The first course boasts a full spread: French onion soup, truffle risotto lollipops, sauteed artichokes and plenty of warm bread.
But even more appetizing is the conversation, laughter and debate among diners who were once perfect strangers. Now, they sit by candlelight, with Stevie Wonder's "Part Time Lover" playing in the background, at O's Food and Wine Bar in St. James.
It's the perfect backdrop for the Singles Dining Out Meetup Group -- one of several local clubs for folks who don't want to eat out alone. If friendships or romantic relationships form in the process, so be it.
"Most of my friends are married, and they don't dine out," says Lori Davis, 44, of Hauppauge.
For Jeanne Duffy, of St. James, it's a chance to broaden her social circle. "You meet people you would have never met otherwise," she says.
HOW IT WORKS
Most dining-out groups use social media websites such as Facebook, Yelp and Meetup.com to corral diners. Meals out are scheduled once a month or so, with members RSVPing if they're attending. The price for dinner can vary from $25 to $50, plus tax and tip. Larger coveys, such as Long Island Dining Out, which has 414 members (typically less than 20 attend each event), rely on prix-fixe menus, so there are no surprises when the bill comes, says the group's organizer, Lee Zett, 70, of Farmingdale. Meetup members commonly pay small yearly dues or a nominal fee at each gathering to offset the cost of maintaining the group's website.
Dining Out member Loren Edlin, who joined four years ago to get out of her "comfort zone," says the experience is "fantastic."
"This group has got me out of my shell," says Edlin, 46, of Farmingdale. "Sometimes, I just never want it to end. When it's over, it's sad because you want to keep talking and keep sharing."
While the prospect of chatting it up with new people may seem daunting, it's less so over an entree, says Adam Kronstat, who founded Gastro Tours Long Island -- a "foodventurous" crew of mostly mid-to-late-20-somethings that focuses on ethnic food.
"Food changes the relationship," says Kronstat, 51, of Bellmore. "Maybe the first five minutes, it was a little awkward because no one knew each other." But it's nothing a few pitchers of sangria and small talk doesn't cure, he says.
Another dining group -- the Long Island Film, Feast-Sunday/ Funday Meetup -- gathers weekly to watch a film, then critiques it over a meal. Members -- film-loving singles ages 50 and up -- have gone on to organize trips, spa dates and Oscar-viewing parties together, too.
"It's been one of the most wonderful things that I've been a part of," says Marlene Levy, a psychotherapist from Sands Point who founded the group. "When people become widowed or divorced, they don't know what they like or don't like without a partner. The only thing they do know is that they have to eat . . . so why eat alone?"
Long Island Dining Out
Gastro Tours Long Island
Search the group's name on Facebook.com
Singles Dining Out Meetup Group
Long Island Film Feast Sunday/Funday Meetup