Who Actually Breaks Up With Someone in a Restaurant?

"I believe her last words to me were, ‘Fuck you, pay for this.’”

February 9, 2021 9:23 am
Warner breaking up with Elle Woods at a restaurant in Legally Blonde
Does it take a sociopathic rom-com villain to execute a restaurant breakup, or do Warners walk among us IRL?
MGM Distribution Co.

An oft-recycled piece of “shitty life advice” that made the rounds on Reddit this time last year advises anyone planning a Valentine’s Day breakup to do the dark deed over dinner at a restaurant both parties enjoy, thus guaranteeing the ex will “never come back and you can then eat there as much as you want without worrying about running into them.” 

This cold-hearted tip is a nod to the restaurant breakup — a familiar trope that makes perhaps its most notable appearance in one of the first scenes of Legally Blonde, when Elle Woods, who spent the opening credits preparing meticulously for a romantic dinner date she expects to end in a marriage proposal, instead finds herself dumped in public over champagne in a dimly lit restaurant. 

But while the restaurant breakup has long been a familiar fixture in media, featuring in everything from Carol Burnett Show skits to Taylor Swift songs, the ubiquity of fictional restaurant breakups and their predictably disastrous endings begs the question of whether anyone would actually attempt such an obviously ill-advised plan in real life. Who actually breaks up with people in restaurants?

“Weak, manipulative people who want to ensure that the person they’re breaking up with is embarrassed and afraid to fully express themselves,” according to Max, a 51-year-old who says he found himself on the wrong side of a few restaurant breakups in his 20s. “It’s an attempt to get out of a relationship using social pressure to ensure your now-ex partner feels unable to respond.”

Indeed, while in-person breakups are often hailed as more noble methods of terminating a relationship than their phone- or text-based counterparts, breaking up with someone in person seems to lose much of its claim to moral superiority when it happens in a public place, in which case the self-serving motivations of the public relationship-ender become pretty transparent. As one smug gentleman informs his friend in the aforementioned Carol Burnett skit, “If you want to get rid of a woman and not have a scene, the only way to do it is to take her to take her to lunch at the swankiest palais de manger in town and announce the termination of your relationship. Why, she wouldn’t dare make a scene.”

This, admits Simon, 44, was more or less his line of reasoning when he decided to end a relationship over burgers at a restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “Years ago I was seeking to have a non-dramatic breakup, so I decided to do it semi-publicly at a restaurant,” he tells InsideHook. But while he did manage to avoid the public scene into which the Carol Burnett skit inevitably devolves, his plan for a “semi-public” breakup was thwarted for other reasons.

“She was like, ‘Are we really having this conversation here?’” says Simon. Burgers practically untouched, the doomed couple made their way back to Simon’s apartment, where you’ll never guess what happened. “Reader, I married her. Just kidding. We broke up. Never finished the burgers.” 

But even if a restaurant breakup could be executed with the ease and complacency for which Simon was aiming, the reality of breaking up with someone at a table-service eatery still seems to present several logistical challenges. Reddit is filled with tales from service industry workers who had to navigate the awkwardness of refilling water glasses and delivering main courses to a table clearly in the midst of a breakup. And even if you’re unconcerned about inconveniencing your server or disturbing other restaurant patrons with your personal drama, how do you time the bad news for minimum awkwardness? Even if you wait until after you’ve finished eating to drop the bomb, you’re still stuck waiting for the check. 

According to Max, these logistical hurdles are likely of little concern to the kind of person who ends a relationship in a restaurant. “The person choosing a restaurant for a breakup is a coward,” he tells InsideHook. “To them, the benefit of avoiding a full discussion or a real response from their partner far outweighs the logistical hazards.”

But while some may plan a restaurant breakup in a calculated attempt to minimize the fallout, others simply find their relationships spontaneously erupting over an otherwise unassuming dinner date. 

“I definitely did not plan the breakup. I just reached a breaking point,” says John, a 40-something New Yorker whose relationship came to a sudden, tumultuous end one Sunday night at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse on Park Avenue. 

The couple had been on the rocks for a bit, and a fight broke out after a few friends who had joined the pair for drinks and dessert left early, presumably sensing bad vibes. “Instead of continuing to take this verbal assault, I decided to break up with her,” says John. “She said that I couldn’t break up with her since she was hot, fun and everyone liked her. I said that actually I can. I believe her last words to me were, ‘Fuck you, pay for this.’”

John admits there are some obvious cons to a restaurant breakup, and if he had it to do again, he would prefer a more private ending. “People at the restaurant were definitely aware of what was going on — lots of looks and glances. They looked like they knew that they were witnessing an impending car crash and maybe should stay for one more drink to watch the moment of impact.” 

As Sloane Crosley once put it, “Because all of these relationships have ended, they have ended more or less badly.” Public or private, planned or spontaneous, the only universal truth when it comes to breakups is that there’s no good way to break up with somebody; there are only bad ways and worse ways. Restaurant breakups, logistical nightmares rife with the potential for public embarrassment and transparently selfish motivations, belong firmly in the latter category. So if you must break up with someone — which is, of course, an often necessary evil — spare your ex-to-be the embarrassment and yourself the financial burden of picking up one last check and just break up over text like an adult.

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