The lights are low, the ambience high. The music is Arabic. Waiters in red fezzes bear big baskets of bread for dipping. It is a romantic setting for the ladies of the club--the Lesbian Dining Club.
Name tags, first names only, help to break the ice as the 30 women seat themselves at the low, round tables. So does the "Social Hour Challenge," a mixer game with a prize for the woman who meets the most women.
At these parties, says club founder Jill Hankoff, "there are no wallflowers." She makes sure of that with a rotation dinner format. Between each course--and tonight there will be six--Hankoff rings a bell, a signal for the "butterflies," those who found a yellow butterfly card at their places, to move to another table.
We are in a private dining room at the Marrakesh in Studio City, which is sort of Rick's Cafe transplanted from Casablanca to the Valley. Privacy is one of Hankoff's priorities when choosing restaurants--"I don't want looky-loos."
Some of the women are "out"; others are not. Still others are only exploring their sexual orientation.
"It's not like we check you in at the door and say, 'Are you for sure a lesbian?' " Hankoff says.
She keeps her mailing list confidential, the price of admission fairly high ($45 a head for tonight's event) and prides herself on attracting professional women seeking the same. Many are of a certain age, an age at which they have little interest in the lesbian bar scene.
"Comfortable" is the word most choose to describe the atmosphere at the Lesbian Dining Club, which was launched in December by Hankoff, 40, who also founded California Singles and the Gay Gourmet, a dining-out group for gay men.
Janet, 70, a retired engineer attending her first club dinner, says, "I have been a closeted gay. I lost my friend of 47 years a couple of years ago. I've been at a loss."
A vice president of a brokerage firm says she is working on coming out, but is afraid of losing clients.
"People don't understand," she says. "They don't understand that we are their bankers, their lawyers, their vice presidents, their dentists."
Most are happy to talk, but do not wish their names used.
Hankoff acknowledges that the issue of whether there is a balance at the events she organizes is a concern. But her attitude is, "Life is not gender-balanced. They can work it out."
She laughs. "One gal didn't want to sit next to me because she knew I wasn't gay. But most of those who ask me don't seem to mind."
There are mothers and grandmothers in the mix tonight. They include a 48-year-old makeup artist who lives in Orange County. "I'm a late bloomer," she says. "I'm 48, and I came out five years ago."
She is a regular at club events. "It's truly like a family--and it's good for networking."
Not everyone is looking for love or sexual relationships. They come for an evening of fun, or perhaps to make new friends who share their interests.
In the lesbian community, as in society as a whole, young and beautiful is desirable. "As women get older, it becomes harder to meet people," says a psychotherapist in her mid-50s, who is a grandmother.
She was another late bloomer. Though she had her first homosexual experience while in college, she could never relate to the "gross exaggerations" of lesbian life and stereotypes she saw in gay bars 35 years ago. Today, the therapist says, she feels free to "be who I am. I don't want to be a man. I like being a woman--an intelligent, caring, loving woman" hoping to find someone like herself.
Joan, 51, a lawyer, says: "This is a non-threatening way of meeting people without someone being on the make," as in the gay bars. "You can get to know someone, learn a little about them and decide if you would like to see them." She recently broke off a relationship and hopes to meet someone else.
Ria Sotelo, 51, a Lesbian Dining Club regular from Long Beach, is attracted to the club as a place where there's no heavy drinking and the music doesn't drown out real conversation. "These are professional women. They need to be up in the morning. They're not in the bar whooping it up during the week."
Lily Olan, 34, a social worker, comes often to the dinners, though she is quick to say she is not "desperately seeking a mate." She would like to find another Latina but thinks her chances are slim. "I don't see many Latinas in this kind of setting. I sometimes wonder if I am ever going to meet another Puerto Rican lesbian."
Belly dancers are part of the deal at Marrakesh, but not all of these women are as amused as one who wraps one of the dancer's sequined red veils around her hips and does a little shimmy. "Sexist!" grumble several of the women.
For their part, Melissa and Mystica, the dancers, thought the audience was very nice.
A 35-year-old vitamin company employee shrugs. "To me, it's entertainment. Of course, there's a sexist element because it's designed to please men. And it's a little embarrassing for me to watch a woman who's putting out sexuality and doing it for men."