A thought popped into Stephen Bonser's head midway through Valentine's Day. "If I went to Outback Steakhouse by myself tonight and asked for a table for 2, then got progressively sadder as the night went on alone, do you think they'd give me my steak for free?"
Bonser, 27, who works in technology sales, asked his hundreds of Twitter followers.
His sister egged him on, telling him that she would pay for his meal on Thursday if the restaurant didn't. Three hours later, Bonser was waiting by the host stand at the Outback Steakhouse in suburban Arlington, Virginia, dressed in a blazer and button-down shirt and carrying a poorly wrapped present.
"I figured that I'm getting a free steak either way," he said in an interview later that night. "It would be fiscally irresponsible not to do it."
The restaurant was crowded with couples celebrating the holiday, and even though Bonser had called ahead to make a reservation, the host told him there would be a 10-minute wait. That was fine, he replied, as his date had said that she was running late.
Once he was seated in a booth by the bar, his server came by to see if he wanted any drinks while he was waiting. Bonser, who was documenting the social experiment in real time on Twitter, ordered a beer for himself and a glass of chardonnay, his "date's" favorite.
As no one showed up, Bonser started to look less and less hopeful. He sipped his beer. When the waiter walked by again, he pulled out his cellphone and pretended to leave a voice-mail message: "I'm here, let me know when you're on your way."
By 9:30 p.m., he had finished an entire loaf of complimentary bread. People in the restaurant were starting to look at him with concern. When the server brought more bread, Bonser didn't even bother to slice it before stuffing it in his mouth.
More than an hour had passed since he arrived, and the kitchen was about to close. With a despondent look on his face, Bonser chugged the decanter of chardonnay. "No glass necessary," he wrote on Twitter.
Without comment, his server delicately removed the untouched wine glass and empty decanter. Bonser ordered a steak and a side of macaroni and cheese, and watched as the waiter had a word with the bartender. Then he pretended to leave a halting voice mail that could be heard by everyone still sitting around the bar.
"So, the kitchen closes in a minute or so, so I had to order food," he said between painfully long pauses. "I'm taking it that you're probably not going to make it. So . . . umm . . . I guess I'll talk to you later. I hope everything's OK, hope nothing bad happened. Um, so I guess, you know, shoot me a text or give me a call when you get this, if you can. Hope everything's OK."
A rolled-up set of silverware and a glass of ice water still sat across the table from him, creating a pathetic scene. By then, Bonser had come up with a name for his absent girlfriend: Katherine.
"Katherine is a consultant at Deloitte," he wrote. "She lives in Arlington, that's why I chose this spot. We met at the grocery store. We both went for the same bag of shredded cheese. She seemed so excited for our Valentine's Day date."
When his steak came out, Bonser didn't touch it. The restaurant was closed, but roughly a dozen people were still seated at the bar, he told The Post. None had said anything to him yet, but all had discreetly turned to look at him at some point during the evening.
Forlornly, he took a few bites of his macaroni and cheese. When a piece fell onto the floor, he picked it up and ate it.
By 10:30 p.m., the check still hadn't shown up, and Bonser had spent nearly two hours waiting for his nonexistent date. Just when he started to think he might actually be on the hook for the bill, a couple who had been sitting at the bar got up. They looked "no younger than 60 or so," he said, and he got the sense that this wasn't their first Valentine's Day at Outback. On their way out, they stopped by and told him they had paid for his meal.
"Hey, bud, we'll take care of that," the man said, according to Bonser. "Sorry about that. Don't let it get you down."
Of his server, Bonser tweeted, "the waiter came to clean my table as I left. he put his hand on my shoulder, looked me dead in the eye like a father about to tell his son that grandma died, and said "take care of yourself. don't let them get you down." put this man in the waiter hall of fame"
Bonser's mission was a success: With no previous acting experience, he convinced fellow diners that he had been stood up on Valentine's Day. As a "thank you," he made a $50 donation to the American Civil Liberties Union, figuring that was roughly what his meal had cost the anonymous couple.
"Otherwise," he told The Post, "I'm going to have some real bad karma coming my way."
Within a matter of hours, thousands of people had retweeted or liked Bonser's Twitter thread, and at least one woman had volunteered to go on a real date with him. "Get this cat free steak.....FO LIFE!" wrote NFL Network host Cole Wright, who deemed it the funniest Twitter thread of all time. Fantasy football analyst Adam Rank, also with NFL Network, chimed in: "I feel like you're the hero we don't deserve."
Others criticized him for wasting his waiter's time, arguing that he should have tipped more than $20 on one of the busiest nights of the year. Bonser said he had tried to make sure he was leaving a good tip for the man, who seemed to genuinely feel sorry for him and responded with impressive tact.
"The waiter was a rock star," he said. "He handled it so smoothly."
In college, Bonser said, he once found himself on the other end of the equation: While waiting tables at Chili's one night, he witnessed a man being stood up by his date, and felt so bad he comped the man's dinner. "Having been that server, I tell that story a lot," he said, adding that his Outback waiter "has that story in his arsenal now."
In retrospect, he acknowledged, it was possible that the morose man at Chili's had also been lying in hopes of getting a free meal. "At that point, if he had been faking, he did a good job," he said. "He earned it."
Bonser said that he was motivated both by a genuine love of Outback Steakhouse and because it seemed like an entertaining challenge. After all, he added, he didn't have a date for the night and his plans had previously consisted of watching old episodes of "The Office."
"I also had the vision of me in a suit staring into a void over a decanter of white wine, and I knew that would be extremely funny to me," he said. "If nothing else, I'd always have that for myself."