They're easy to spot the moment they walk in.
Nervously looking around for a person who they've only seen photos of on an app — and who knows if those were actually real pictures? Or if they were taken 10 years ago?
As dating apps have become de rigueur for setting up first meetings with potential love interests, Edmonton's bartenders, servers, and baristas have had a front-row seat.
And this Valentine's Day they're sharing the tips they've gathered as flies on the wall while romance across the city has blossomed — or withered and died.
The easiest way to solve the problem of trying to spot one's date in a crowd is to make a reservation, suggests Korin Cormier, a server at The Common on 109th Street.
"I've definitely had people sit at the wrong table with a different person, which is always funny," Cormier said.
But even with a reservation, there's a bevy of potentially awkward moments to navigate before both people sit down: is it better to arrive first or second? To shake hands or hug? Order a drink or wait for the other person to arrive?
Being the first to arrive for a date has its advantages, according to Warren Suggitt, who slings coffees and works as a supervisor at Block 1912, a Whyte Avenue cafe.
"I think overall it's just better and more considerate to come in early and wait for someone else. Get waters for you and them. It's a little, tiny thing, but it goes a long way."
Sometimes getting the conversation going happens easily
"If you're going around with dish trays, trying to pick up people's dishes, you can feel like you're interrupting something," Suggitt said. "If things are going well, it's very obvious. It's sweet to see."
And if the conversation isn't flowing? That's obvious too.
"People tend to be very awkward when dates are going south. They're very stiff. Sometimes, one person drinks more than others to get over the awkwardness," Cormier said.
One way to keep things from feeling stilted is to avoid acting like it's a job interview, said Steven Jorgensen, a bartender at Woodwork, a downtown cocktail bar.
"Talk about the things you enjoy. Ask them about the things they actually enjoy — not just 'What do you do for work? What's your favourite colour? Do you have a cat?' You see so many of those dates: they just sit here and awkwardly interview each other for half an hour and then get up and leave. I'd say, just have fun and try to enjoy yourself with that person," he said.
Jorgensen said he sees a lot of first dates. And, occasionally, he sees the same person going on a lot of different first dates.
"We sometimes get people who are here days in a row. It's always kind of a little awkward for us, you feel a little weird about it. But you read the situation, and if they don't want to have that acknowledged, you just don't acknowledge it," he said.
"Part of bartending is kind of having that confidentiality with people."
But people are starting to relax and be more upfront about the realities of online dating.
"We had someone in on the weekend, and you're asking them what they're up to, and they're like 'oh you know, first date — Tinder — hope it goes well.' Whereas, I think a few years ago people were a little more reserved talking about it," he said.
Still, not all old dating standbys are out of fashion.
Asking someone 'what's your sign?' actually isn't a bad idea, according to Jade Krull, a bartender at Three Boars, which is just a few blocks east of the University of Alberta. Krull likes to pitch the question at couples as she's pouring them drinks.
"Often, that's my go-to question with dates, is asking them about it, because then it will get them talking about it, and astrology is just a language to talk about people," she said.
"Even if they're not into it, it will still tell you a lot about them."
Krull has no choice but to get up close and personal with couples who opt to sit in the tiny room in front of her bar, rather than in the eatery's second-floor area with tables.
"It's a really tender thing to be a part of everything, and hear most of the conversations, within reason, but also if it is going poorly it becomes such a tense room. Because everyone can hear it, everyone can feel it," she said.
She's seen firsthand what happens when it goes right: her mother met her fiance through Tinder. And she watched one couple have their first date at Three Boars three years ago — now they come back annually to celebrate their anniversary.
Krull said she likes being the fly on the wall for Edmontonians' first dates.
"It makes me feel like everybody is so different, and yet everybody is so the same. Dates are, across the board, so universally awkward and gorgeous at the same time," she said.