Hot Lunch

It's not unusual for men to hit on Missy Kutzor. But when a guy walked up to her during lunch at The Olive Garden, it caught her off guard. "He looked me up and down and said hi," Kutzor recalls. "I just ignored him."

The strikeout artist remains unknown (and unwanted) to this day. Yet, like the person who first sliced bread evenly, tossing the heels aside, or the Pilgrim who pounded cranberries into a tart and inedible jelly, this unknown hero forever changed the way Americans live. OK, that's a bit of a stretch, but he did manage to connect lunch and dating. The English author Joseph Addison--no relation to the city and its restaurant row--once said, "The most violent appetites in all creatures are lust and hunger." Apparently the Dallas lunch crowd possesses plenty of both. Anecdotal evidence suggests that while it may be too soon for concerned mothers to issue warnings about dangers lurking at chain restaurants, lunchtime has become a major scope-fest.

About half of all adults in the United States eat out on any given day, according to the National Restaurant Association, with lunch accounting for 37 percent of all restaurant traffic. "Lunch is nonthreatening," says Jennifer Donnelly, regional director of It's Just Lunch, a noontime dating service. "Everybody is looking for an easier way to meet people, and they're tired of the bar scene."

Well, Kutzor's case may seem extreme--it was The Olive Garden, after all--but plenty of singles already base prearranged dates around lunch or coffee. A group in San Francisco, for example, developed the concept of "speed dating" at coffee shops. Speed daters allow only eight minutes for contact and conversation, switching tables and potential partners when a bell rings. It's sort of a cross between Pavlov and musical chairs, the kind of thing that happens only in California. Here in Dallas, Donnelly's less dramatic service counts 1,400 clients. They report that frustration with the bars and a lack of time to invest in the dating process drove them to the lunchtime scene. They meet--discreetly--at places like Abacus, Canyon Café, Liberty Noodle, Truluck's, and Blue Mesa. "We don't have a reputation as a pickup place," says a puzzled Tom Hill, manager of Blue Mesa. "We do have a number of people who come in--singles--who meet, but it's probably business." Hill insists that during lunch, his establishment caters to a business crowd with little time for hanky-panky, although in a Freudian moment he actually described lunch as the "in-and-out" crowd.

Granted, no one will confuse lunch with happy hour, but such calculating singles in the Dallas area recognize the important role lunch plays in the scouting process. "Lunch is good for recon operations," says Jennifer Ring, sounding a bit like a Green Beret. Her strategy includes small, maneuverable fire teams. "Don't go with a large group of girls," she says, "because it's too intimidating."

The simple act of introducing yourself to someone at lunch, as in the Kutzor incident, may result only in a blank stare. But Susan Rabin, the world's foremost flirt and author of How to Attract Anyone, Anytime, Anyplace and several other seminal works on flirting, urges such non-confrontational action. "You have to take risks, get out of yourself, do something," she advises. Rabin believes any time is appropriate for flirting, but acknowledges that it's a very subtle art. "It's assertive, not aggressive," she says. "You don't want to come on too strong, but you don't want to do nothing." Donnelly agrees. "It doesn't hurt to approach someone," she says. "It's simply a matter of how you do it."

Neither Rabin nor Donnelly knows of any official lists of lunchtime scoping etiquette, but both suggest a certain level of tact. For example, approach victims either before their food arrives or after they finish eating. This is very important at barbecue joints. For men, don't stare at women--a la the guy who approached Kutzor. Just step in, offer a nice compliment, and follow the response cues. Should the intended target show some interest, "you might want to offer your business card and say, 'Give me a call,'" says Donnelly. Most important, they say, don't look desperate. Oh, and don't talk about your ex, either.

Little things like proper timing, the right approach, and the absolute absence of begging spell success. But Hill--still certain that Blue Mesa draws a crowd focused only on business--also stresses the importance of layout and atmosphere to successful restaurant dating. "We try to keep the tempo going," he says. "We set the music loud enough to be heard, but not too loud." Donnelly, too, recommends the right atmosphere. "You want someplace fun, hip, comfortable, with a bit of a crowd," she says.

Unimpressed by etiquette, propriety, or even feng shui, Ring looks at the problem in terms of raw numbers: the more guys, the better. "Lot's of meat, lot's of TVs; these remain the keys," she says.


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