My friend Harold used to say he was glad he wasn't a single Washingtonian.

"I'd die from being puzzled," Harold would say. "All those single men sit in apartments, watching TV and wondering where all the good single women are. Then all those single women sit in apartments, watching TV and wondering where all the good single men are.

"Why can't they find each other?"

Often, of course, they do. But when man finds woman in this town, or vice versa, it's an accident as often as not.

Study the faces on K Street at 5:15 on a weekday afternoon. Or at the bus stop in front of the Agriculture Department. Or inside the Toyotas and Mustangs that are turning off I-395 onto Duke Street.

These are singles, who have lots to offer, but who haven't "solved" Washington to the point where they meet opposite-sex singles in a natural way.

Enter Entrees Inc.

Stel Gibson of Potomac founded a company by that name about 18 months ago. Its main function is to arrange dinner parties at the area's better restaurants for "refined" Washington-area singles.

Memberships run $150 a year, plus the cost of meals. About 300 people have joined the dinner group. Entrees holds three dinners a week, always on week nights. Members can attend as often or as seldom as they wish.

The Entrees motto is "Dinner with the Proper Strangers," and it lives up to this by carefully screening prospective members. Improper though I sometimes am, and married though I surely am, I signed up one night to see how Entrees works.

The scene was El Meson Flamenco, a Spanish restaurant in Old Town Alexandria. As usual, the crowd was five women and five men. ("I always try for 10," says Gibson. "Just the right size for getting to know people.")

The cross-section of jobs and interests was right out of a Census Bureau abstract.

One man was an Air Force officer, assigned to the Pentagon, who jogs. Another was a government analyst and the cousin of a U.S. senator.

One of the women was a lawyer who had gone back to school in her 30s and who likes skiing. Another was a Maryland school administrator whose hobby is horses.

All but one of the Proper Strangers was white. None was younger than 30 or older than 60. All were carefully, classily dressed. And most were either divorced or separated.

That last can be a problem on the Washington singles scene. "It's one of the major reasons I prescreen every member," said Gibson. "We try to make sure that they really are single. I had a man once who said he was separated. Turned out that meant his wife slept in the bed upstairs, and he slept on the couch downstairs."

What is it about Entrees that attracts? For one woman, a health administrator in her 50s, the answer was: "I can meet friends, people I feel comfortable with. Finding a mate is never the primary purpose."

But couldn't Mr. Right be sitting right next to you? "I wouldn't tell him to get lost if he were," said another woman. "But that's not my primary motivation, and it doesn't seem to be most people's. I've never had a man ask me to come home with him after one of these. In a way, that's comforting."

Not everything about Entrees is feather light, to be sure.

For one thing, those at El Meson requested anonymity. "There's a stigma in being single," explained one man. "I don't want my office mates to know I come to these."

A few seats away from me, a man and a woman exchanged chit-chat about their children and ex-spouses. Their words didn't say so, but the tones of their voices made it clear they missed those people, and that former life, very much.

Meanwhile, being single doesn't necessarily mean you're fascinating, too. One table mate droned on about nuclear war for 10 minutes.

Still, the 10 Proper Strangers obviously enjoyed the evening. Watching TV alone? Singles bars? No contest.

As I walked down King Street and headed for Alfred, I thought: maybe this is the right idea, at the right time, in the right city.