First Nights
Tue, 12/07/2010
Special To The Jewish Week
The hip and the frum rub elbows at Basil in Crown Heights.
The hip and the frum rub elbows at Basil in Crown Heights.

During that first hour alone with Jeremy, I wasn’t sure of his intentions. He’d suggested we meet at a café. Was romance brewing — or only coffee?

But after I began to absorb the ambience at Café Lalo — a festive Upper West Side eatery owned by a Tel Aviv native — where the windows reflect the twinkling lights wrapped around the branches of sidewalk trees, where kosher cakes and wines may be procured (as well as many non-kosher varieties) — I hoped it was indeed a date. I remember the buzz of New York City around us, warming us like an embrace; the tourists, the music, the laughter. I remember that after much animated conversation, after biscotti and cappuccinos, we pulled out our winter hats, similarly outfitted with fuzzy ear flaps, and giggled our goodbyes.

On reflection — two children and 13 years later — it was an excellent choice for a first date. And even now, a dozen years since the romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail” was filmed there, Lalo elevates my mood any time of day: classical music in the morning, jazzier and louder music in the evenings. Fernanda Alves tells me that in her three years as manager, about a dozen married couples have informed her that their relationships began in these caffeinated quarters.

A café, however, is not everyone’s cup of tea — or coffee.

In some religious communities, the rabbis instruct men to take women out for a meal on their first date, according to Danielle Solomon, the chief operating officer of SawYouAtSinai.com, the matchmaking website for observant Jews.

And Shoshanna Rikon of the eponymous Shoshanna’s Matchmaking Service advises cocktails, not coffee, for the first date. “If you’re going to buy me a cup of coffee, you’re cheap,” says Rikon, who has run the service for Jews of all stripes for 13 years. She claims to have made 400 matches since her college days.

What follows are a few tried-and-true New York City locales for first dates, as well as some trendier options. While it is neither a comprehensive nor an objective list, it is culled from the experiences of a dozen or so social and single New York Jews ages 25 to 50, who range from Modern Orthodox to secular — as well as perhaps one or two married friends who manage to remain hip to the city’s cultural scene.

Raising the Bar:

Shoshanna Rikon, who now has a boyfriend, says that in the past she invited men to join her at a neighborhood bar with the perfect mix of ingredients for a first date: quiet enough for conversation; close proximity to her apartment (allowing her to amble over in a tight skirt and high heels); and a funny bartender who guaranteed a good laugh even if her date didn’t prove to be up to par.

For an establishment with an intoxicating Israeli flavor, you might try the Lela Bar at 422 Hudson St. While the treif menu can seem to mock tradition (offerings include smoked eel fillet on toasted challah with sour cream and dill), the wine list includes about six choices of Israeli origin, several of which are kosher. Almost every Sunday evening, Lela features the jazz trio of Dida Pelled, a young Israeli artist whose soft, soulful tunes set the listener at ease. And the owner of Lela, Natan Alpert, who was raised on a kibbutz near Jerusalem, says that the wooden wrap-around bar in an oval shape is “very much an Israeli concept” that encourages a friendly rapport among patrons, and draws many couples for first dates.

Enchanted Evening:

There is something pleasantly haunting about a museum after dark. The exhibits seem brighter than usual; the galleries more spacious and empty. What better space to find magic and mystery than The Jewish Museum at 1109 Fifth Ave., at 92nd Street, which features a Houdini exhibit through the end of March. You can, of course, visit during the day, but better yet, spend a Night at the Museum on Thursdays, when the institution stays open until 8 p.m.

The exhibit, which explores the great magician’s first transformative act — from rabbi’s son Ehrich Weiss to the handcuff king Harry Houdini — also offers a lens on the artists inspired by his work during the more than 80 years since his passing. In addition, the exhibit shows footage of Houdini performing one of his great escapes and displays the tool of his trade. Even if the date itself isn’t magical, there’s bound to be plenty to discuss.

Walk and Talk:

Daters seem to fall on two sides of a divide: those who insist on sitting down at a table for drinks or food, because “if you can’t get through a conversation across a table for one hour and feel chemistry, there’s an issue,” as one single friend of mine puts it; and those like Adeena Sussman, who believe that during those early dates, “it’s good to keep in motion.”

Sussman, along with several others, recommends the creatively landscaped walkways of the elevated High Line, where visitors can glimpse the contours of the meatpacking district from new heights. The High Line, which opened in June 2009 and was built over abandoned rail tracks, is free of charge. “It’s interesting to see what someone notes — the crowds, the flora, or the architecture. There’s so much visual stimulus,” says Sussman.

