It’s Friday night, date night, in London. At a restaurant in Covent Garden, conversations play out at tables for two, couples inclined towards each other at that interested angle, hands stealing out between cocktail glasses and condiment bottles to meet by the menus. They discuss – well – lots. I interrupt and eavesdrop. I pull up a third chair to ask: what do other people talk about on their dates? “What we had for lunch.” Prince Andrew. Life coaching. “Me handing in my notice.” The Holocaust. The kids. “Honestly? Just now? Whether we should steal this barbecue sauce.”
The restaurant specialises in chicken. Helen and OJ, both drama graduates in their 20s, have just demolished a carcass and are now feeding each other slices of watermelon. They’re watching other couples. OJ has spotted a pair of twentysomethings on the mezzanine level above. “He’s ordered a pink drink, look. So he’s comfortable around her.” “Yeah, I think they’ve been together a while.” “But he keeps checking his phone.” OJ works shifts at a TGI Friday’s in Sidcup and says he has a waiter’s eye for a bad date. “I don’t think it’s going well up there at all.”
Leah and Luke, up there, wouldn’t agree. They reckon they might have only had one bad date in all their time together. “The one where I drank your cocktail,” says Luke, “remember? And I got back pain.” This afternoon Luke quit his job as a property broker, so Leah, a legal assistant, means to pick up the bill. “I offered,” she says. “I always offer.” “She always offers, but tonight’s the only night I’m going to say yes.” I hear this a lot, touring the restaurant, men insisting they want to pay. It’s a quaint bit of old-world dating culture that seems to have slunk on into 2015. Other conventions have not.
One couple in their 30s acknowledge that they see other people as well as each other. “We’re sort of half friends? And half, like…” Next to them a pair visibly fuzzy on wine claim to be brother and sister (I leave that one well alone). At the bar, erect on stools, sit David and Sinead, both 40 and from Northern Ireland. They look around the place in genuine, generational bewilderment and tell me they can’t quite believe how common it is to see one or other in a couple make that sly, below-table glance at a mobile phone. “What are they checking? Football scores?”
David and Sinead met in the 1990s at a dinner and dance. David’s football team had won a local cup and he was celebrating. Beyond that their memories are hazy, drink factoring. Making my informal survey of the restaurant, one thing becomes clear: the piss-up, scarcely recalled, is absolutely key to British romance. Tom and Becky, a builder and a sales assistant, both 20, were at school together in Surrey. They liked each other and were “too shy” to do anything about it. Then a few months ago they came face to face in a pub, and that did it. For Laura and Jamie (hospital worker, electrician, 21, 23) it was a club in New Cross. In OJ and Helen’s case, “She came to my house. We were friends at the time.” “One thing led to another. He had some premise to get me there. We just got very drunk.”
Tom and Becky, a couple on a date sitting on a red sofa
Tom, a builder, and Becky, a sales assistant, both 20, have been together for two months. Tom: ‘I’m paying. Always have. Boys pay.’
If not booze, technology. Many couples mention Tinder, some gratefully, others with sheepishness at a mobile-phone app being fundamental to their story. Tinder, which on an international scale must now be responsible for as many liaisons as drinking on an empty stomach, brings together users who approve each other’s photograph with a rightwards swipe of the thumb. “I only accidentally swiped right,” says Neel, a corporate care manager from Manchester. Priya, a pharmacist from west London, turns on him. “I only accidentally swiped right!”
These two are adorable. Middle 20s, British Asian, fit, glowing. One of the restaurant’s waiters pointed them out to me, side by side in a booth and not ordering any food, instead nudging and people-watching over mojitos – waiting, basically, until they could decently go home together. Sitting opposite now, I can almost feel the heat coming off them.
It must be love: behind the scenes on date night – in pictures
This is Neel and Priya’s fourth date and, unlike the other pairs I quiz, neither has any notion what the other’s going to say. “Where’s this heading?” says Priya. “Did you just ask where this is heading? I’m not kidding, you just made him shit himself.” They ask me to take their photograph on Priya’s phone – their first portrait as a couple, a nice bit of circularity, as it was on this five-inch screen she first saw him and thought, go on then. David and Sinead met in a County Tyrone men’s club, Neel and Priya on their Samsungs. But they all wound up in the same place, shoulder to shoulder in a London chicken restaurant.
