Dear Glutton: Where to Go on a Friend Date
What is the least romantic restaurant in Austin?
I'm an adult man trying to navigate the new (to me) world of being friends with women. In the past, the only women in my life have been girlfriends and family members. I'm in a stable, happy relationship, and I want to get better about making and hanging out with female friends, but there's nothing more awkward than trying to grab an after-work meal and inadvertently finding yourself making small talk in a candlelit room. So I ask you: What is the least romantic restaurant in Austin?
– Seeking the Friendzone
Yay! I'm sorry to start things off on such an unprofessionally bias-revealing note, but I firmly believe that the world would be a better place if we all committed ourselves to being cool with friendships spanning race/class/gender/sexuality/whatever other arbitrary personal identifiers we find ourselves fixating on. You know all those studies about how men are better feminists after having daughters? I think the same thing is true of friendships – that we would all be better people, would be better able to identify with the needs and struggles of groups we aren't part of, if we hung around with people who don't look and think like we do. So good on you. Let's get you something to eat!
Fortunately for you, I'm something of an expert in anti-romance. This is bad news for all the people who write in about what restaurant they should take their girlfriend to (sorry guys!), but I kind of hate going to fancy restaurants with other people, particularly on dates. For one thing, it's way too much pressure. If I'm going to spend more than 20 bucks to sit around in your immediate vicinity for an hour, I better like you a lot. Also, if I'm paying that much for food, I'd rather be able to focus on my culinary experience than have to worry about amusing whatever perfectly nice but not very exciting person I've talked myself into going on a second date with. Fancy restaurants are for true love only. Equally suspect in your case, however, are my favorite variety of date spots, the kind of cheap, out of the way, strangely delicious hidden gems you have to comb through mini malls on the edges of town to find, the sort of "let's go on an adventure" culinary team-building that, even though it usually ends in you sitting in a charmless fluorescent box eating something messy and oil-soaked with your hands, still feels too romantic for the situation you describe.
If you're open to a snack-enriched happy hour as a venue for platonic bonding, a food truck parked near a dive bar is clearly the best, and most typically Austinian, solution to your quandary. There's a glorious informality to the happy hour – America's answer to Italian aperitivo, Spanish tapas, Vietnamese bia hoi stands – a place where you can eat salty snacks while you drink beer, and then probably drink a couple more beers since the salty snacks made you thirsty, sitting outside in the dwindling heat with your feet on a picnic table, smoking a stranger's cigarette, even though you swore you were quitting, and arguing about politics through greasy, hot-sauce-smeared lips. Nobody is at their best during happy hour. And isn't that what friendship is all about? You want your dates to think you're well-groomed and civilized, but your friends know the truth.
For your inaugural friendship-solidifying meal, take her to East Side King, which is parked behind my favorite neighborhood bar, the Liberty, and has the best, most delightfully stinky crispy brussels sprout salad I've ever had. It comes in a half-soaked paper boat, speckled with crispy garlic chips and redolent of fish sauce. The move here is to get an order of brussels sprouts just for yourself (No sharing! Sharing is romantic), plus a couple of pork belly buns. Shove the salad into the buns, and eat the whole delicious mess with your hands while sucking down a Lone Star, and I promise you that a) you will be very happy and b) whatever sexual tension may have been building between you and your valued co-worker/new lady friend will evaporate instantly. And then maybe ask her if she's got a Wet-Nap in her purse. Purses, and the things inside them, are, in my experience, one of the chief benefits of surrounding yourself with as many female friends as will have you.