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HOUSTON CHRONICLE ARCHIVES
Paper: Houston Chronicle
Date: Thu 05/04/2006
Section: Dining Guide
Page: 4
Edition: 2 STAR

Strangers on a date / How to demystify that first meeting - at least the part about whether, and where, to eat

By EYDER PERALTA
Staff

BLIND dates - and computer dates - are full of pressure. What should you wear? What will your date look like? Should you talk about politics, music, television?

No wonder, then, that you don't want to worry too much about the restaurant where you're going to meet.

"""It should be neutral ground, a safe environment," says Thomas Klein, co-creator and executive producer of the syndicated show "Blind Date."

But that can be difficult, since so many restaurants are filled with distractions, from loud music to over-friendly waiters.

The Empire Cafe on Westheimer is an airy space, with small, round tables and two patios. Manager Mary Slokar points to a table located in the nook farthest away from the entrance. Even on a bright day, it's darker than the rest of the room.

"We get people getting engaged there all the time," she said. But Empire Cafe can also be a very public spot, Slokar adds, motioning toward a packed, sun-filled patio.

Empire customer Stephanie Magnani, 28, has a few theories on choosing a restaurant for a blind date.

No. 1, take your date on an adventure. Uncertainty triggers excitement, she says, and lowers inhibitions.

No. 2, the dining room should be warm, loud and crowded so you won't sit in awkward silence. Distractions offer something to talk about.

At night, Empire is the perfect blind-date spot, she says, because the lights dim and the volume goes up. Patron Andrew Kozma, 29, thinks the opposite.

Empire Cafe would be a bad choice for him because he practically lives there. He figures that if you meet someone at a place where everyone knows you, that person will feel left out.

"It's gotta be a place that's neutral ground," he says. "Brasil would be better."

Vine-covered Brasil, a couple of blocks east, offers pastries, coffee and sandwiches - all casual and noncommittal.

"Theoretically, it's like meeting someone at a bar," he said. Whereas, a full meal "is like saying, `We're gonna have a great time and make a night of it.' "

Dallas-based match.com just launched a new service called chemistry.com.

Unlike its more traditional predecessor, where people search through personal ads and send e-mails to potential dates, chemistry.com is a matchmaking service. It's for people who don't have time to sift through endless personals and want to get to the real-world meetings quickly, spokeswoman Kristine Kelly says.

For the first meeting, chemistry.com suggests a 20-minute cup of coffee.

"There's an inherent pressure in a first meeting," Kelly says. A big restaurant meal might make you feel as if you must talk with someone for two hours. Less is better when people are simply trying find out if they click.

Twenty minutes, Kelly says, is enough time to decide yea or nay on the question of a second date.

Not everyone agrees.

On "Blind Date", couples endure 8-to-10-hour dates. Restaurants are the wind-down of all dates, Klein says. It gives daters the opportunity to really get to know someone.

"These dating services, they tell you to have a cup of coffee, but that seems like a business transaction," he said. "We all know we're not sure we'll like each other," he said. "But if you're not attracted to someone, you can still have a nice meal; you can still enjoy somebody's company."

A FEW POINTS OF INTEREST

Here are some fun, offbeat places to meet a blind date:

Bistro Vino - Pricey but romantic, with subdued lighting. The dining room on the second floor has live piano music nightly. (819 W. Alabama, 713-526-5500)

Blue Nile Ethiopian Cuisine - Again, for the adventurous. Ethiopian food is eaten with the hands, using an injera, or large, sour pancake, to scoop up entrees and side dishes. (9400 Richmond, 713-782-6882)

Cafe Piquet Cuban Restaurant - "The appetizers are magnificent, and if you need a jolt, the Cuban espresso is jokingly called "liquid speed." The sangria is a light way to loosen up. (5757 Bissonnet in Bellaire, 713-664-1031)

Collina's Italian Cafe (Heights location)" - Pizza and BYOB. Cheap, casual, busy, perfect. (502 W. 19th St., 713-869-0492)

Dharma Cafe - This hippie-friendly eatery in the Warehouse District reminds us of a European cafe - unassuming, with a bustling wraparound porch and cozy tables. The fact that a Jack Kerouac quote is painted on a bathroom wall says a lot. (1302 Nance, 713-222-6996)

Julia's Bistro - This Latin-fusion restaurant is a bit pricey, but the floor-to-ceiling windows and the black-and-white décor make for a sophisticated date. (3722 Main, 713-807-0090)

Los Cucos Mexican Cafe - The flour tortillas are heavenly, moist and fluffy, glistening with just the right amount of oil. (7925 FM 1960 W., 281-970-7077; multiple locations)

Pollos Asados La Silla - For the adventurous. It's small and inside what appears to be a trailer, but the chicken is good, and the tacos - served with two tortillas, your choice of meat, a bit of cilantro and lime - are the best. (4617 Canal, 713-926-3815)

Sabor! Central American Cuisine" -This will give you a place to talk. It's quiet, unassuming and the waiters take their time, so plan on a leisurely meal. The food is home-style Salvadoran. Corn tamales are sweet and served with sour cream. The meats are tender and well seasoned. (5712 Bellaire Blvd., 713-667-6001)

Shiva Indian Restaurant - This place encourages sharing. Try a couple of sampler platters. (2514 Times Blvd., 713-523-4753)

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