In Norway, not long ago, there was a government push to get couples to take each other out more. A minister devised this new policy, meant to combat a rising divorce rate, after watching the 2010 film Date Night – a comedy in which a husband and wife, played by Steve Carell and Tina Fey, go out for a romantic meal and end up getting chased around by mobsters in an Audi. Blame Fey and Carell, I guess: the notion of the “date night” seems to have taken hold in our culture. The night of my visit to Covent Garden, gossip websites report on Ryan Gosling’s post-baby date night with Eva Mendes, and Beyoncé’s with Jay Z. The Obamas do it. The Camerons do it. (He loves it: “Date-night Dave”, according to the Mail.)
Americans have “dated” since the 1920s. Later, presumably, their films and sitcoms brought the expression over to us, an American import that proved as irresistible as grey squirrels. My grandparents courted, my peers date. And do they. The founders of Tinder reckon they’ve processed a billion swipes, left and right, since launching in 2013. That same year, according to a report by Match.com, £3.6bn was spent on dating in the UK, with an average night out totalling £103.
Eli-Rose and Wesley
Eli-Rose Sanford, a 22-year-old singer, and Wesley Alexis-Nzinga, 21, are on a first date. Wesley: ‘We were set up by mutual friends. It’s not going very well, to be honest – she’s been on her phone a lot.’ Eli-Rose: ‘I gave him my headphones so he could listen to my music – it meant we didn’t have to make conversation for five minutes.’
When you start looking for them, they’re everywhere, people on dates: it’s like noticing CCTV cameras, hard to stop. Walking around Covent Garden, I spot a couple standing in a pub, his hand on the small of her back, her head on his shoulder, the two of them watching Eurosport. In a vast fast-food place, a woman has just made her date laugh, a lot, and she tries not to laugh, too, while he grips an enormous burger and attempts to swallow. In a glass-walled Italian, a date melts down in full view of passing traffic, a man and a woman bowed over pizzas with fingers moving from their foreheads to the middle air, I-just-need-to-say-one-thing gestures. An attractive couple wearing winter coats come out of a Chipotle, both in tears.
Is every city like this? New York is, surely, where dating is conducted more or less as an endurance competition. (I tried it there once, and got as far as learning the hard-code implicit in the choice of the night of the week a New Yorker suggests you meet; after getting a run of Mondays, I retired with my hands up.) In Paris, I’d read, bridges were beginning to collapse under the weight of metal “love locks”, padlocks secured to railings by thrilled couples. And in London? “London is basically a sweetshop,” Vincent and Sho tell me. “A sweetshop where people think there’s always another sweet. A better sweet.”
Sho and Vincent are in their 30s. She grew up in Birmingham, he in France. They first met at a fancy-dress party where Sho was outfitted as “a slutty Rihanna” and then had what Sho presumed to be a one-night stand. “But here we are, 18 months later. High fives!” It was a relief to have found him, she says, because dating in London is difficult and demoralising. “Where I’m from, guys know what they’re looking for. I used to get hit on quite a lot back in Birmingham. But in London? It’s like people, guys especially, go on dates and always think in the back of their minds there might be something else: ‘Angelina Jolie might knock on my door’. Someone actually said that to me. And he meant it. And he was ugly.”
Stephy and Richard sitting in a bar
Stephi, 28, an account manager, and Richard, 31, met on OK Cupid five months ago. Stephi: ‘Our fourth date was to Florence!’ Richard: ‘I’ve just persuaded Stephi to come to her first kink night with me on Valentine’s Day.’
I think of Sho’s Angelina theory when my walk takes me back past the chicken restaurant I started at. Smoking by the doors is Emre, 37, from Turkey. Earlier, I’d watched him and his date sit with their heads close, looking so crisis-stricken I didn’t dare approach. Outside, Emre shrugs and says, “Usually I have lots of girlfriends.” Right now he has one, a Londoner whom he met when she was on holiday in Istanbul. “She gave me her number, let’s say by force.”
Emre is by some distance the bluntest person I speak to about his romantic life. How is his date going? “It’s complicated. We are human, that’s all.” I ask what he means. “She’s the reason I’m in London right now. She’s a muse, and a motivation for me to want to think it is going to last. But I don’t believe in such things,” he says. “We’re humans. We change. We get bored. We get pissed off.”
Doleful, and smoking as if I might be threatening to take the packet away, Emre poses himself a series of questions. “Is she the most beautiful one I’ve ever met? No. The funniest? No.” These grim rhetoricals go on until I’m sure he plans to end by saying something like, “But she’s the right one.” Not a bit of it. Emre scowls. “The right one? There’s no such thing. Define it. Bullshit! If you ask me about being comfortable tonight? Yes, we are. But six months later? Maybe we get bored. We’re human.”
