Like your espresso strong and your men sweet? At Drip, a coffee shop in Manhattan, you can have a date as a side-order. Victoria Young went along
There is a slight edge to the atmosphere at Drip, a coffee shop in Manhattan's Upper West Side, that is hard to define. Despite the sultry lighting and smooth background jazz designed for lounging and relaxation, a masked unease prevails. It is the palpable unease of a first date, but on a grand scale.

Many of the well-dressed punters are leafing intently through stacks of A4 binders that litter the coffee tables and the cosy, overstuffed armchairs. There is a sense of purpose in the air. And no wonder, since it is now possible to order a slice of romance with your French vanilla latte or hot apple cider. If you can call a blind date romance, that is.

Take, Jamie, a 27-year old who works for DKNY. She is looking for a "take- charge, quality guy" who is over 6 feet tall (she is 5ft10in and knows her comfort zone, she says), and she thinks that Drip might be the place to find him. One too many unsuccessful blind dates set up by her well- intentioned mother has inspired her to take matters into her own hands. If she is going to go on blind dates, she reasons, she may as well play a part in the selection process.

She has curly dark hair and an intelligent face. The form she filled out earlier states a resemblance to Sandra Bullock, but she thinks that her self assured confidence can throw men off.

After sharing a rice krispy treat with her girlfriend, she settles down to scour the files with recently manicured red nails. Her friend, identical nails flashing in flamboyant motion, gives a running commentary on the process to Mike, a 27-year-old transportation planner with a baby face who happens to be sitting nearby. "We look at the age, the height and the profession," says the friend, of the forms that occupy the files. "And if it doesn't have a star then it's a no-no," she tells him matter of factly. (Jewish applicants tend to identify themselves with a star of David.)

Mike is all ears. He is looking to pick up a few tips to help him with his search for a sweet Catholic girl. But while he can see the potential of being able to read one's dates' credentials on paper before meeting them, he is realistic about the odds of success. He reckons that only one out of every four requests he has made for dates have been successful, and none of the dates themselves.

Most people agree that it is hard to find a soul-mate in Manhattan. Maybe because many New Yorkers are so ambitious and busy that romance plays second fiddle to their career. At least that is the theory of Drip's owner, Nancy Slotnick, a 31-year-old Harvard graduate who started out as a corporate head-hunter until she realised that she was more interested in people's love lives.

Drip opened two-and-a-half years ago, and the dating activities started as a mere bulletin board called the Love Life board where regulars would leave notes, phone numbers, and invitations for mysterious strangers they had noticed over a steaming cappuccino. As demand escalated, Ms Slotnick realised the hole in the market and made the service official. She devised a form, to be filled out anonymously, detailing such crucial intimacies as favourite time of day, biggest turn-offs, and ideal weekend plans. Her immensely friendly staff became matchmakers, arranging the dates (with numbers instead of names) via telephone.

Registration is $5 (pounds 3), each date request is an additional $2.50, and since this is Manhattan, there are "women for women" and "men for men" on offer as well as "women for men" and vice versa. The only restriction, if your date accepts of course, is that the first date must take place at Drip. Now, the database is more like a dating army, 20,000 strong, and Drip is a dating haven.

According to Ms Slotnick, for New Yorkers in search of love, blind dating is a realistic activity since it is so hard to meet people. But blind dates can be problematic when the ugly reality of the situation bites within the first 10 minutes and suddenly a long evening looms ahead. Which is precisely why Drip, where the commitment of a cup of coffee is relatively minor, is so successful.

Rebecca and Madhu, both 26-year-old account executives in advertising, are deep in conversation. The files are open and their brows furrowed. Rebecca, who would like to meet an honest, outdoorsy type, has been invited on a date by someone who read her form, which she admits to filling out "on a whim". But she is uninspired by the vital statistics of her would- be wooer. Madhu, whose turn-offs include hairy backs and complacency, and whose favourite time of day is happy hour, is urging Rebecca to take the plunge on humanitarian grounds. "You have to give someone credit who has the gumption to ask," is her logic. Disagreeing, Rebecca decided to decline the invitation.

As the night progresses, the atmosphere at Drip is buzzing with a resemblance to the warm interior of an industrious bee-hive as participants busily attend to their particular stage of involvement. Some are form-filling, others simply page-turning and note-taking and there is a huddle of lost souls waiting at the entrance for the arrival of their dates. Clusters of chair-perchers on dates, some with smiles a little too fixed, are consuming cappuccino's and wine under a discreet sign stating that "We at Drip are not responsible for the actions of your dates."

Mike, a 34-year-old long-haired musician/waiter/bartender looking for a zany girl to hang out with is leafing through the files a little furtively. He is trying to "get back out there", he says, after ending a seven-year relationship. "But there are so many freaks in New York that everyone has their blinders on." He has been on two or three dates so far but is still looking.

Guy, a gangly 32-year-old TV writer, is a regular who lives nearby. He estimates that he has been on half a dozen dates arranged by Drip and has the demeanour of a young child at a pick'n'mix stand who can't believe his luck. He is looking to meet "everyone from Miss Right to Miss Right Now", and thinks that it is the low-key atmosphere combined with the "hip, intelligent clientele" that makes Drip such an enjoyable place to spend time.

"Whatever makes this place they should bottle and sell it all over the world," he enthuses, practically panting. Well, Ms Slotnick is franchising the idea.

She pins her success on the open atmosphere of the cafe compared to the slightly furtive and solitary atmosphere that cloaks the personal ads and dating services in Manhattan. People can go to the cafe in groups and browse through the files with or without friends. Those with doubts need only look around at the multitudes of other well-dressed, high-maintenance 20- and 30-somethings sprawled on the vintage velvet sofas as reassuring representatives of their future potential dates.

An added bonus, Ms Slotnick points out, is the "signalling mechanism" inherent in the act of reading the files that quietly advertises people's single status in a way that can be seen as an invitation. "Drip is all about just walking up and talking to someone you like the look of," she explains.

Indeed, this is 40-year-old Paul's method of choice. A bearded illustrator, sleek in navy wool and olive skin, he makes no secret of the fact that he utilises Drip when he is in a "dating slump," and says frankly that he is here tonight because he is lonely. He is hoping to meet someone he can talk to, someone creative and honest.

But he never requests dates. "I just hang out here a lot," he says firmly, although he did fill out his own form a while back. "I'm very impressed with the people who come here," he says, casting an appreciative eye around the bevy of latte-sipping beauties scattered about the place. "Quality people come here. At first I thought it was a loser set-up, but this is definitely not a loser set-up."

As for the success rates, they are hard to gauge. The Love Life board is still up, displaying letters of thanks from some of the eight Drip couples who are either married or engaged, and numerous others who have been contentedly dating for a while.

But like the rest of New York, this is a cut-throat world. "It's like a resume," says Jamie of the process. "If there's one thing you don't like, if it doesn't catch your eye, you're over it and you turn the page."

Baby-face Mike is still listening, intent. Obviously not one to dwell on his misfortune, he is here after walking his Drip date to her taxi earlier this evening. Since the date was unsuccessful ("a very nice lady, but the chemistry wasn't there") he U-turned straight back into the cafe to continue his search.

"You've got to put the work in," he explains, already clutching three new date requests. "I work long hours and don't really have the time and energy to meet people. But I'm looking to get married in a few years, and wherever you find that person, it doesn't matter."

And this is the goal-oriented spirit that made the Big Apple great.