Ask and they'll probably blanch before you can get the question out. Singles bars? Oh no, they never go . . . Full of, the women charge, lounge lizards . . . maroon-mouthed, stiletto-heeled pastries, moan the men.

A desperate scene, if you're over something like age 22. So--beyond the bars, the beach, dating services--how are more mature Washington courtships being sparked these days?

One way is through private singles clubs, which members say offer a more rarefied atmosphere: private functions attracting upwardly mobile people in their late 20s to 50s in a range of occupations.

"The climate in Washington is difficult, socially. People have cliques, and it's difficult for singles to break in if you're new in town," says a 33-year-old recently divorced government engineer who joined a club immediately after moving here.

"I've never been to a singles bar," says a 35-year-old stockbroker, who after her divorce found herself alone in a settled, "less-than-exciting" Falls Church area with 70-year-old neighbors. "My feeling is, people in bars are either salesmen or married. That's not who I want to meet, so that's why I joined a club."

For prices that vary from a cursory $4 membership (in a casual club of weekly dances and cocktail parties) to a stiffer $335 fee (for a club which insists on private interviews and personality tests), eligibles are finding each other in what many see as a pre-selected atmosphere, from crab feasts to elegant private dinners. Some have seen the world together--through cut-rate travel plans--and more than one single-club membership has turned into marriage.

"After food and shelter, the thing we need most is someone who cares about us. We try to sublimate that need, but it's there," says Audrey Jordan, a management consultant in her mid-40s who owns the Washington franchise of Turning Point, the $335-a-year club which opened a year ago in downtown Washington. The office now has been moved to Silver Spring, and in the next few weeks a new branch will be opened in Alexandria.

Turning Point, says Jordan, caters to clients "who are new in town, in a rut or divorced." Applicants must have some college or "equivalent life experiences."

The club is designed, she says, to give its 150 or so members "a sense of belonging" through a selected schedule of outings. In a single month, they could be invited to a biking party, American Film Institute screening, or a seminar on "learning your relationship style."

Another club, Entrees, Inc., offers a package centered around privately arranged dinner parties. In candle-lit settings in some of Washington's better French and Italian restaurants, groups of 8 to 10 people--"carefully balanced by sex, age, interests and background," says founder Stel Gibson--get acquainted over cocktails and leisurely meals. In its 1 1/2 years of operation, at least 150 people have paid the annual fee of $150 and forked over the extra $25-$30 per occasion (not counting bar tab) to dine with new faces.

"They're always in nice restaurants. Stel is always there to meet the ladies with a red rose and make them feel at ease," says a woman real-estate agent. "And she does a decent job of fixing everyone up with the right partner."

When that woman's relationship with her boyfriend soured awhile back, he was pressed into service as a male fourth for an Entrees occasion. "And now," sniffs the realtor, "he's living with that dinner partner."

From their Silver Spring offices, Turning Point counselors cull through the day's appointments and personality questionnaires which ask questions about such things as hobbies and former relationships. Like most clubs, they request specific information on marriage and divorce records. Piles of brochures describe the computer dating service (free to members) and cut-rate tours ranging from Hawaii to Europe.

"I think these clubs are the future," says club volunteer Sherry Shirk, a 40-ish woman with a ripe southern accent, "because divorce has created the need for them. A man has been married 10 or 15 years, maybe lived in the suburbs. Suddenly, he's living in an apartment in D.C. The man has come from another generation, probably, and it's a shock . . . Not knowing what's out there is the worst thing there is."

What's out there for people who join clubs is fairly well balanced between men and women, with heavy leanings to men in their 30s and slightly more women in their 30s to 40s. Nearly all the clubs seem to have snagged a good smattering of prestige job-holders, including some high-powered lawyers and space scientists.

Don Nicastri, a confirmed bachelor in his mid-40s and the force behind "Inner Circle" functions for the past 11 years, takes the casual approach to his parties. Several times a week he rents hospitality rooms, or organizes an at-home theme party, sometimes with a band, food and bring-your-own-bottle. Members are alerted, and they each pay about $4 to get in.

"The main thing now is economics," says Nicastri, a marketing specialist. "To go out, have a few drinks, it's $10 or $15. It all adds up. Private parties are better. People aren't looking for just another singles bar to drift into. They're looking for good company in a homogeneous group with a good ratio of women to men."

He also says that he hasn't noticed much change--in his years of singles-watching--between what men and women want.

"There is still the constant search for someone new and different. People, especially women, don't want to be labeled as 'hanging around a bar,' still looking for a mate."

So, he takes it upon himself to act as host-introducer, especially for the women who come to club functions. Dressed in neat, dark coat, trousers and tie, he stands in the door of places like Tyson's Corner West Park Hotel, greeting new arrivals.

Peggy, a blond, 40ish administrative assistant with the Marine Corps, peeks in the door, one timid foot on the threshold. Before she can become flustered, Nicastri takes her by the arm and escorts her into the throbbing red-and-black carpeted party room. As the band cranks up, he pulls over Al, a downtown restaurant owner in his 40s who is a smashing younger version of John Gielgud, complete with three-piece suit and ramrod carriage.

Al: "You have to come to Petitto's, near my place, sometime. It's great."

Peggy: "Would I have to go alone?"

Al: "Well, no, I mean--but, what would you do, bring your kids?"

She looks confused. He sits quietly.

Peggy: "I don't think I got what you said. Do I have to come alone?"

Al: Mutters something.

Peggy: "Are you asking me for a date?"

Al: Flustered. "What the hell did you think I was doing?"