My friend James Baron, who has visited the High Line on at least two first dates, recalls how one sunset stroll transported him from the grounded quality of the workweek to a more serene mindset. Baron, a great resource for the city’s cultural life, also likes to take women on a walking tour of his own design through the Lower East Side. The itinerary has included Russ and Daughters at 179 East Houston St. (for a take-out breakfast of lox and bagels); a glimpse of history at the 19th century Eldridge Street Synagogue at 12 Eldridge St.; a stop at the Tenement Museum at 108 Orchard Street to learn how immigrants lived; and a meander down Orchard Street to reflect on old and new aspects of the neighborhood.

Pita Power:

Except for Jeremy and me, there’s not a couple in sight on a recent evening as I lean comfortably against the exposed brick wall and savor the rich, flavorful hummus and warm whole-wheat pita bread at the Hummus Place at 305 Amsterdam Ave. I smile as I bite into the falafel balls, which are soft and spicy inside, but encased in a crispy shell. The cozy atmosphere, the tasty kosher fare, and the low prices suggest to me that the slew of hummus chains sprouting up in Manhattan in recent years make a great spot for first dinner dates — as has been recommended by Tamara Holt, a single friend who is also a food writer.

But Joshua Arcus, who is 25, and a frequent dater, is of two minds about hummus eateries. On the one hand, he says, you could think of them as the Jewish equivalent of tapas bars, with their array of small inexpensive dishes. On the other, you might be wary of the garlic, which tends to be a prominent element in hummus. He likes to bring dates to Kashkaval at 856 Ninth Ave., which, albeit not Israeli or kosher, offers a selection of Mediterranean appetizers and some fine wines as well.

That night, en route to our movie, Jeremy and I spy another hummus outlet, sleeker and more stylish. As I peer into the windows of Nanoosh on 2012 Broadway, a friend suddenly darts out of the door, grinning. Surprise! She’s there with a guy, a first date, who waves gamely from his seat at the communal table.

Meal Plan:

If you’re strictly observant of kashrut, and you’re also up for a proper meal and an adventure, two new restaurants in Brooklyn might fit the (somewhat more substantial) bill: Basil Pizza & Wine Bar, at 270 Kingston Ave., and Pardes, a meat restaurant, at 497 Atlantic Ave.

Basil, which has been written up in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, melds the two communities of Crown Heights — black and Jewish — by hiring mostly non-Jewish wait staff, but offering kosher dairy fare that appeals to both chasidic patrons and non-Jews. Its menu features an assortment of innovative individual-sized pizzas, such as one with pencil asparagus, ricotta, golden beets, mint and jalapeño.

A few minutes away by car, but in an entirely different setting, Pardes has been luring Orthodox diners from Crown Heights, as well as a lunch crowd of non-Jews, since it opened in October. Elan Kornblum, publisher of Great Kosher Restaurants Magazine, who often gets calls about dating venues, says that Pardes’ location in the hip neighborhood of Boerum Hill, with little Jewish shopping nearby, sets it apart. The executive chef, Moses Landau, who says he became “frum at a high point in my career,” and who has experience at high-end restaurants such as Django in Philadelphia, creates his own air-dried tuna, cures his own boqerones (white anchovies), and also prepares a 12-ounce burger, topped with beef fry, which one Yelp reviewer refers to as “kosher bacon.”

If you’re not strictly kosher, and are after a lower-priced option, you might consider Café Edison at 228 W. 47th St., a tried-and-true venue, where my friend Daniel Belasco brought his wife Risa Kaufman a decade ago to sample the cheese blintzes and soak up the convivial atmosphere. Kaufman recalls fondly, “Who can be self-conscious in such a setting? One can only be honest, open and completely focused on the person seated before you.”

For a more conventional afternoon or evening in a kosher restaurant, Elana Berenson, who is 27 and Modern Orthodox, recommends the new Upper West Side location of My Most Favorite Food (247 W. 72nd St). She’s enjoyed brunch at the new site of this dairy restaurant, which serves omelets with gruyère, shiitake mushrooms and caramelized onions, among other offerings, and now features a splashy back “garden room” with a glass ceiling and brick walls. Berenson warns, though, “It can be pretty expensive.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with cappuccinos for two at My Most Favorite’s sidewalk café. You never know. Alert to the world, jittery with possibilities, you might be jolted into the world of romance. It worked for me.