Dumped Over Dinner

Dear Helena,

I’d been dating this chick for a couple of months and it wasn’t working, so I took her out for tapas and broke the news. She was pissed, telling me I “ruined” her favorite tapas place and she “couldn’t believe” I broke up with her in the middle of dinner. I thought I was being quite civilized. Is it OK to dine and dump? If so, what is the right way to do it in terms of setting, atmosphere, and timing? Now I look back on it, I feel I should have waited until we were done eating. —Downer Dinner

Dear Downer Dinner,

Dumping someone in the middle of dinner is better than doing it via text message, but it’s still not acceptable. When you dump someone, the rejected lover usually wants to do one of two things: slink off and lick his or her wounds, or get further explanation. But it’s awkward to leave a restaurant in the middle of a meal, and embarrassing to have a tearful discussion in front of other patrons.

If you feel like you must dine and dump, choose the location strategically. Restaurants deemed suitable for dumping in the Zagat Los Angeles Dating (and Dumping) Guide are ranked based on number of exits, proximity to transportation (so you can make a quick getaway), and how attractive the other patrons and staff are (so you can go on the prowl for a new lover). But even Merrill Shindler, editor of the LA Zagat Survey (which publishes the guide), confesses that breaking up in a restaurant is a bad idea: “There are sharp objects, glasses of wine, bottles, and all sorts of things that could cause damage.”

The biggest problem with dumping people in restaurants is that, when you invite them out for a meal, they will think you’re inviting them on a date, so you’re setting them up to feel tricked on top of breaking up with them. Plus, there’s really no good time to break the news during a meal. If you do it right after you’ve ordered, you’ll put the dumpee off his or her food, making for a longer awkward evening. If you do it at the end of the meal, your ex may feel betrayed: “You knew about this and sat through the whole dinner without telling me?” (Also, you probably won’t enjoy the meal much if you’re mentally rehearsing your “It’s not you, it’s me” speech.)

You might be confident that the breakup will be amicable, and so why not enjoy a good last meal together? But even if there are no hard feelings, it’s unlikely the dinner will be fun. Mary Burnham, a wine and food writer in San Francisco, remembers a boyfriend ending a relationship at swanky Veritas in New York. Although she was far from heartbroken, she felt it was inappropriate to dig into a crème brûlée. The occasion just wasn’t festive enough.

But although breaking up with someone in a restaurant is a bad idea, that doesn’t mean the only appropriate setting is your place or the dumpee’s. If you’re ending a long-term relationship, you should do it in the privacy of your home; otherwise there’s nothing wrong with breaking the news in a public place so you don’t get trapped in a four-hour analysis of what went wrong. Instead of a restaurant, Marcia Gagliardi, creator of San Francisco’s Tablehopper newsletter, suggests: “a lesser-known wine bar, a café, or [you could] even get a piece of pie someplace that’s quick, where you can sit, engage a little, drop the bomb, and get out of there.” Don’t choose anywhere you’re a regular, she cautions. After all, the more anonymity when exposing yourself in public the better. And somewhere you’re less likely to be overheard is good, like a place with outdoor tables.

Shindler suggests bars, because you can have a heated discussion without attracting as much attention: “They’re used to people being rambunctious.” But in my view, you shouldn’t mix breakups and booze. Sometimes alcohol can soften the blow, but it’s just as likely to make the other person emotional. More importantly, if you have one too many, it could weaken your resolve. You don’t want to have to puzzle over where to break up with the same person twice.

CHOW’s Table Manners column appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.