Your date sir? The girl with the dark hair...

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The Independent Culture
You're too busy to have a love life let alone buy a Valentine's card? Join the club. The lunch club, that is, where your date is found for you, the restaurant booked. All you have to do is turn up and turn on the charm. Glenda Cooper gives it a whirl.

The course of true love never did run smooth - but try being a busy London professional pursuing a career. Noted down in the Psion is the project to find Mr Right, but where to look when you're working all hours, you can't complicate your job by going out with a colleague, and your married friends set you up with a succession of dire people? This is why one Tuesday lunchtime I found myself seated opposite a man called Barry in a crowded restaurant. I knew nothing more about Barry than that he came from the US. He could have been a member of the Swedish royal family or a complete loon. (As it turns out, neither.) We had been brought together by an agency called Only Lunch, which specialises in playing Cupid for careerists, catching a generation of Nineties men and women who are too busy to organise a love life for themselves.

Barry is a few minutes late. We both look absolutely petrified. It's all very well being mature when it comes to dating agencies, but I think both of us are secretly terrified the other will think "Urggh, forget personality. I don't fancy you." It's like being 15 all over again.

More and more people, however, are willing to put themselves through this. "The phone hasn't stopped ringing since the day we launched," says Janetta Hamilton-Brown, one of the founders of the agency. "Every newspaper, every magazine I pick up is talking about the problem of being a singleton."

There are now 500 people on the books of Only Lunch, set up in September 1996. It offers two main selling-points: it handmatches clients rather than relying on computers or questionnaires, and it sends people out to lunch, rather than into the social minefield of evening meetings.

"We aimed to create an environment which was safe and pressure-free, and we thought going for lunch provided that," says Janetta. "If you don't like them you can go back to the office. You haven't got all that 'how am I going to get out of this politely?'"

For pounds 560 a year you get to go on at least eight dates, where Only Lunch matches the couple, makes the date and books the restaurant. Only first names are exchanged, leaving the couple to decide later whether to swap phone numbers or fix another date. (If they don't get on, they just wish each other "good luck" - a coded goodbye.) As for the bill, it is always split 50/50. "I think that's what really attracts men. Most dating agencies have a real problem attracting men in general. We offer what most men want: we'll do everything for them - choose the woman, book the restaurant, arrange the time."

Barry ("please don't use my real name, no one knows I use a dating agency") joined when he came to work for a software company in London, because he knew few people in the capital. Those he did know were always setting him up on unsuitable dates. "Someone mentioned it at work and I followed it up. I didn't tell anyone, though."

That brought problems when he introduced an Only Lunch date to his friends. They had agreed a story beforehand but "there was one guy that wanted all the details, wouldn't let it drop. I was so worried that she'd trip up, I didn't dare leave her alone all evening. It was very stressful."

Now he is a veteran Only Luncher, having been on six dates since he joined six months ago. "My first three dates were a naval officer and two policewomen. I went back and asked to have my criteria reassessed. It sounds awful, but I asked if they could give me some better-looking women.

"It served me right. The next date was an actress who was very beautiful but talked about herself non-stop for the whole lunch - dreadful. Still, there's nothing worse than a woman who doesn't say anything at all."

I am momentarily lost for words.

Despite Barry's fear of being found out, Janetta assures me that there is no stigma attached to using an agency nowadays and that it is not full of "sad, lonely people who haven't got a personality". "We have lots of lawyers, doctors, people in advertising, the media and the film industry. They come in here and say 'I've got a really hectic lifestyle. I haven't got the chance to meet the kind of people I'd really like to. Can you sort it out?' And we become more like their social secretary than a dating agency."

I suppose all men are looking for 16-year-old blondes with an impressive bust, I say gloomily. "We don't get as many men looking for 16-year-olds," reassures Janetta. "We have lots of women in their late 30s, early 40s, looking for younger men. That's been the most astonishing thing. They come in dressed beautifully and say, 'well, quite honestly I don't want to go out with someone who's 55 just because I'm 45. I'd like to go out with someone younger."

The agency asks for at least two forms of identification, and if you are divorced they ask for some sort of proof. Your interview lasts an hour, when questions range from basics (age, nationality, education, marital status) to more detailed questions such as whether you mind if your date has children, and whether you are willing to date someone from a different ethnic background, or someone with a disability.

Janetta asked me a lot about interests - sports, reading, theatre, cooking - "I'm crap at cooking," I said. "Good," she replied, (obviously thinking I'm going to eat a lot of lunches out, then). "What were the last films you saw: "Spice World and Boogie Nights". (Dread to think what that says about me.) Then the crucial question: "What type of person are you looking for?"

"If someone comes in with ridiculous expectations we won't take them on. We say 'I'm sorry, we can't fulfil those criteria'," Janetta adds hastily. So there's no point really asking for Mr Darcy/ Colin Firth then. "What are your strengths and weaknesses in relationships," she asks. "Er ..." I say. "Well, if one of your ex-boyfriends was sitting there, what would they say?"

I go bright red. "I think they'd say I'm a fairly easy-going person, with a short temper, who's quite supportive and, er, quite fun to be with. Oh I don't know. It depends which one you ask."

So far there are 35 couples in steady relationships, four people engaged, and one couple married, thanks to Only Lunch. But it doesn't always work out. "Maitre d's will sometimes let us know how they've thought the lunch has gone," says Janetta. "There was one couple who met at lunch for 1pm and at first it didn't look as if they were going to get on. By 5pm the maitre d' had to ask them to move to the bar. By 7pm they had to be moved to the lounge area. They didn't actually end up leaving until 9pm. The next day they both rang in to complain they hadn't really enjoyed themselves because there hadn't been that spark."

You'll be disappointed to hear that Barry and I left at a sedate 2.30pm. We'd got on well, although it was never going to be Gone with the Wind. Anyway Barry had had to come clean. "I've actually put my membership on hold at the moment," he said. "I've just started seeing someone. No, as it happens ,not through Only Lunch. I met her down the pub on New Year's Eve."

Oh well, maybe the old ways are the best after all.

Only Lunch, Africa House, Suite 116, 64-78 Kingsway, Holborn, London WC2 6BG. Tel: 0171-404 8691.