Where do you like to set first dates?
First dates in novels don’t generally operate under the same rules as in real life.
There should still be the nerves, the anticipation, the tension during, but because in normal, everyday life two strangers aren’t usually that invested in one another immediately, there’s often precious little in the way of emotional stakes. This means that a novel has to work extra hard because there already needs to be stakes at hand (emotional or otherwise). In real life, a bad first date merely means there isn’t a second one. [Except in more extreme cases of stalking, rape, etc., but let’s say for sake of explanation that people are by and large not shitty.] In a novel, a bad first date needs to have more going on.
Which means that first dates in romance novels don’t tend to be right at the very beginning of the book. Some will have the characters slowly falling in love first through either random or arranged encounters. Some will have the first date as the first scene that operates to show a completely different set of stakes rather than romantic or emotional ones (i.e, guy keeps getting calls from boss and could lose his job if he doesn’t answer leading to a horrible first date—the reader is invested in the guy becoming a better person/getting a better, less-awful job, but not yet fully invested in the character’s romance). Some will have a secondary stake that is associated with the date (i.e., the characters are vying for the same goal, are roommates, or discover that they are connected in some fashion that may put them at odds, etc.)
And some, like a lot of mine, tend to just reach for adventure or fantasy stakes that lead to a romance. Which means that many of my characters’ “first dates” tend to be either filled with mayhem and chaos, if you could even call their period of time getting to know and care about one another during their adventure a “first date”—definition most definitely being applied liberally here :)
However it works, the setting can come into play in a myriad of ways.
I prefer finding settings that stress my characters out in some way at the start of their relationship, whether or not those settings are familiar to the characters can come into play as long as the tension is there. In this way, when the time comes for a true “first date” (defined by me as the scene where the characters are more interested in one another than their predicament), the setting itself is usually one of either importance or comfort to one or both of the characters, which can lead into the emotional stakes set-up prior.
Looking at my novels, I do have one where the characters actually go to dinner for a first (for the second time) date. Shockingly. It’s the first one I ever published. Unshockingly. I also have both lunch and dinner dates during Canvas Blues, but neither character is considering those dates at that point. More business discussions. I was just musing on this, since in the real world we have a tendency to do food-related activities on our dates. While in fantasy adventure stories, getting attacked or running for your lives tends to be higher on the preferred date list.