I wish him luck either way, and it’s sort of a relief when I get down the road, encountering Kirst and Rich, who are hugging pints and each other outside a pub. Both 26, they’ve been together nine years, having met at a house party, Kirst zeroing in on Rich that night because he’d brought vodka. Unlike Emre, they’re still optimistic about the whole dating farrago, if only as a means to resupply their fund of memories. “Remember Cafe Rouge?” Kirst says to Rich, clutching his arm. “Where I had alcohol poisoning and you had mussels?”
Quite a few of the couples I speak to are reluctant to use the word date at all. Not from a squeamishness at the snug little noun, with its suggestion of milkshake bars and hotrod races and other flavours of a culture that isn’t ours; more that they don’t think their night out properly counts, not if they’ve been together a while. This isn’t dating, they tell me, huddling over a bottle of house white, because we’ve been doing it for six months, two years, nine.
The secrets of long-term love
I remember the period in my own life when nights out with my wife stopped being exotically planned mini festivals, becoming again Tuesday nights, Thursday nights, most nights. Going out for meals stopped feeling like dating. It felt like dinner. We knew our nearby pub landlords very well. Then – screech – we had a kid.
My wife comes to join me in Covent Garden for our own date. We choose a mid-budget French on St Martin’s Lane and, while sliding into a booth we do a quick count. Eight? Nine? Our nights out together in 16 months of parenthood. Those multiplex blowouts we used to enjoy, they suddenly had to bear a lot of weight (the new Jason Statham film had to be really bloody special) when a babysitter was punched in at home charging £10 an hour. So tonight we enjoy the relative novelty of it, the lighting moody for romance, not because it’s cast in the electro-glow of a baby monitor.
Maybe it all goes in cycles. A few tables away, Chris and Sue are celebrating a birthday. “She’s 21!” says Chris, 56. “Yet again!” says Sue, 51. They met at Euston station, three decades ago. “I put my arm around her on the train,” he says. “That was the moment.” They had four kids, who grew up, left home. “Now,” says Sue, “we’re trying to learn how to do stuff again.” “We’re calling it dating,” says Chris. “Tonight’s our hot date. It’s exciting.”
Meanwhile in Manchester… by Helen Pidd
Ian and Matthew are huddled together at a table upstairs at Via, one of the many late-night haunts in Manchester that likes to boast of having once appeared on Coronation Street. They’re not sure if they’re on a date: “We’ve been together five months.” But would you be in a bar at midnight if you weren’t? Probably not, says Ian. “I was just saying to Matthew, I would rather be at home with the fire on, watching Celebrity Big Brother.”
They met on GROWLr – “like Grindr for bears” – a location-based dating app that connects big hairy men with those who go for that sort of thing. “He’s a bear and I’m an otter,” says Ian, 38, bearded and tattooed. An otter? “Hairy but slim. In the gay world there’s a whole zoo out there.”
Love blossomed quickly. After three weeks, they held a ritual deletion ceremony to remove all the dating apps from their phones. After two months, Matthew was being introduced to Ian’s parents. They have a long-term plan, explains Ian: “We’ve named 20 places we want to go together, then he’s got to propose to me. Hawaii, New Zealand, Orlando…”
Michelle and Steve, a couple on a date.
Steve, 63, a retired secondary school teacher, and Michele, 58, a primary school teacher, have been together for 40 years. They met on Valentine’s Day 1974, in a cellar bar in Burnley. Steve: ‘I was playing darts.’ Michele: ‘I was wearing a nightie.’
In the Metropolitan bar in Didsbury, south Manchester, an older couple sit in their Sunday best, watching the pub fill up. Michele and Steve have come all the way from Burnley for their rendezvous. Forty years they’ve been married, and they still go on dates. Tonight, they’re celebrating Steve’s 63rd. They married in 1974 – the bride, just 17, wore cheesecloth; the groom was in jeans and a velvet jacket. Michele still mourns the loss of Steve’s “lovely long hair”, preserved in the wedding pictures.
Even after all this time, they still like to go out together. Sometimes they spice things up. “We meet in a public place and pretend we don’t know each other,” says Michele, 58. Since Steve retired from his teaching job (“I got Gove-ed out”), they’ve had more time for each other. “You’ve got to work at it,” says Steve. “You mustn’t take each other for granted.” Michele: “We’re still finding things out about each other, even now.”
