Updated: Apr 28
I haven’t done a drama review in a while, and here I am, rolling up with one about a drama no one talked about a few years late, during a month when I’m trying not to watch TV. (Life is hard, okay?)
I was researching shows for an upcoming essay about murder rom-coms, which of course led me down a MyDramaList rabbit hole, and thus reminded me of Dinner Mate. When I saw the promos in 2020, I thought it had a cute concept and pairing—and promptly forgot about it.
I’m here to report that it’s just as satisfying as you’d hope of a rom-com with a heartwarming premise, starring two gorgeous people. If you haven’t seen Dinner Mate, here’s the setup: Seo Ji-hye is Woo Do-hee, a video producer with a knack for creating viral B-grade content who’s been unlucky in love. Song Seung-heon plays Kim Hae-kyung, a psychiatrist known for food therapy—not therapy for eating disorders, but treating his patients over a meal.
Is this a real thing? Probably not, but who cares! The theme of food as love is extremely obvious and cliche, but does that mean it isn’t effective? Absolutely not! There are so many coincidences and connections between the characters in this drama it’s laughable, but do I mind? Not at all! I’m happy to roll with the idea of coincidence turning into fate in a romance like this.
If you're miserable, at least do it in gorgeous environs
Do-hee and Hae-kyung meet on the way to Jeju Island, him traveling to see a finicky patient and her to surprise her boyfriend (Kim Jung-hyun, in a nice meta nod to their pairing in Crash Landing on You). She’s kind of an obnoxious seatmate, and Hae-kyung gives her a very deserved side-eye. But that all changes when they run into each other again.
Do-hee’s been expecting her boyfriend to propose, and he is planning to—but not to her, and she finds that out in the most humiliating way possible, in the same restaurant where Hae-kyung is holding his counseling session. Once we get past the requisite meet-cute hijinks, the two quickly develop a genuine connection. He’s witnessed her lowest moment already, and treated her with compassion—and that makes him a romantic hero worth rooting for from Episode 1.
Thinking she’ll never see him again, she shares an embarrassingly genuine heartbreak with him; and he, seeing in her a reflection of his own relationship’s unhappy ending, can’t walk away from her when she’s hurting. He asks her to have dinner with him, because he sees food as the ultimate expression of care for another person.
Drinking her sorrows in an empty swimming pool at night isn't ideal, but at least she has Song Seung-heon in granny clothes to make it bearable
There you have the central premise of the show: returning to Seoul, they become “dinner mates,” two people who meet up for dinner occasionally to escape their daily grind. It’s a fun twist on contract dating; both strenuously assert that it’s a platonic friendship at most, but there are all kinds of rules. No real names. No identifying details. No texting unless it’s to arrange the next date dinner. Things soon become more complicated as their real lives begin to intersect, just as each is faced with the sudden return of a toxic, selfish ex who broke their heart. And then Do-hee and Hae-kyung have to muster the guts to actively choose each other, instead of just sliding along in a convenient non-relationship.
Also read our review of Kiss Sixth Sense
It’s definitely not a perfect show. There are fatphobic jokes (please can we stop doing this K-drama) and a weird side romance between Do-hee’s quirky boss (Yeh Ji-won) and a man whose homelessness is uncomfortably mined for humor. My main complaint, though, is that the two exes stick around for way too long, are not even in the same universe as the idea of boundaries, and take up far too much of the show’s oxygen. Both characters, played by Lee Ji-hoon and Son Na-eun, abruptly dumped the leads years ago, devastating them horribly, and now expect the person they betrayed to take them back. No apologies, no engagement with reality.
I did appreciate that in one case, this is shown to be caused by mental illness, and treated with gravity and sensitivity. But that also means the show devotes four miserable episodes to stalking, trauma, intervention and treatment—when the main couple just got together. All I wanted was to see them hold hands and take walks and have deeply vulnerable conversations with each other!
The best rom-coms are relationship biographies. They’re essentially character pieces, showing us who these two people are, who they’re becoming, and why that makes them good for each other. A drama’s job is to make us believe that, by building a genuine rapport between the couple. It’s not enough to prop two gorgeous actors among pretty scenery and tell the audience they’re in love. The leads should be different enough to provide some conflict—and comedic fodder—but there has to be a quality of soul-recognizing-soul that slowly emerges among the hijinks.
Dinner Mate succeeds in this. Do-hee and Hae-young make sense. Both have been hurt so badly by love that they’re afraid to do it again. He’s been conditioned since childhood to silently sacrifice his own needs in a relationship to keep the other person from leaving, but that consideration gets mistaken for remoteness. Do-hee, fresh from being cheated on, is tired of putting her whole heart into another person and having it mercilessly crushed—and worse, disrespected.
So a casual, anonymous, spontaneous dinner friend you can keep at an arms’ length is exactly who they can open up to without risk. They’re essentially going on an endless series of dates, but with no pressure to make a good impression. Both have agreed to end it whenever they stop enjoying eating together, so they’re free to be honest in the way you can only be with strangers.
It’s intimacy without stakes.
At one point, Hae-young offers to walk a tipsy Do-hee to her door, and she stops him, saying that they need to know nothing about each other so she can tell him her secrets: “I still have so many secrets I haven’t told you yet,” she says with wobbly relish.
The premise of the drama means they get close almost immediately—but in a way that feels earned. No shortcuts are taken in the relationship, and the dialogue is so emotionally intelligent. Apart for one incident where the heroine acts out of character For Plot Reasons 🙄, everyone in the drama behaves in ways that make sense for their personalities and in their situation.
Exhibit A: Swoony Chemistry
And although Seo Ji-hye and Song Seung-heon have absolutely sparkling, swoony chemistry that makes them seem almost magnetized to each other whenever they share the screen, the true romance is in what they say to each other. And that completely slays me.
One moment in particular sticks with me—it’s at the end of Episode 7, and I think it’s my favorite scene of the drama.
(Spoilers, if that’s important to you in a rom-com.)
They’ve gone camping for an evening, and are sitting by the fire after dark. Do-hee has realized that she has feelings for Hae-kyung, which goes against their no-strings-attached dinner mate arrangement. She tells him she wants to end things. “I broke the rule. I crossed the line,” she says to him. She’s shown him too much of herself, and she can’t stop thinking about it.
They look into each other’s eyes for a long minute, and you can tell he knows exactly what she isn’t saying. Then she pretends that she's talking about a drunken faux pas, and he just smiles and lets her have her pride. And reassures her that they’re the kind of friends that can tell each other everything, or nothing, and either one is fine.
What ensues is a conversation typical of them. She talks about her complicated feelings about seeing her ex-boyfriend again, which have nothing to do with lingering affection and everything to do with how young and full of potential she felt when she was with him. And he provides her with the kind of wise advice and warm validation that she can depend on from him. It’s such a beautiful encapsulation of their relationship—how she recognizes his kindness that others interpret as disinterest, and how he values her vibrant spirit for the warmth it brings into his life.
And you can see that all on his face—that he’s catching feelings too, and he knows neither of them are ready to acknowledge it out loud, and he’s giving them time and space to be friends for a bit longer while they gather their courage. (The way he looks at her throughout this drama, God.)
That connection that sparkles and lights up in a slow burn is what makes this drama worth watching despite its flaws. If you’re still waffling, I highly recommend this show! Fast forward the angsty exes and the sometimes overly broad humor, and enjoy the blossoming of this sweet love story. Like Hae-young looking at Do-hee, I was mesmerized anytime these two shared the screen.