"Oh, you're a virgin -- you have a white napkin."
"You've been on this level all night, haven't you?"
"You're not wearing a name tag. Are you a rebel?"
Call it looking for love at first bite: a "progressive dinner" for singles hosted by Open University. On this Saturday night, the "classroom" is Fitch, Fox & Brown, an international cuisine restaurant at the Old Post Office Pavilion where everyone has a chance to meet someone on their level. Literally.
Three levels also mean winding staircases for more te te-a -te tes. Add dim lights and candlelight, and the stage is set.
Many of the 150 players -- mostly professionals, age 25 to 55 -- start filing in around 6:30 p.m., the scheduled starting time. It's a chilly, rainy night, but the weather doesn't seem to dampen their determination to have a good time. Or maybe it's the $26 they've already shelled out for the meal that's fueling the resolve.
Once in the door, everyone heads straight for the drink line. Some try to break the ice early on by asking others -- preferably the opposite sex -- if it's their first progressive dinner. Most simply survey the scene, filing faces into mental categories. The night is young.
The uncertainty is heightened by individual slips of paper issued to each guest. And that's what spices up what otherwise would be an ordinary meal out: a set of directions to guide each person through the social maze.
The procedure is simple: Each of the four courses is consumed at a different table. They range in number from 1 to 20, divided among the restaurant's three levels. Each diner has a random combination to guide him through the evening. A typical "meet sheet": first course, Table 4; second, Table 17; third, Table 11; fourth, Table 2.
The idea of the progressive dinner, says Open University program director Steve Estok, is "to give people a chance to try new restaurants, and to meet."
With more than 1 million divorced, separated or never-married people in the Washington area, according to the Census Bureau, meeting is a big subject. At Open University, at pages of the monthly catalogues are apt to be devoted to such courses as "The Art of Meeting People," "How to Get Past the First Date" and "Sex, Sex and More Sex" (billed as "hot and spicy").
The action at Fitch, Fox & Brown starts when one of the organizers bangs a water glass with a spoon, a signal for the diners to scramble to their first table for the first course. Musical chairs for adults. Once seated, they brace themselves to make conversation with their captive dining partners. They take it all with a grain of salt -- and spoonfuls of onion soup.
Of the four to six people at each table, a few look genuinely interested in the people they're breaking bread with. The others stare into their soup and manage a few words. After all, there are three more courses to go.
The six occupants at Table 4 are barely seated when they realize their group has a ratio of two females for each male. "Oh, well, that's Washington for you," giggles Patti (all the name tags have been changed for this story), a pert brunet whose cheek makeup matches the burgundy of her blouse.
Seated to her left is Ken, a friendly sort with wire rims, a brown mustache and a ready smile. She's a 33-year-old computer operator; he's a 30-year-old government contractor. Surprise! They both got their undergraduate degrees at Penn State.
Across from them is Ned, who looks about their age. With hair carefully plastered down to cover an emerging bald spot, he comes to life briefly when asked a question. He says he's an engineer from Massachusetts. He catches Patti's attention when he says he lives in Beltsville. Patti, who's long established the fact that she's a Virginian (owns a condo in Alexandria), wags a finger at him, proclaiming, "Got to watch out for those people in Maryland!"
The geographical joke is lost on Joanne, a 35-ish blond, sitting at Ken's other side. Newly arrived from Indianapolis, the legal secretary confides she'd rather be watching television at home in Gaithersburg. But she says she's glad she let a friend from work (sitting at the next table) talk her into the dinner.
"At least I'm out with people," she says, eyes widening behind oversized designer glasses. "This is really different. How else could you meet people at a restaurant?" And she says it's a welcome change from work, where "everyone is married except me."
After about half an hour, the spoon hits the water glass. "Mooo," moans Patti. "I know, it's like a cowbell," agrees Liz, a plump blond, probably in her forties. The diners are told to bring their glasses and napkins with them to their next table assignments. Ken, wrapping up his almost-nonstop conversation with Patti, turns to her and the rest of the table and declares, "Nice meeting you all, even though I'll never see any of you again."
By the second and third courses (tomato and lettuce salad, fish florentine or chicken grilled with herbs, both artfully flavored with Pernod or cognac and served with spinach or broccoli), the players start to get the hang of the game. Stay to your right when you climb or descend the stairs (you're supposed to meet, not stampede). And everyone is starting to know what table is on what level.
"Soooo -- is anyone here a Washington native?" asks a guy named Steve, as another round begins. "I should have brought my tape recorder so I wouldn't have to repeat myself," laughs Jim, a short, red-bearded marine biologist, who later admits to being 36 and divorced. "But I can't very well go up to people and just say, 'I'm Jim. Come home with me.' "
At another table, talk ranges from color comparisons of napkins to -- what else? -- job satisfaction, and how hard it is to come by. Meg, a 40-ish schoolteacher with a sympathetic face, listens intently while Don, a slightly built guy who looks 10 years her junior, gripes about the boss at his real estate office.
Sue, a young bank officer with a blond perm, finds it interesting that she and Don have geographically opposed lives. She lives in Georgetown but exercises at Capitol Hill. He, on the other hand, lives right behind her health club, but works in Georgetown and belongs to an exercise club two blocks from her apartment. "Yeah, we should change houses," he says unenthusiastically.
Richard, a graying, bespectacled type, who looks more like Meg's age, instead tries to concentrate his efforts on Sue. He patiently waits for her to make eye contact, then asks her to "tell me something about yourself." "I'm hungry," she declares sarcastically, ending any further discussion between them.
The other two, Mike and Pam, left to themselves, try to make do. He's a 28-year-old lawyer with a sparse brown beard that can't cover up his shyness. She's an attractive, overweight, 30-year-old nurse. "Tell me more about Greenbelt," he says, explaining he's from Crystal City. "I'm so woefully ignorant about Maryland."
The odyssey continues, as business cards, along with the glasses and the napkins, are exchanged. A leggy blond -- maybe in her late thirties -- and a three-piece pinstripe type with salt-and-pepper hair are oblivious to the rest of the herd.
"You know that woman sitting across from you, the one I tried to introduce you to . . ." she starts to say. "I'd rather get to know you better," he answers, looking deeply into her eyes, as the blush makes its way across her pretty face.
By champagne-and-apple-pie time, ties and tensions have loosened considerably. In fact, at Table 2, the champagne and the conversation are absolutely flowing, most of it stimulated by Carol, a vivacious divorce' who freely admits to being 45. It doesn't seem to bother her a bit that the guy she's discussing her MBA program with is 29, and she's adept at guessing home states, coming up with three out of three. But when she pulls out pictures of her teen-age daughters and tries to focus on herself, the audience loses interest. It's 10 o'clock and the meal is over. The guests have another hour to dance to records played by a deejay, or go back to the bar. Now is the time when a fair number admit they've been to the dinners, or similar gatherings, before. "You try not to have an preconceived notions," says Peter, a lawyer in his late twenties. "You try to have a good time."
That's all Estok -- the man who puts it all together at Open U -- hopes for his customers. He stresses that the sole purpose is to mix good people and good food. Anyone with expectations of meeting that special someone, he warns, is probably in for a disappointment. He says he's never heard of any big success stories (such as marriage). "That would be much too dramatic."
Yet Estok, who will not give his age but appears to be in his mid-twenties, believes the concept is much better than a singles bar, because dinner is less impersonal. And, he laughs, it beats a blind date: "At least you're not locked in for the evening. There's always someone else to talk to at the next course."