Twenty-five of the most probably eligible and most certainly attractive men of New York were gathered in black tie, drinking champagne. But when it came to eating, they suddenly turned shy -- camera shy. They didn't like to be photographed eating food. Reluctant though not recalcitrant, they protested that it doesn't look good.
"I don't think one can look attractive while you are eating," said Peter Stanley as he ducked the photographer. "Eating is a bodily function: How exciting and enchanting and graceful can you look?"
It was an evening meant to blend food and romance, and there was no doubt everyone was intent on looking good. The occasion was a party sponsored by Seagrams to show off its Mumm champagne, though the stated purpose was to introduce food critic and author Gael Greene to "the most eligible men of New York." The location was the about-to-be-disassembled designer-showcase apartment made for her, right down to its combination dining room/bedroom -- with wine cellar. It was as blatant a meeting-and-greeting party as one could imagine.
The food? Aphrodisiacs, of course, such as shellfish and tropical fruits (in this case shrimp with papaya-mango vinaigrette provided by Jams restaurant).
The men? Real estate magnates Paul Restaino, Arthur Imperatore and Harley Baldwin; Leroy Reams of "42nd Street"; TV personality Chauncey Howell; theatrical producer Larry Alford; investment bankers Brendan Heneghan, Ken Brody, Don McShane; Larry Woodard playing romantic music on the piano. And more.
If any men are experts at meeting women, these should be. And while they sipped champagne and avoided being caught mid-oyster, they were willing to pass the time talking about food rather than eating it.
"If you don't know how to eat well, you don't know other things about life," declared Gilbert LeCoze, chef of Le Bernardin in Paris, who isn't himself eligible, but feeds a lot of people who are. "I can't like a woman who doesn't understand anything about food and wine and all the marvelous things in life," he continued. "Food is the first contact point."
Ron Marshall, a fabric supplier, was thinking along similar lines. His first impression of a woman is affected strongly "by how excited she got by the menu." As for her impression of him, he likes to stack the deck by taking women to restaurants that will make special dishes for him. And he likes women who are adventurous diners, who aren't afraid to try things.
A woman's drinking preferences are also significant for Marshall. "I like it if a woman drinks wine -- wine or champagne -- not mixed drinks," he said. Actor Paul Dumont uses food as an indicator of a woman's character, having found "you can determine whether somebody is capricious or spoiled" by what she orders and the way she eats. As for where he would choose to determine this, his idea of a romantic meeting place is at the top of the World Trade Center, "at the last half hour" before the elevator stops taking people up. He personally doesn't believe in aphrodisiacs, but willingly plays to others beliefs, and would certainly order oysters "if I thought that a woman might think that . . . "
None of the men would admit to worrying about how much a woman eats, but Craig Powell, though he is executive director of the hotel association in New York, claimed that romance can rob his appetite for food. If he really likes a woman, he confided, "I eat less. I don't even think about food." Indeed, he was eating very little that night.
For Harley Baldwin, who is the developer of Manhattan's Bridgemarket, which he expects to be "the great food market of the world," the most romantic place to eat is in his own kitchen in the Dakota apartments. No wonder: It is 20 by 25 feet, white tile, with a large painting of the sky. And the huge white countertop is like a canvas, he said. Shopping, cooking, then eating in the library or just standing in the kitchen -- that is his idea of a perfect date.
Only one of the men was not in black tie; Art Powers, who had designed and installed the stereo equipment in the apartment and was in pristine white work clothes as well as the rose boutonniere all the eligibles were wearing, wouldn't dream of taking a woman out to eat before he knew her well enough. He'd first take her to a movie, to make sure they laugh at the same things, before he'd risk dinner.
Washington eligibles, also, seem likely to save a dinner splurge for when they have already checked out a new woman. The first meeting -- say, for a blind date or a response to a personals ad -- is likely to be at a bar. Public enough, yet private enough. Not too expensive. And -- crucial to Washington workaholics -- not too time consuming. A discreet survey of a few men who have met women through personals ads confirmed that a bar near work, his or hers, is likely to be a first meeting place.
Uptown, the Chevy Chase Lounge is as standard a rendezvous site as the Oak Room of the Plaza is in New York; downtown, the standard seems to be the Class Reunion, though it is sometimes so crowded he might miss her and have to make do with an ad hoc substitute.
