Great Dates

by Jennifer Blot

Love is all about timing. Kismet. Chemistry. And don’t forget location. From neighborhood watering holes to scenic waterfront spots, the city’s eating and drinking establishments are still among the best places to find love—and celebrate it.

Check, Please!

Every April, Dan and Helen Marshall return to the place they first met, in 1993.

It was pre-Craigslist and Helen had placed a personals ad in the San Francisco Chronicle“Black tie and blue jeans, I love them both. Attractive single white female seeks best friend and lover”—prompting Dan to reply, suggesting a drink at John’s Grill.

It was April Fool’s Day, but on that Thursday night, Cupid reigned.

“She was sitting at the bar in an ivory-colored two-piece suit with lots of leg showing,” Dan recalls. “As I was walking to the bar, I was hoping this was going to be Helen. Fortunately for me, it turned out to be her and we proceeded to close the restaurant down.”

Helen introduced him to calamari that night, something the San Francisco native had never tried. They also discovered they had the same surname.

By the end of summer, they were living together. Their paradise would have a few dark clouds—Helen was diagnosed with brain cancer four months before their wedding, in 1994, and battled it again years later—but today, they sound like newlyweds when recalling their first date.

“It was the perfect setting because, frankly, I always thought it was a romantic place,” Dan says. “It almost felt like a throwback to the ’30s.”

The Body Language Expert

In his 20 years in the business, restaurant manager Dan Dowdell has gone out of his way to accommodate requests in the name of love, like agreeing to set up a hidden Go Pro camera to capture a diner’s proposal.

“You don’t have to be a regular to make a request like that,” he insists. “This is a moment that the couple is forever going to remember, so your kitchen—every server, every busser, your whole operation—knows.”

Dowdell, who worked for years at Dosa and is now at the Palm House, has also been on the other side of the menu: For his own proposal 15 years ago, he reserved a private dining room at the since-shuttered Carnelian Room, requesting a special meal for his vegetarian girlfriend, their favorite wine—and a view.

These days, the father of three prides himself on the ability to read body language and know when a standard hour-and-a-half dining experience is going to stretch into three hours. “I’ll say to a server, ‘That table’s not getting up any time soon. They’re having a great time.’ If they’re kissing, we’ve done our job.”

And though no one wants to hear it, restaurants can also be a neutral spot for sweethearts to part ways.

“People make reservations for break-up dinners, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this,” Dowdell says. “You figure out early on that the server needs to back off that table.”

Tonight’s Gonna Be
a Good Night

“One date in a restaurant can tell you so much about the other person. On that first date, I believe you can cover more than 75 percent of who the person is and if there is something there,” says Panos Gogonas, who managed Kokkari before becoming a partner at its sister restaurant, Evvia Estiatorio.

Not long ago, a man arrived the afternoon before his date with a CD and asked Gogonas if he’d be willing to interrupt the restaurant’s Greek soundtrack that night to play Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

“Of course, I blasted it,” recalls Gogonas. “The whole restaurant was wondering, What’s happening? She said, ‘That’s our favorite song!’ and he went down on his knees. The whole restaurant was clapping—it was beautiful. Anybody can buy a car or go to Vegas, but to make it so simple—a dining experience—there’s nothing better than that.”

On the flip side, he once witnessed a diner throw an oily Greek salad on her well-dressed date before walking out.

“I asked him, ‘Are you ok?’” he recalls. “God bless him. Instead of being upset—it was like a $1,000 suit—he was a good sport and asked, ‘Can I have another Greek salad?’”

Park Tavern: The Matchmaker

“We’re fortunate enough to be in North Beach, the most romantic neighborhood,” says Park Tavern maître d’ Adrianne Denning. And, indeed, thanks to the restaurant’s proximity to Saints Peter and Paul Church (for some, still synonymous with Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe’s whirlwind romance), it’s a popular spot for wedding parties and engagement photo shoots. Formerly the legendary Moose’s, the venue remains a favorite of couples who met there in the ’90s.

“They come in and they’ll make a note that it’s their anniversary, but we already know that history and we’ll automatically send them champagne,” Denning says.

And there are bound to be many future anniversaries.

“I know at least eight couples who have met at Park Tavern or had their first date here,” Denning says. “We had a couple that met at barstool number 14. They got engaged three and a half years later at that barstool.”

Will You…?

At Restaurant Gary Danko, Director of Service Greg Lopez has seen countless proposals over the years and relies on the magic and artistry of his partner, chef Gary Danko. “One guest asked us to make a basket out of spun sugar and decorate it with rose petals and the words ‘Will You Marry Me?’ written ornately on the plate. The basket was for the ring to sit in. We presented it covered with a silver cloche, letting her know that the gentleman had ordered a special dessert for her,” Lopez recalls. “She, of course, said ‘yes’—with tears.”

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