Food has been an essential part of dating since the beginning of time, or at least since dating became a thing you could do without having the woman’s entire family in the room with you to supervise. Having a meal together is one of the easiest ways to get to know somebody—it’s an opportunity to scope out any weirdness around one of our most basic bodily functions, with just the right amount of peripheral activity to keep you engaged if the conversation doesn’t, but not so much to distract if you’re feeling the connection. But with the rise of food culture and the proliferation of chowhounds who talk about uni and bone marrow in reverent, Debbie Does Dallas tones, things have become a lot more complicated.

These days you can’t just show up with a reservation at the latest New York Times-starred restaurant, the most expensive steakhouse, or the just-opened-last-week hotspot everyone’s buzzing about and expect an instant ticket to your date’s Magic Kingdom. Times reviews come out months after a place opens—the cool kids moved on ages ago, and now you’re eating dinner with Steve and Merle from Long Branch. Steak? Is it a Frankensteak, or maybe 80-day dry-aged? Otherwise, yawn. And that new place is really cute, but your date was actually just there for the friends and family night. Try again.

Yet even in the kale-mad singles scene, you don’t have to drive yourself nuts trying to play the game, or start taking everyone to the Cheesecake Factory as an act of protest (though, actually, that could be a pretty stellar date if you came at it with a DGAF attitude and ordered right). With a few simple tools and a couple of expert-level secrets up your sleeve, you can impress anyone—from Average Joe to undercover Michelin critic—with an amazing food date.

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