On the other side of the bar, John and Marie are early enough in their courtship not to know if they’re exclusive yet. “Are we a couple?” Marie, 29, asks John, 33. He thinks so, but looks embarrassed. They’d had their hands all over each other just moments before, but they’re still figuring out where the relationship is going. Marie’s sister is getting married next month and has given Marie a plus-one. “I told her, I’ll see how it goes,” she says. “Maybe he’ll just be an evening guest.”
Sarah and Nicole, a couple on a date.
Sarah (left), 21, is a drama student, and Nicole, 21, works at an estate agents. They have been together for a year. Nicole: ‘We’ve been talking about a production Sarah’s been in at university, and about Manchester Pride.’
Up the road in a cute little bar called Mary & Archie, Jenny and Oliver insist they are beyond the dating point. A year in, she’s at his place six nights out of seven. They’re only in the pub for two pints before nipping to the Co-op for a few cans and ingredients for burgers to eat in front of the rugby. Oliver, 25, thinks they stopped “dating” after three or four months, “When she started putting on her slobs.” Slobs? “A onesie, that sort of stuff,” says Jenny, 28. “I think it’s when I stopped wearing my makeup in bed.”
In Via, on Canal Street, Paul and Ash are earlier in their courtship. They met six weeks ago, on Grindr. The attraction was immediate, says Paul, 27. “I fancied him so much, his eyes, his smile, his facial hair.” Ash, 23, felt the same, but they hit a stumbling block. “I suffer from insecurity, paranoia,” says Paul. They’ve just been talking about where things are going. “I know I want to be with him, it’s just sometimes I think I’m not good enough for him.” Ash looks sad. “He definitely is.”
In the next room, Nicole and Sarah are in intense conversation. They take pride in never running out of things to say to each other. “We had a party recently and we had about five couples say to us they wish their relationship was like ours,” says Nicole. They never get their phones out when they’re on a date, she adds: “It’s an unwritten rule.”
The 21-year-olds met in the Gay Village a year ago. Their first date was at the Red Hot World Buffet on Deansgate in Manchester. Nicole paid – she almost always does, as the one with a job, at an estate agents. Sarah’s at Salford Uni, studying drama. They share a room in a student house but long for a place of their own. They’ll still go on dates, they say: “If we’ve got money, we go out.”
Chris and Jen met at work. They got together after a staff night out at a bowling alley three months ago. “We just talked and talked. We didn’t even stop to order a drink,” says Chris, 27, who’s squeezing Jen’s thigh as he reminisces. He recalls asking why she liked him. “She said it’s because I called her ‘love’.”
On their first date, they got quite drunk. “Neither of us had any tea first,” explains Jen, 31, who had been single for four and a half years. They don’t appear to be at the “putting on slobs” stage yet. She’s wearing a tight white vest and bright red lipstick; he’s in a stonewashed denim shirt with carefully curated facial hair.
Richard and Sarah, a couple on a date in a bar.
Richard, 44, works in HR, and Sarah, 41, is a primary school teacher. They have been together for five months. Sarah: ‘We met on a train. Richard had had a few sherberts, and we exchanged numbers. A few days later he texted, saying: “Remember me?”’
Richard and Sarah are talking about Fortitude, the latest Scandinavian drama on TV. They have been together almost five months, after meeting on a train on the way back from watching the Tour de France in Yorkshire. They hold hands as they talk, looking to each other for reassurance as they tell the story of their courtship. Richard, 44 and divorced, arranged the date. “He texted me at work yesterday and asked: ‘Are you playing out tomorrow?’” says Sarah, 41, a primary school teacher. They had their first snog on the second date, on a walk around Dunham Massey, a National Trust park in Cheshire. They aren’t yet at the stage of making presumptions about where the night will end up, though Richard hopes it will be at Sarah’s – “If I’m lucky.”
Watch Me Date
For others, the concept of dating doesn’t wash. “We don’t need to date,” says Frankie, having a beer with his wife of 12 years, Kelly. “I don’t really get the concept that people need to have a particular night for it,” agrees Kelly, who knew she was going to marry Frankie as soon as she clapped eyes on him at a party, when she was 19 and he was 21. “No one believes me, but it’s true. I said to my friend: ‘I’m going to marry him.’”
Frankie, who plays drums in a funk/soul/reggae band, looks pleased, but feels obliged to make a joke. “I think my wallet must have been hanging out of my trousers.”
• Additional reporting by Tim Dickens.
Thanks to the Violet Hour, Mary and Archie, The Metropolitan Bar, all West Didsbury, Manchester; and Via Fosse, Didsbury, Manchester; Joe’s Southern Kitchen and Earlham Street Clubhouse, both London WC2; Satay Bar, Ritzy, The Market House, all London SW9.