DALLAS — At 8 p.m. sharp, men and women file into the restaurant, looking for their names on place cards at a table in the corner.
They sit down and introduce themselves. Sampling exquisite cuisine and fine wine, they chat about their jobs and laugh about the idiosyncrasies of their hometowns. They are attractive and well-heeled, career-oriented and single.
This isn't exactly a lonely hearts club.
The Eight at Eight Dinner Club, one of a growing number of dating services, caters to a more affluent clientele. The idea is to seat four men and four women informally at an upscale restaurant. If sparks fly, they can exchange business cards. If not, at least it was a good meal and a few laughs.
"You have an opportunity to meet both men and women to make friends with, without the pressure of a one-on-one date," said Oria Messina, who recently attended a dinner at Cafe Madrid in Dallas.
Some singles are new to town and want to meet same-sex friends. Others are struggling to get back into the dating scene after a divorce or breakup. Most are tired of bars and don't feel comfortable looking for love at church or the office.
"It's not hard to meet people, but sometimes it's hard to meet quality people," said Messina, 28, a speech pathologist from Baton Rouge, La., who moved to Dallas three years ago. "Being so busy with work, you get into your routine, and this is a great way to meet people."
Dating services, once considered a last resort for losers, have lost their stigma, said Patti Feinstein, a Chicago dating coach.
As Americans are waiting longer to get married, the pool of singles has swelled the last two decades. Although people may not be meeting as many potential mates as when they were younger and in school, they have plenty of options -- online dating, matchmaking services, activity clubs targeting singles -- if they are looking for love, she said.
"If you're 35 and single, you're not the only one," she said.
Eight at Eight started in Atlanta in 1998 and opened in Dallas in 2000. It also operates in Chicago, New York and Las Vegas and has about 1,500 members nationwide.
Owner Sarah Kathryn Smith, who bought the dating service from a family friend a few months after it started, plans to open franchises in 25 more cities by the end of next year. She says business is booming, although she won't discuss profits.
Members of the club pay $150 to $250 per year, depending on the city, and pay for their own meals. Anyone from age 21 to 40 may join, but a college degree is preferred. Those who join are asked to submit a picture and fill out a profile describing their interests, what they are looking for in a mate, whether they smoke and if they have children.
Organizers plan dinner parties based on those profiles, grouping people of similar ages and interests. People usually attend from three to six dinners a year. If two people who have attended the same dinner sign up for another event, organizers contact them to make sure they don't mind another meal together.
"Part of our guarantee is you never meet someone twice," said Smith.
An organizer from the company shows up before dinner to buy a round of drinks and get the conversation started. The organizer also arranges boy-girl-boy-girl seating.
After dinner, there's always the possibility that all the men will be interested in the same woman or vice versa. But potentially awkward situations are avoided because dinner parties are low-key and not overtly romantic, some members said.
"Everybody circulates business cards, so you leave with everyone's card," said Bob Buehler, 35, a management consultant who moved to Dallas from Chicago five years ago. "It's not always a love connection, but it's always a great networking opportunity."
At least 45 couples who have met at Eight at Eight dinners have gotten married, Smith said. Because of recent publicity, more women than men are flocking to join, so ladies may be on a waiting list for a month or two, she said.
Stefan Werdegar, 28, who works in technical sales, has been a member of Eight at Eight in Dallas for about a year and has dated several women he met at dinners. He said the cost is a bit high, but he is glad the service has matched him with people of similar interests.
"This is a really good avenue, and you have to have multiple channels to meet people," he said.
Eight at Eight fills a void for busy, transient singles who have focused on their careers, Smith said.
"In previous generations, people set each other up," she said. "But if you move to a new town, you don't have your mother's best friend to set you up with her son."