My date with Michael did not go well. We cozied up at the downstairs bar counter of a crowded dive bar, The Flower Shop, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I was sipping a glass of sparkling water, and Michael was on his third bourbon and rye. The conversation had started off as sparkling as my water; we chatted about recent vacations and our hometowns. But as he finished his third cocktail, Michael’s words slurred and he could barely stay balanced on the barstool. To my horror, he ordered a fourth drink. It was not a cute look, and I had stopped having fun after his second round. It didn’t help that instead of calling it a night, he insisted on pizza. I didn’t want him wandering around drunk and alone, so I politely led him to a slice joint. The next morning, he sent a message: “Sorry I got so drunk. I should have been more focused on making out with you, and less focused on pizza.” I didn’t reply.
This was last January, when I decided I wanted to try something new. I did a Whole30 elimination diet, which meant no sugar, carbs, legumes, gluten, or alcohol for a whole month. In the same month, I also decided to go on a Tinder tear. After all, the new year is the time to try new things.
I went on eight first dates in 30 days and did not drink a drop. Reader, it was not easy. I’m very much a social drinker. I’m from Wisconsin, so I consider beer to be a way of life. For me, a first date is always drinks. I follow the mantra: coffee is for business, drinks are for a first date, and dinner is for a second date.
One of the first guys I matched with asked me out for, what else? Drinks. I replied that I would love to meet up, but was taking a break from drinking for a while and asked if we could get coffee instead. He never responded. That happened several more times. So now I found myself in a quandary. Was not drinking a deal-breaker? I started agreeing to drinks with the intention of announcing my temporary sobriety in person.
When I met Michael, I explained to him that I was on the Whole30 diet and not drinking. He looked nervous and asked if I wanted to go somewhere else. I assured him that the venue was fine, and proceeded to watch him get blitzed. Would the date have been a success if I’d matched him drink for drink? I’ll never know, but I kinda doubt it. I soldiered on with sober dating.
The next week, I scheduled a date at a bar across the street from my apartment. I got there first and ordered a Coke from the bartender. When Dave arrived, he ordered a club soda with a lime and explained that he’d been sober for four years. I was relieved that my non-drinking wouldn’t be an issue and noted that he hadn’t mentioned his sobriety in advance either. But this time, it was the bartender who had a problem with our non-drinking. “Why come to a bar if you’re not going to drink?” he asked us.
It was a fair question with an obvious answer. January is dark and freezing outside. I didn’t want to drink coffee at night, it was too cold to go for ice cream, and an activity like bowling would be way too much of a time commitment if my date gave off creepy vibes. I went on a few late afternoon dates and ordered herbal tea, but the vibe felt all wrong, more dating interview than fun romance. Like it or not, I had to keep soldiering on with first dates at bars — even without the alcohol.
When I matched with Jordan, he initially suggested a concert. But the thought of going to a noisy music hall and not having a beer sounded much too awkward. I nixed the idea, telling him I wanted to go somewhere where we could talk. He suggested, what else? Grabbing a cocktail at a bespoke cocktail bar in the East Village. I knew it would be really hard to go to such a fancy joint and not imbibe, but I’d already declined his first suggestion. I couldn’t tell him no again.
That night, Jordan had two delicious-looking cocktails (I may have smelled one of them), and I had my now-standard club soda with a lime. I really enjoyed the date, and I was surprised that Jordan didn’t kiss me at the end. I thought maybe he was worried I wouldn’t want to kiss him since he’d been drinking, but it turns out, I was wrong. “I had trouble reading whether you were interested in me and because of that, I decided to take things slowly,” Jordan told me. Would I have been flirtier or more relaxed if I’d had a cocktail? Probably.
Jordan and I went out several more times over the next few weeks. He was exceptionally kind about picking activities that didn’t directly relate to alcohol. We hit golf balls (and froze) at Chelsea Piers, watched a live comedy podcast, saw a movie, and went to dinner (which was actually kind of difficult because of the Whole30 dietary restrictions). Once we got away from the bar scene, sober dating was much easier. But I don’t think I would have wanted to do any of that before grabbing a “drink” and seeing if there was a connection.
I recently asked Jordan what he’d thought about my temporary sobriety. He explained that he was caught off guard and worried that I wouldn’t enjoy our first date at a bar “But, I didn’t mind,” he explained. “You were funny, and I had a good time talking to you, which was way more important than whether you were drinking or not.”
The Whole30 experiment ended about a year ago. I was incredibly relieved when it was over, but proud I accomplished my goal. Dating sober taught me that, at least for me, a bar is still the ideal venue to meet up with a date for the first time — whether I’m drinking or not. As for pizza: I am never giving that up again.