It was Thursday night inside the dimly lit barroom of Lord Hobo, a popular Cambridge watering hole, and the guys working behind the bar had just spotted yet another one.
The young couple at the bar’s edge were showing all the requisite signs. They’d arrived separately. They’d spent a long stretch wordlessly scanning the menu. And at the moment, they were nervously working their way through a first drink, struggling mightily to keep the conversation afloat.
“Look, he’s shaking his glass, he wants another beer,” said longtime Lord Hobo employee Nick Gardner, as he watched from the other end of the bar, analyzing the situation with the refined eye of an art critic. “And they’re both staring forward, thinking, ‘What’s the next thing I can talk about?’ ”
We’ve all witnessed them. The unluckiest among us have been them. But as dating apps like Tinder and Bumble have spawned a rash of first — and essentially blind — dates, the resulting awkwardness has made for what might very well be the city’s best nightly theater, particularly for the folks behind the bar.
“It’s like dinner and a show,” said David Spielberg, a bartender at the South End wine bar SRV, of the entertainment supplied by the boom in “Tinder Dates.”
Indeed, ask any bartender about the most memorable first dates they’ve witnessed, and you’ll get a laundry list of cringe-worthy encounters. They’ve seen women spring from barstools mid-date and storm out. They’ve watched as men get up to go to the bathroom and never return.
“I’ve seen people come in, meet each other on a first Tinder date, and leave with other people,” said Andrew Toto, a longtime bartender now working as the general manager at Yellow Door Taqueria in Dorchester.
Once, Justin Baker, a bartender at Puritan & Company, noticed that one male customer was hosting a different first date at the bar on a weekly basis —
and that those dates very often ended with the woman leaving in disgust. Curious, Baker finally asked one of the disgruntled dates what the guy was doing to provoke such a strong response.
“Apparently,” Baker said, “he was trying to collect women to come and have some sort of sex thing at his home.”
The first date is nothing new, of course; Adam and Eve, you might recall, had theirs in a garden.
But whereas past romances tended to spring up organically — would-be couples meeting through a friend, or at a party — today’s dating landscape seems far more manufactured, quantity often taking precedence over quality.
Years ago, said Liesel Sharabi, an assistant professor at West Virginia University whose research has examined the effects of online dating on first-date success, it would have been difficult for someone to go on five dates in a single week. “Now,” she said, “it’s pretty easy.”
For the uninitiated, most dating apps work something like this: Users scroll through a seemingly endless collection of profiles, swiping right (yes!) or left (no, thanks) based on little more than a photo or two. When two individuals swipe right on each other — called “matching” — they’re able to begin chatting via text message. If things go well after a couple days of texting, they’ll schedule a first date.
And this, say local bartenders, is when the real fun begins.
By now, any bartender worth his salt can spot a first online date within seconds. One person arrives before the other, then spends the next few minutes nervously checking the phone. When the date arrives, there’s the awkward decision over whether to have a first hug. Then, at the bar, comes the stream of generic, surface-level questions: What do you do for work? Where are you from originally?
Spotting them has become so easy, in fact, that some bartenders can identify which online app was used for the date.
“Tinder is notoriously the hook-up app, so you notice it’s two people getting loose and really touchy-feely,” said Greg Coote, beverage director at City Tap House. “Bumble is more like the interview process. It’s like they’re going through all these formalities.”
And make no mistake, the restaurant staff is silently evaluating the performance.
Said Jacki Schromm, assistant general manager at Lion’s Tail in Boston, “We know exactly how your date is going, probably before you do.”
While the demonstrably bad dates make for the best stories, far more common are the ones that end not with a bang, but with a whimper.
In these cases, the conversation wanes. The woman begins looking off into space — or worse, down at her phone. In an effort to fill the awkward silence, one party will steer the conversation into increasingly questionable territory. Politics, for instance. Or, in the case of one middle-aged gentleman, the wonder of strip clubs.
This isn’t to say, of course, that a first online date can’t end well.
Plenty of couples hit it off quickly, laughing and flirting their way through multiple drinks. And there are the occasional times, said Toto, “when you can’t get a word in with a guest because they’ve been sucking face for 10 minutes.”
Despite their nightly exposure to online dates both good and bad, local bartenders insist it does little to aid them in their own dating lives.
Not long ago, Baker, of Puritan & Company, went on a first date with a woman he’d met through a dating app. The date went well, and the two made plans to see each other again. A couple nights before their second meeting, the woman unexpectedly showed up at Puritan & Company, while Baker was working behind the bar.
For the next couple hours, he was forced to awkwardly deliver drinks to the woman — and the guy she was with on what appeared to be another first date.