Date night. Everyone looks forward to a date except the person who has to plan it, and it's even worse when it's a first date or blind date. It has to be normal--not everyone loves loncheras, for reasons I don't fully grok--and it has to be expensive enough that you don't look miserly.
So let's talk about the other qualities you'll want in a restaurant for your first date. It can't be too harshly lit--you're still making your first impression--but it can't be too dark either. It can't be too noisy, because you want to be able to talk, but at the same time, mausoleum-like silence isn't right either. It needs to be busy, because otherwise the staff will hover and make you both feel uncomfortable, but it needs to not be jammed full of people, either, or you'll both stress out.
Of course, it goes without saying that the food must be excellent, the service must not suck, and it has to have either a great wine list, a great beer list, or great cocktails.
There are plenty of great restaurants who didn't make it to this list. The Hobbit, for example, is a great date restaurant, but not a great first date restaurant. Playground is an awesome place to go for dinner, but it gets loud and the tables are almost all communal tables, not exactly the place for a dîner romantique à deux. Marché Moderne is the best French food in Orange County and the service is impeccable, but it's in the mall. Arc is beloved of foodies and has a great story to sell your date on going, but you're going to come out smelling like a fire pit and that may stifle any plans you have for afterwards.
Here, then, are ten great choices, in alphabetic order (no ranking here--you'll have to wait for our Best Of issue in October) for that all-important first impression.
Anaheim White House
While I'm immensely proud of my town's huge contribution to the OC dining scene, the White House is one of the few truly upscale restaurants in Anaheim. Gracious service, great Italian food, and fantastic acoustics that mean that even when the place is full to brimming, you'll still be able to whisper sweet nothings at your date. Also, the owner, Bruno Serato, is a mensch's mensch; to say he gives generously to charity is like saying the Mississippi is a little stream.
Tucked away in a quiet plaza on the north end of Fullerton's bustling downtown, the Cellar has reinvented itself culinarily a few times, with the current menu a return to classic American dining (notice I didn't say comfort food). Because it literally is a cellar, the décor and setup will provide conversational topics to bridge those few awkward moments. You can trust the staff to recommend a wine from their very good list that will make you look good while not breaking the bank.
While Alessandro Mare has distanced himself from the restaurants that were named for him, they still carry his trademark excellent food in a casual setting: a great place for a slightly more boisterous, more casual first date. You'll be in a slightly noisier room, but there are plenty of appetizers, a good wine list, and the kitchen is happy to split plates, especially once they see what's going on.
While Park Avenue is a great place to eat, with classic cocktails in their awesome Googie-style bar and solid American chophouse fare in the dining room, you want to take your date to Il Garage, its Italian al fresco sister. You'll walk in past the olive trees, take your seat in the open garage, and feast on Italian food--real Italian food, with much of the produce taken from the gardens ten feet away.
Michael's on Naples
We haven't forgotten Long Beach: Michael's on Naples is the logical choice. Excellent Italian food--by far the best in Long Beach--a great wine list, good cocktails, and nearly psychic staff who will react with alacrity to your unseen signals, whether it's interrupting an awkward conversation to pour more wine, or a discreet absence during those intense moments.
Pizza e Vino
Back when you were a teenager, pizza and a movie was a date. It still can be, but you'll want to exchange Famous Ray's or Slice of Little Italy for a more upscale experience, with the vino taken care of as well. The food's absolutely outstanding, and they're one of two pizzerias certified as "Vera Pizza Napoletana" (the other is Fullerton's Fuoco). Then head for a movie at Cinépolis, where your biggest worry is what adult beverage to order for the movie.
Shuck Oyster Bar
There are four tables and a long bar, it's brightly lit and there's zero privacy. Why on earth would this be a great first date restaurant? Well, first, because if it goes badly, you can excuse yourself to the restroom and then disappear into the labyrinthine shops of the OC Mix, but mostly because... it's oysters. You know what we mean.
Studio Restaurant at Montage
If you've absolutely got to impress, and you've got the cash to flash, this is the place to go. Dress up a little--surely the jeans can wait for another time--and plan to have a very leisurely dinner. You'll want to make sure you get a table with that magnificent view, and while the tasting menu might be a little over the top (but feel free to ask me out on that date), the cuisine is top-notch.
Three Seventy Common
A bright, pleasant room in downtown Laguna Beach that's got an unsung bartender behind the stick and a lot of talent in the kitchen. You can have a full-on meal, or you can share a bunch of small plates, with wine and craft beer as well. You'll want to skip the "ten napkin burger", though... not on the first date.
Private booths, some of the best cocktails in Orange County, and plenty of finger foods on the menu. Go early (it gets loud). Then, after you're done, take a stroll down to the pier and watch the sun set while you get to know each other. You can always head back and have another cocktail afterwards.