Red Wine and Cigarettes

On any weeknight in Manhattan, in cute restaurants with gardens, over margaritas or red wine or ridiculous cocktails, you will see pairs of women undergoing a timeless ritual: the girl date. At least one of them will be smoking (if the garden allows it), and they will be wearing designer clothing paired with jeans so as to look hot, but not too dressy.

Unlike girl-boy dates, girl dates are strictly platonic and usually involve two heterosexual women who have decided, for one reason or another, to “court” each other as new friends. And yet these are similar to romantic dates in more ways than one—wardrobe and locale are key decisions, they are often blind, and one of the attendees usually has an exit plan. Unlike man dates, which have received some media coverage of late, girl dates are usually arranged without a lot of shame. But women tend to want to open up with each other right away, which means that if it doesn’t click, one (or both) feels wounded, rejected, and nervous about trying it again.

Stephanie, 32, a marketing manager, met many women through girl dates after she moved to the city a year and a half ago. “It’s about putting yourself out there,” she says, “especially if you’re new to the city or you’ve decided you need some fresh blood in your life. You do the same things you do when you’re dating—ask around and find out if a friend has a mutual acquaintance you might want to meet. Sometimes it’s blind and sometimes you meet someone at a party and say, ‘Can we go out sometime?’ ” When she does score a date, Stephanie agonizes over what to wear, “because you don’t want to come off as too snobby or too sloppy. You want to be sure you look hip or interesting so you have a conversation starter, and you wear cute shoes, not sneakers.”

Over the phone, she and her companion select a locale—usually casual to reduce social and financial pressure. “You always go Dutch, and you go someplace cheap to moderately priced, because you don’t want them to think you’re stuck up. There’s a restaurant on Bleecker called Bianca that’s quite romantic but very conducive to girl dates because of the bottles of red wine.” Unlike romantic dates, there is no pretension around the cost of the bottle—it’s quantity over quality.

“It’s a good idea to go somewhere that has cool cocktails,” says Jessica, 39, a shoe designer. “There’s an intrinsic interest, so you have something to talk about.”

Often the locale decisions require multiple conversations, with each woman bending over backward so as not to inconvenience the other, trying to make sure she is happy. A lunch date works well because if it’s bad, you can escape back to work.

But choosing a venue is just the first of many hoops two women must jump through to cement a friendship. Before they can arrange a date, they must read each other’s signs. Samantha, a 24-year-old editor, bonded with a friend of a friend who was planning a trip to Costa Rica; Samantha had already been, so they traded numbers. “As we were talking, this monologue was running through my head, like, ‘Does she like me? Did I say the wrong thing? When should I call?’ It was like that Seinfeld where Keith Hernandez and Jerry become friends and Jerry doesn’t know whether to call.”

Samantha has had a serious boyfriend for a few years, and she’s long past the stage where she worries about how to dress for him. But for a girl date, she spends a long time deliberating over wardrobe, because a good girl date might end up at a club with a velvet rope.

Conversation, though it may stick to safe territory like work and hometown, is slightly different on girl dates than on romantic ones. On a romantic date, a come-on is, “You’re so funny. Do people tell you that all the time?” On a girl date, it’s more like, “You have such well-shaped eyebrows. Who waxes you?” I have made many new friends at parties simply by naming, on request, my waxer, colorist, or even my bra. Some women are more wary about revealing their secrets, even if it means losing out on a new friendship. “I can be very protective of my people,” says Samantha. “My nutritionist, my OB-GYN. They’re mine. I don’t want to share them.”

Though girl dates exist without the complications of sex, the stakes can still be high. Stephanie went on one and knew immediately that the woman was wrong for her. “The chemistry wasn’t quite there. I could see that she was a real taker and not a giver, someone who would become really annoying. She wasn’t good at keeping the conversation going.” It never progressed beyond that first date.

As with romance, no matter how many dates one goes on, there is always The One That Got Away. I met one woman years ago at a party at a Chinatown bar and still regret not taking our conversation to the next level. After a mutual friend introduced us, we exchanged clever banter and opened up. Then we bonded over a shared experience: girl breakups, of course.

Red Wine and Cigarettes