far to meet someone. Meet at a restaurant that is “in the middle.” That way, when she blows you off at the end of the date because you didn’t pick her up, you fool, you won’t have too far to drive home. Pick her up! You could choose a restaurant near her since you’ll already be in that area, but do you really want to run the risk of running into her ex- who lives in the same neighborhood? You could pick a place in your part of town, but then you end up completey backtracking after you pick her up, which is a waste of time. Dining too close to either’s home is a dangerous play because you might appear to have ulterior, post-dining motives. You may have those motives, as might she, and there's nothing wrong with ending up “back at your place for dessert,” but you have to at least feign innocence.
Now, without knowing in what region anyone lives, the most central place to everyone is mid-city. Luna Park on La Brea just north of Wilshire is not quite in the neighborhood that is unofficially known as Mid-city in LA, but it is part of mid-Wilshire. Close enough! Luna Park is also hard to miss. If you’re meeting her there, tell her to look for the glowing neon sign.
Vibe. While location is the most urgent factor, vibe is the most important. The vibe of a restaurant sets the tone for the date. A vibe can be as casual as teriyaki combo #1 wearing cargo shorts and an undershirt in a mall food court (don’t go to a mall food court) to as upscale and formal as a seventeen-course black-tie dinner in a hotel dining room (don’t go to a hotel, either). If you’re in a casual atmosphere, you will be relaxed. If you’re in a high-energy atmosphere, you will have to peel yourself off the ceiling. Pick what is natural for you, but I would recommend staying away from too romantic, which will make you look like a sappy Romeo. The vibe at Luna Park is comfortably trendy with a fun energy.
Lighting. Lighting contributes to vibe, but deserves a standalone mention. Dark is always good. Candles are flattering to everyone. Unless the first date is a blind date, you already know what the other looks like – good enough to go out to dinner together – so you may as well look even better. Luna Park is dark and its reddish atmosphereic glow makes everyone look sexy.
Noise. Like lighting, noise contributes to vibe, and in any other case, the standard restaurant din is a good enough sound buffer during those inevitable awkward silences after you’ve ordered when you no longer have the menu to use as a conversation crutch and are forced to just smile at each other across the table. If a restaurant is too quiet, awkward silences between conversations become deafening.
However, noise level is one place where Luna Park could potentially sever you from your happily ever after. On a sound scale of one to 10 – one being you in your underwear at home eating microwaved macaroni and cheese off a paper plate with neither iPod nor tv on because you’re reading a book, and 10 being a Tito’s tacos picnic on the take-off runway of LAX with the USC marching band to serenade you – Luna Park is an 8, which makes it the highest noise level for a restaurant because I don’t know of any existing 9s, and who the hell picnics at the airport?
Granted, a very loud restaurant can be a benefit if she’s someone you actually like and find interesting. Noise becomes an excuse to lean in, sit closer together, and pay attention to each others’ mouths. Whatever your comfort level with noise, just know that Luna Park is very very very loud.
Cuisine. When it comes to dates, there are a few foods and entire cuisines that top out the national Do Not Eat Registry for one reason or another: fried chicken or any foods that may require a wet-nap, oversized burgers and sandwiches which require extreme oral acrobatics, cuisines with a high stank factor e.g. korean, among others (which I will cover in another blog post, I'm sure). While the quality of the food at Luna Park isn't exactly five-star, the type of food, mostly American, slightly creative comfort-type foods, does well for a first date. Foods that are familiar set people at ease, but adding something interesting makes for conversation. Fried Calamari is nothing particularly special, but at Luna Park, the little rings are breaded with lighter, crisper panko. The calamari is served with two dipping sauces, wasabi and "spicy" chili ("spicy" in quotes because it's not really that spicy) that go slightly beyond the conventional marinara or garlic aioli.
Luna Park is probably best known for its Goat Cheese Fondue. Even if, like me, you are not particularly fond of goat cheese, order it because fondue is an activity. Dipping slices of tart green apples and toasted bread in melted cheese that doesn't actually reek too offensively of goat, gives you something to do. For some reason, the cheese always runs out before the bread and apples. Might have something to do with double-dipping.
Most entree prices at Luna Park range in that startlingly difficult-to-find-in-LA range, between $14 and $16. That's certainly nowhere near "too expensive," which would send the message that you are either 1) a total show-off or 2) have ulterior motives. Neither is Luna Park "too cheap" because two cocktails at Luna Park is about the same price as an entree. Go figure.
Drinks. This might seem like an odd parameter to take into account when thinking about first date restaurants for most other people, but it's important for me. You could take a risk and go to a restaurant that does not serve alcohol, but given that Hot Dog on a Stick doesn't serve alcohol, I worry about this entire category of restaurants. Wine and beer is better, but the best option is a full bar. Cocktails are lingual lubrication. Luna Park might be the only restaurant in the city from which I order from a Specialty Cocktail Menu, in other places rife with fruit and sugar and reads like the kids' shelf in the breakfast cereal aisle at Ralphs. So too at Luna Park are most of the specialty cocktails sweet and fruity, but I like the simple Ice Breaker - vodka (which was, at one time, Ciroc, but is now something else) and ice wine. As much as a I hate "cute" garnishes in my drinks, the frozen grapes in the bottom of the martini glass taste like tiny bites of sorbet, a preferable alternative to dessert.
Luna Park's home-y desserts are delicious, but heavy. The Apple Turnovers were two gorgeous, golden brown pastries, puffed, crimped shut to hold in a sticky sweet apple filling, and served a la mode. As if vanilla ice cream and caramel sauce weren't enough sticky sweetness, the plate was dusted playfully with powdered sugar. It was all a little much, so I couldn't really take more than one bite.
And really, would you want to take more than one bite? You don't want sticky lips right before a good night kiss.