A new concept for getting singles together is not exactly match-making, but then again, one can always hope.

August 29, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

Put on the face and walk into the restaurant. Forget that it will be seven strangers and you and who knows what magical thing might happen. Nice smile. Hold that. Just let it be what it is, dinner. Nothing more than that. This is important to bear in mind, to contain expectations.

It's just dinner, after all. Which is not to confuse "Dinner at Eight" with "It's Just Lunch." It is not to get this relative newcomer to Baltimore's "singles scene" mixed up with any number of computerized matchmakers, hiking clubs, biking groups, swing dances, mixers, potluck buffets, scenic tours, happy hours, volleyball nights or chat rooms. It is to distinguish "Dinner at Eight" from a one-on-one dating service such as -- no kidding -- "Great Expectations," a name that tests the concept of sarcasm in marketing.

"Dinner at Eight" is as the name says: an arranged dinner at eight in the evening at a local restaurant for no more than eight unattached people -- four men, four women. Delicate principles of arithmetic and social dynamics apply. How many souls seeking connection around a dinner table are too many? Where is the line between the comfy anonymity of a crowd and the pressure of a tete-a-tete?

Renee Kostick -- who introduced "Dinner at Eight" to Washington in 1997 and Baltimore this past spring -- decided on eight, having considered six.

"The dynamic of eight works better," says Kostick, of Alexandria, Va. In the case of a last-minute no-show, seven seemed more comfortable than five.

One by one folks step into the restaurant, gather at the bar. Smiles, chit-chat, glances shoot back and forth. What are they expecting? Not much, many will say later.

Good approach. The bar at, say, the Luigi Petti Restaurant in Little Italy -- ceiling television flashing, bargain Chardonnay flowing, heavy marinara ambience -- can be a lonesome place if you're too lofty about what you have in mind.

"Dinner at Eight" members pay their money and play it as it lays. The fee in Baltimore for a three-dinner package, not including the meal tab, is now $125, but Kostick says it will rise as the business grows. In Washington the fee is $295. Kostick says she's got 150 to 200 members in Baltimore now, most ranging in age from late 20s to late 40s.

Kostick gets a new member on the telephone and asks general questions. Very general. Age, occupation, marital status, how the person prefers to spend free time. She runs down a list of "possible interests." She asks if the person likes music but not if the preference would be, say, Franz Liszt or Limp Bizkit. She asks "you enjoy reading?" but makes it a matter of yes, no, kinda, sometimes ...

She's still fine-tuning the process, claiming no authority in this mysterious field. Kostick, who is 31 and single, was educated in law at Catholic University and still practices law part-time. In the spring of 1997, she was feeling restive about her work at the American Prosecutors Research Institute. She had heard about a dinner introduction service in Boston, but knew of no such thing in the Washington area. Armed with a home computer, a telephone and a small advertising budget, she went to work.

Let's be realistic

Kostick isn't doing the studied matching proffered by dating services that charge hundreds, even thousands of dollars more. She says she tries to be realistic with prospective members whose "expectations are not what we offer. ... We're not doing a one-on-one match."

Kostick gets the questionnaires together, spreads them out on the floor of her apartment and puts people together, plucks them out of the night and directs them to a restaurant.

She or one of her staff buys a round of drinks at the bar, makes introductions, gets things going. She escorts folks to the table and departs.

The pre-dinner portion of the program is scheduled to last 30 minutes. In terms of sizing up romantic possibilities, this is more than enough. It's a lifetime. For many folks, the romantic potential of the evening is extinguished right there, in as much time as it takes to look at someone and feel attraction. How long is that? Dunno. Ask at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. What's shorter than a nanosecond?

Danna A. Eisman of Baltimore walks into Luigi Petti, gets a drink, looks around, considers possibilities. But not for long.

"I guess I knew it wasn't going to be any romantic connection," says Eisman, 43, a life insurance and investments agent. No problem, she says later. Perhaps a business connection might happen. The evening passes pleasantly enough. It's all in the expectation.

"I didn't have much," she says. "I didn't want to be disappointed."

Nicole A. Lewis, a human resources coordinator in Towson, has tried a dating service, First Thursdays, Friday night happy hours. By the time she got to "Dinner at Eight" she had gained more than a passing acquaintance with the prevailing realities.

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