The savoir-faire of fancy singles' fare

Bob Murphy of Southborough, Mass., got tired of the traditional hunting grounds for singles: "I wasn't happy with the caliber of people I was meeting at nightclubs," says the 40-something construction engineer. "And forget about the bar scene. I was looking for an educated, professional woman to have dinner with, someone who could hold her own in a conversation."

Mr. Murphy almost abandoned his quest, but six months ago he saw an ad for a dining club called the Single Gourmet. "Now I can go out and have a great dinner with eight or 10 dates," he says with a laugh.

Murphy admits that he is exaggerating about the number of his "dates." And he is quick to point out that the Single Gourmetis not a dating service. It is actually a rather civilized way of meeting other singles who enjoy fine food and what this father of a 15-year-old calls "adult speak."

Each month, six to eight dinners are organized at various restaurants around Boston. Members - 60 percent of whom are women - receive a newsletter that describes coming locations and what each restaurant is known for. (That information is also available online: www.single Members then choose which - if any - events to attend. Prices range from $45 to $85 per dinner (taxes and gratuity included), depending upon the venue - and menu.

Murphy believes that the cost of the dinners attracts a more educated, articulate crowd. "I'm never afraid of who will be at these dinners," he says. "This is a nice, safe way to meet other singles."

Melanie Cabot has heard comments like Murphy's many times before. Indeed, she bought the Boston chapter of the club two years ago, after she moved back to the area from New York City, where the Single Gourmet began 20 years ago. Newly divorced, Ms. Cabot wanted to combine her love of people with her love of fine food.

More important, however, she understood what many in the dating industry didn't seem to realize: that not every single is looking for Mr. or Ms. Right. "My members would like a more active social life," she says, "but they don't necessarily want romance. They may want to reconnect socially after a divorce or a move, or they may be shy about getting out and meeting people. This is an elegant, no-pressure way to meet other singles and to sample some of Boston's best restaurants."

To ease the process of meeting and mingling, Cabot places members at tables according to their age group, and she seats people next to those who have common interests or potential chemistry. She carefully spaces the men among the women. Throughout the evening, Cabot draws shyer members into the conversation.

"I'm happy to be the social secretary for 500 people," chuckles Cabot. Her efforts make it easier for members to find what they've really been hunting for: a wider sense of community.

Kathy of Watertown, Mass., agrees. This 40-something, who asked to use only her first name, has been a member for 1-1/2 years. She, like many diners, appreciates the club because it brings diversity - and great food - into her life.

"The people are different from the friends I've known for a while," she says. "So many Americans go home after work, pull the blinds down, turn on the TV, and just stay in. I don't want to do that. I am always doing something socially."

Kathy attended the club's first Thanksgiving dinner last year, which was held at a traditional New England inn. She went, she says, because she wanted to try something different. But for some of the attendees, the dinner meant that they didn't have to spend the day alone - and they didn't have to crash someone else's party.

"You want to feel that you have your own plans [on Thanksgiving]," says Cabot, who will repeat the dinner this year. "You might not wish to insinuate yourself on friends or family."

But often "insinuation" is a reality for singles, especially as communities and families become more fragmented and far-flung.

"We Americans are so diverse," says David Stocker of Brookline, Mass. "We don't have the commonality of the British pub, for example. And churches, at least in this part of the country, are not an important community resource."

Mr. Stocker, who works in finance and spent 16 years as an investment banker in New York, enjoys the Single Gourmet because it gives him a chance to put down some roots. "Anyone in high-tech or finance lives in an airplane," he says. But the dinners allow him to connect with people where he lives and to converse in a way that is not superficial.

Stocker has discreetly dated some of his fellow diners, and he's not alone in that respect. In fact, Cabot knows of one couple who met through the club and got married. But, she adds, in every case the "hunt" has been subtle. She even finds herself playing a small role occasionally.

"Sometimes someone will call me up and say, 'Let me know the next time so-and-so signs up for a dinner.' I do pass that information along, and I may seat people together at the same table, but they have to take it from there. I am not a matchmaker," she says emphatically, "but everyone can use the help of a good friend now and then."

The selection of restaurants is a mix of four-star and innovative eateries. There are also less formal events, such as a recent trip - in a white stretch limo - from Boston to the Big Apple for Christmas shopping and sightseeing. Or the six-mile bike ride along the Charles River last summer that led to lunch in Cambridge.

Members who do a lot of traveling can also attend dinners at any of the 20 chapters nationwide. And the Single Gourmet does offer some vacation packages (San Francisco/Napa Valley and Italy last year).

Members say they like the option of traveling with a group they know and trust, but the $3,000 trips, like some of the dinners, would strain modest budgets. The $175 fee to join and the annual dues of $95 might also dissuade some people.

Then again, says Cabot, the Single Gourmet is a bargain compared with dating services that can cost $1,500 to $3,000 up front.

I attended two dinners to find out for myself. The first dinner was at one of Boston's trendiest, priciest restaurants. I was seated at the "30 to 40 [age group] table" with three other women and four men. Everyone was friendly and articulate.

The special menu, chosen just for the club, included four different appetizers, three entrees that we could choose from, three dessert options, and tea or coffee.

When the wait between appetizers and entree stretched to more than an hour, some at my table began grumbling. But people in the "50 to 60" group behind us put the extra time to good use. In fact, there was a potential romance brewing.

The second dinner was at an upscale Asian eatery. I had not previously met nine of my 10 tablemates, and both the food and the conversation delighted.

So, all things considered, were the two gourmet evenings a good value?

As one person pointed out at the first dinner, "I've always wanted to try this place, but I'd never walk in here by myself. The club gives you access to restaurants that don't usually reserve tables for one."

That's true, and there is a certain comfort in knowing that you will see at least one familiar face at each event (Cabot's). The evenings feel more like dinner parties than mixers, and often the members top off the meal by going to another restaurant for coffee and more conversation.

People in their early 20s probably wouldn't say the club is worthwhile, since most members are 35 to 50, although Cabot is trying to attract a younger crowd.

But for many members, the "is it worth it?" question comes down to what one attractive woman said at the second dinner. She had moved to Boston from Seattle and had signed up for every event that month because, as she put it, "Otherwise, I'd just stay at home with my cats."

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