You learn a thing or two about romance when you wait tables for a living, when your days and nights are populated with couples sharing drinks, couples sharing meals, couples sharing, occasionally, the same side of a very small booth.
"We're like front row seats on a relationship, I think," said Christine Cikowski, co-owner of Honey Butter Fried Chicken in Avondale.
Servers see you size up the date you're meeting for the first time. They glimpse you holding hands across the table. They catch you checking your phone a little too often.
They see it all.
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"We're definitely all talking about it," said Jenny Lovin, a server at Logan Square's Masa Azul.
"Oh, for sure," Jason Lerner, Masa Azul's owner, added.
"We're judging the situation," Lovin said. "I'm watching them when they go outside to see if they go separate ways, if there's a hug."
"Or that awkward side hug," Lerner added.
Lovin: "The friend-zone hug?"
Lerner: "With the back pat."
With Valentine's Day looming (the second busiest day of the year for restaurants; Mother's Day is first), we invited restaurant insiders to share with us their wisdom – what they've learned about love (and its opposite) during their years of witnessing the intimate act of dining together.
From storied, romantic hot spots to neighborhood storefronts, a few truths hold steady.
"A couple should be talking," said Jeff Lawler, owner of Geja's Cafe in Lincoln Park. "They shouldn't be on their phones. Even if it's back at home, even if it's in a McDonald's, they have to be present for each other."
And the qualities that make for a pleasant customer – generosity, patience, listening skills, good manners – quite often make for a pleasant partnership as well.
"When you have a guy who sits down and automatically asks you for a Bud Light, which is not even on the menu, you know you've got someone who just likes what they like," said Jillian Jackson, a server at The Promontory in Hyde Park. "That's a different experience than having someone sit down and listen to what you have to say and ask a bunch of questions."
Jackson said, above all, she wants her diners to be comfortable and have a pleasant experience, so she'll keep an eye on body language and other cues, occasionally stepping in to smooth tensions with an unordered, but well-received, glass of prosecco.
"People on their phones the whole time is a bad sign," Jackson said. "One drinking way more than the other; if he's on his second Manhattan to your first glass of cabernet, you sort of wonder."
First dates are always easy to spot.
"You know it's an internet app date right away," Lovin said. "One person shows up before the other and there's a standup and awkward hug when the other person comes in. If you're really lucky, you'll hear them say, 'Nice to meet you.' But you can tell from the hug."
Cikowski says Honey Butter Fried Chicken sees a fair bit of first-date action.
"This is also not the traditional place you think of for a date, but you would be surprised how many come here on first dates," she said. "Maybe because when people are eating fried chicken, they are eating with their hands, and it isn't very polite. They are forced to let their guards down.
"I think that comfort-food places can be good for relationships that way," she said. "There's underlying truth there: Go and eat your favorite thing with somebody you're interested in, and see how they react to you. If you're inhaling fried chicken, just pouring butter over it and they're OK – there's a transparency there."
A willingness to dive in and get messy is a good sign. Laughter's an obvious good sign. Talking's a good sign ... mostly.
"I had a guy lead off the date with, 'Did you watch "Seinfeld?" 'and his date said, 'No,' " Lovin said. "Despite the fact that she'd never seen the show and isn't going to recognize any characters, references or jokes, he proceeds to tell her a whole, long 'Seinfeld' thing. I just wanted to be like, 'Oh, buddy. Don't. Just say never mind.' But he went with it."
Awkward side hug outside?
"I actually think they left in the same direction," Lovin said. "Maybe she was really intrigued by the show."
Then you have the couples who've been together for ages.
"We have seen many older couples who'd been married many years come in to celebrate anniversaries with us," said Jori Orsini, associate dean at Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute, which runs the Parrot Cage restaurant at the South Shore Cultural Center and Sikia restaurant in Englewood. "We do a lot of special occasions (at the Parrot Cage), but we also had this one couple who came in and sat at the same table every single month. Because they really felt that they kept their marriage going by celebrating their marriage – regularly. They didn't think it should be a once-a-year thing. And you could see that love in them."
"Nothing makes me happier than the sweet, in-love older couple, holding hands," Lerner said. "For me that's the dream, right? That's where we all want to end up. At that point, for me, they can do whatever the heck they want. They can sit on the same side of the booth. They can make out. They've earned it."
Good signs – for a first date or a long-term couple – our restaurant insiders agree: Hand-holding across the table. Eye contact. No phones on the table. A drink (alcohol or coffee) after the meal.
And the ultimate good sign ... the proposal.
Geja's gets them all the time. Usually they go well, Lawler said.
"But do engagements sometimes go wrong here? They do," he said. "This gentleman once, he called, had me on the phone for 30 minutes, wants to get engaged here, this, that, the other thing. The night of, they hate the oil (used to cook the fondue), take a few bites, then he wants all the food out, 'Bring out the chocolate now.' He's nervous.
"Soon everything is on the table. He gets up, goes to the coatroom, gets this box. Comes back. Proposes to her with a pair of shoes. Now, some say, 'What kind of shoes?' Point is, she says no. He's crying, upset.
"Five years pass," Lawler continued. "I'm at a charity function, a chef's table. I meet the mother of the woman proposed to. Turns out, they got engaged a year later. Now they're married. So you never know. Maybe don't propose with shoes."
(Contact Heidi Stevens at email@example.com, or on Twitter: @heidistevens13.)