First Dates' star Mateo Saina's top tips for turning a spark into a flame this Valentine's Day
He's seen hundreds of courting couples come through the door, now First Dates' star Mateo Saina tells Claire O'Mahony his formula for love
First dates are socially awkward occasions as well as being etiquette minefields that are fraught with potential disaster. That at least is message conveyed by the internet, where a quick search of first date tips reveals a prescriptive code of behaviour to be followed unless you want to sabotage a relationship before it's even begun.
Some of the general advice offered is self-evident - essentially, don't be an idiot - whereas other aspects of first dates are more ambiguous, from who pays the bill, to how much you should actually reveal about yourself. Mateo Saina, the affable, charismatic maître d on RTÉ One show First Dates Ireland, is not a dating expert per se, but he has seen hundreds of first dates walk through the door and has many pointers on how to have a successful date.
The programme - which airs on Thursdays at 9.30pm on RTÉ2 - is now into its fourth season and he believes that this is the best series so far. "We had some nice personalities I have to say. More and more people are coming to find love. In the very start it was 'Oh, let's be on TV' and now everybody accepts it as a dating agency."
While he himself increasingly recognised on the street, he's unconcerned about his TV fame and maintains that his work as restaurant manager at La Cucina on Dublin's South William Street keeps him grounded. "You accept that this [TV] is just a job, it pays the bills and you keep on moving, it's as simple as that," he says.
It's been quite some time since his own first date with partner Vjerana. "We've been going out for eight or nine years… I don't know how long - she's going to kill me!" he laughs. "She's counting. I'm not, I'm enjoying the moment." The couple both come from Istria in Croatia and had been messaging on Facebook before he took her for a romantic dinner on a promenade beside the sea. The rest is history and the couple now have a young daughter, Isabelle Luna. "We had both seen a spark to the messages. We knew what was going to happen and after that it was just mathematics and equations. It was pretty simple, no drama, no extravagance," he says.
But despite his happy home life, he insists that neither he, nor anyone else, has the formula for love. Relationships, he stresses, require effort. "We all know that but everyone is hoping and longing for the imaginary love of your life," he says. "My mum always says that 'Our generation used to fix things, we didn't buy new things", and she means love. It's easy to get divorced; it's easy to throw away love. Love is about work."
On what to wear
Mateo advocates donning whatever outfit makes you feel comfortable. "Don't come in tracksuit bottoms on a date but if you don't feel comfortable wearing a suit, that's fine. At my age - 30 and above - jeans, shoes and the top of a suit jacket would be perfection but not everybody would share this opinion." In any cases, both sexes should make an effort. "Cosy would be my word. Look cosy," he says.
His suggestion is that you arrive five to 10 minutes early as opposed to being exactly on time, and certainly don't arrive late.
"It shows your dedication and it's just a kind gesture - you respect other people's free time. Why should they wait for you?" he asks. Traffic, he concedes, can always be a problem so this should be factored in and he also recommends not arriving too far in advance in case nerves becoming overwhelming. "I would leave it five minutes before just so I can order a drink or a coffee and relax."
On foods you shouldn't order
If some dating manuals are to be believed, there's a list of romance-killing dishes to be avoided in dating scenarios. These include spaghetti (too sloppy); soups (too slurpy); whole lobster (too expensive and too much hard work) and anything larger than your head such as a giant burger. However, Mateo doesn't believe in any food rules. "It doesn't faze me what the other person is eating. You want a burger? You want chicken wings? Eat them. If you're going to make a mess, that for me is a little bit more romantic because you're relaxed in front of me," he says. "You're just getting to know this person and what effect is it going to have if she eats chicken wings? If that affects you, then we have a problem and there's something wrong with you, in my opinion."
On how much you should drink
Getting drunk on a first date is not ideal, no matter how nervous you feel. This maître d's advice is, if you are drinking wine for example, that a bottle shared is perfectly acceptable. "Have a drink before dinner and divide a bottle, or maximum two glasses because after that you're too confident or you're too cocky," he says.
On conversation topics
Based on his experience in the restaurant industry, Mateo says that Wednesday and Thursday, as opposed to the weekend, are when you'll get the best service and a table at your desired time. Going out midweek also provides a safety net of sorts. "If you go out on Thursday - how should I word this - you know you're both going home and not with each other because you're working the next day. Friday, we can go out and then…" he laughs. "Weekdays give you the opportunity without thinking you will go too far - so it gives you that kind of security."
On the best nights of the week to go for dinner
Typically contentious areas such as politics, religion and sex are off the agenda for him, as well as diets, which he believes can be a difficult area. His advice is to keep it mild, at least initially. "Talk about travelling and things like that," he says. "There are so many things you can talk about as you get to know each other because what are you looking for on a first date? That kindness and that bit of connection. You're not going to find that connection talking about politics - okay, certain people will - but 90pc will not so you try to steer away from these tricky, tricky questions."
On who should pay
Even if you might be happy in splitting the bill, Mateo is unequivocal about this matter. "The guy pays first because it's an old-fashioned way and it's a romantic way," he says. And if the woman insists on paying her way? "Well, she can pay next time but I'm paying this time, no discussion. You don't go on a second date? It doesn't matter, it was my pleasure. I know you're independent and I know you're making money but this will make me happy and can you please allow me to do this."
On mobiles and manners
Unless you are running the country or a medic or you're on high alert for a babysitter's call, Mateo is adamant that phones should be in pockets or bags and on silent. "I think it's a sign of respect that you have it off the table and you're giving the person you are on the date with your full attention. A phone is a no-go on the date. If the other person goes to the toilet, you can always check your phone then."
On concluding the date elegantly
The meal is over, the bill has been paid, so what next? "It's different from person to person, you need to get a vibe," he says. "Even on First Dates, there were so many occasions where we, as viewers, were 100pc sure they were going on another date and then, boom, no." What he would do is tell his date that he would like to see her again, give her his number but explain there is no pressure. And if he didn't want to pursue the relationship any further? "I will go for another drink if it's possible afterwards and I would exchange numbers because you're showing respect to that person and then, through text messages I would probably let them know. To say it to someone's face is quite cruel. However, if you come home and you're 100pc sure you don't want to see them again, you write a nice message saying thank you for the time and effort, you're really lovely but I don't think we're a match. That doesn't mean anything is wrong with you or me, in my opinion we're just not compatible," he says. "You need to respect people because it's going to come back to you sooner or later like a boomerang. Your arrogance is going to punish you in the long run. Just be kind."