My boyfriend took me on a date the other night. I know! Groundbreaking right? But stick with me here. This is a rarity not because my lovely boyfriend doesn’t want to put in the effort, quite the opposite actually. When this job is done cycling me through a new restaurant every night and we finally reach the evenings we’ve carved into our schedules for quality time together all I really want to do is sit on the couch without a bra on, eat vegetables, watch Love Island and put myself on vocal rest. Peak romance over the last few months has, for me, been not having to put on an ounce of makeup and anything that involves an elasticated waistband.

I quickly realised that the schedule I had got into the rhythm of wasn’t good for me, my energy levels, or my overall sense of health and wellbeing. I love restaurants, but they are meant to be a special occasion, something that you look forward to. When they become work, the sheen can be dulled. They become a chore. I was quite swiftly falling out of love with the thing that lit my fire and got me out of bed in the morning. It’s also why I haven’t written this column in a while (I’m sure you’ve been devastated by my absence, desperately opening each Foodism email in the hopes that I’ll finally be back), because in an attempt to reconnect my relationship with restaurants, and the necessities of this job, I stopped going out for a little while – cancelling dinners and drinks in favour of a quiet night in. And so, I really had nothing to write about for Where Molly Ate because Molly was mainly eating on her sofa.

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But then my boyfriend took me on that date, and I realised how wonderful this city is and how great it is to dine out here. We stopped into Satan’s Whiskers for a cocktail en route, happily stumbling into the best cocktail bar in the city for a martini, before continuing up to Rogues, the new-ish restaurant on Hackney Road, which my boyfriend (can I just call him Stu? I hate the word boyfriend) gleefully booked because, and I quote verbatim, “it’s so nice to go somewhere that you don’t already know everything about.”

And do you know what? He was right. I went in with absolutely no expectations, there were no dishes I felt like we had to order, I wasn’t pre-planning our meal in my head. I just, for once, sat down and let myself be surprised. We ordered everything that tickled our fancy, and it was all wonderful. The menu is built extremely intelligently, with a series of snacks (quite literally one-bite-wonders), a bread course, and then a selection of larger plates designed for sharing. It functions somewhere between a tasting menu and an a la carte and, crucially, comes to your table in a considered manner, with courses spaced out at a reasonable pace rather than dumped in front of you all at once because ‘they come out when they’re ready’.

I had nothing to write about for Where Molly Ate because I was mainly eating on my sofa

Perhaps a controversial stance, but I maintain that, for the most part, the most exciting and innovative part of a meal is usually the snacks, and the ones at Rogues happily reinforce that theory. I’m not going to go into too much detail on the food because it was lovely and refreshing to simply eat without analysis. I wasn’t there to pass judgement, simply to enjoy myself, and enjoy myself I did! But what I will say, because it is seemingly impossible to eat a meal without at least partially putting my critical hat on, is that each mouthful was wonderful. Bold, bolshy ingredient combinations and heavy-hitting plates of food that threw out subtlety in favour of in-your-face-flavour. Couple that with the very reasonably priced wine list and extremely friendly service and you have the perfect date night.

It got me thinking about where else in the city is good for taking your one true love (or simply the person you’re kind of dating but not too serious about). The perfect date restaurant, for me anyway, is a difficult thing. I don’t want to be hidden away in a corner while you whisper sweet nothings in my ear. I want to have fun! I want to chat and laugh and drink and eat well. Romance, to me anyway, is about unequivocally enjoying the other person’s company, and a great restaurant can help bolster that.

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Trattoria Brutto popped into my head. The bustling space has an inherently romantic feel to it, and the £5 negronis help lubricate even the most awkward of conversations. Russell Norman has done a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of Italy with the wood-panelled interiors, strung up fairy lights and classic red and white tablecloths, and a plateful of that vodka pasta, and those ‘cuddles’ (fried balls of dough served with prosciutto and stracchino cheese), are enough to lull anyone into a rose-tinted state.

I have warm memories of a late night date night at Food House in Chinatown, begging the waiter for the last table of the night after a few pints at a nearby pub and promising to be in and out in 30 minutes (I think we managed 28). Settle me in for an evening of riotous fun and bloody great food at Speedboat Bar, with all its free-flowing drinks, neon lighting and pumping music (plus a late-night menu for those dates that are just going too well). Or, I'll peruse the walls of wine at Passione Vino, pick a bottle to sip on al fresco and people watch, and slowly make our way through the menu of cold cuts, great cheeses and heaping plates of pasta (plus some of the best lasagne in the city if you’re lucky). Some of my favourite date nights have taken place at Tayyabs, eating my weight in lamb chops and drinking whatever alcohol we could hastily grab from the fridges at the terribly stocked Tesco around the corner. 

Some of my favourite date nights have taken place at Tayyabs, eating my weight in lamb chops

Then there’s Mangal 2 which, at every iteration of its life, has had a front-row seat to Stu and my relationship. It was one of our first ever dates when it was still a no-frills BYO spot, where we sat and got drunk and ate so much I thought I’d burst and I was struck by the unavoidable feeling that this was the man I was going to spend the rest of my life with. Then it became our local during the pandemic when it was slowly overhauling the menu and now we carve out the time to head up there whenever we can, sometimes even spontaneously managing to grab a table after one too many at the pub when all we want is a cull yaw kofte and endless plates of mushroom manti dumplings. Sitting elbow-to-elbow with birthday parties and groups of friends and watching everyone rhapsodise over the wonderful food; that’s romance.

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Equally, being unable to hear your date over pounding metal music at Black Axe Mangal would be a wonderful solution for those days when you simply want to sit in companionable silence, and making new friends with the people next to you at Evelyn’s Table is a good reminder that it’s important to be with someone who loves your ability to befriend a lamp post (if you are like me and find great joy in speaking to any new person you cross paths with). On the flip side, when we feel like chatting we head to Dishoom, where queueing for a table adds a good hour onto our evening, and gives us time to put the world to rights (we have what we call 'our order' when we visit – okra fries, lamb chops, keema pau, house black daal, chicken ruby and a naan – and don't even need to look at the menu anymore). 

I suppose what I’m saying is that romance in its most benign form is a little overrated. Sometimes it is the simple joy of the person you love letting you be an absolute slob for the evening because they know it’s exactly what you need. Other times it’s their ability to reignite your love for a good meal out simply by taking you somewhere you haven’t been pitched multiple times in your email inbox. Often it’s just having fun, no matter the venue or the circumstances because what is more romantic than only needing each other to have a good time?