Though the initial meeting place is likely to be a bar, in this month's Washingtonian personals 38 men mention such eating occasions as dining and picnicking as favorite activities. Only two mention cooking, and none of them brags that he is a good cook (most of the eight women who mention cooking advertise theirs as especially good).
So what's the big risk in a restaurant for a first meeting? First, there is the worry of running out of conversation before the salad course. Or finding the blind date no better than the last one he accepted nine years ago -- which caused him to vow never again. Then there is what the choice of restaurant tells about you: One man responding to a personals ad proposed in his letter that they meet the next Saturday at Tio Pepe, obviously not having been to Georgetown recently enough to know that Tio Pepe had become the Italian Oven.
A few men risk showing their food preferences right up front, figuring that after they have talked to a woman on the phone they know whether they want to spend an evening with her. One personals ad respondent skips the quick meeting at a bar and goes right to the restaurant stage. If she doesn't like his favorite little ethnic holes-in-the-wall such as Tropicana and Siddhartha, he might as well know before the relationship goes any further.
And then there is the guy who wows them the first time out with a picnic in his Mercedes, though it has been suggested that his particular Mercedes needs a housekeeper before he answers the next ad.
In singles' dining clubs men have it easy. There are always more women than men available, so they have their pick of the invitations. Entrees, Inc., a dining club with nearly 1,000 members, offers women invitations once or twice a month, but men are welcome about as often as they want. Founder Stel Gibson says she spends her life "soliciting men." She jokes that she carries suits in her car for hitchhikers and waiters with free moments.
Entrees matches up guests for dinner parties of eight to 10 people -- at restaurants such as Tivoli, Dominique's and La Miche -- by computer, limiting the age range to 10 years and trying to make sure the people haven't met before. Gibson greets the guests and gets everyone comfortable with drinks in the cocktail lounge before she leaves them in the hands of a member-host and they are seated for dinner, with place cards and a rose at the plate of each woman. The tables are round -- Gibson brings them herself if necessary -- to facilitate conversation. Inevitably there is plenty to talk about: the food. To break the ice there is the talk about who is ordering what, and whether anyone is willing to trade tastes.
Nobody dares take bread at first, but once the appetizer arrives, convention breaks down, and by dessert the group is in conversation together -- about restaurants, about childhood dishes, about cooking. Even the night one man disappeared in the middle of the meal, having left the table several times during the first course, conversation was undaunted; in fact, he proved an interesting subject for the dessert course -- and an extra dessert for the group to share.
Singles' dining groups are about as unstable as dating itself is. Some drop out of the scene quickly, others have their date books filled. The same is true for the members. "I'm my own competition," says Gibson, explaining that when she does well she loses people, because once they form into couples they drop their membership. But not for long; she gives most relationships three months to two years. At least one singles' dining group has split into a marrieds' dining group as well, with members shifting from one to the other as the occasion warrants.
Thus it has been with the Gourmet Group, which has been going strong for nine years and spun off to Gourmet Couples. As usual, in the Gourmet Group fewer men than women belong, so there is a waiting list for women to join, and men get invited to more parties. Men tend to go to larger parties, says founder Dick Taeuber. "It takes a bit of social confidence" to go to small group dinners, he says.
These are parties where the members bring the food or cook together. And the food provides most of the conversation. Early in the evening the first awkward talk is about the ingredients, the appearance and the smell of the food. And setting up the dinner provides activity that encourages one stranger to talk to another rather than just to the group as a whole. Men get a lot of mileage out of their cooking, as if at each dinner it is a wonderful new discovery that men can cook.
As the evening goes on, much of the talk is about the price of food and wine, and restaurant suggestions are traded. Members reminisce about other Gourmet Group dinners -- the complete riijstaffel for 24, the homemade beer tasting. In all, the conversation starts over food and about food and hardly budges from the subject.
In this age of specialization there are Gourmet Groups for vegetarians and there are Gourmet Groups for specific neighborhoods. There is a singles' group just for desserts and champagne. But there is one thing that every group -- indeed every dinner -- has in common. That is, a substantial proportion of the guests will at some point in the evening announce for all to hear that they ate too much. Every time.