Date Shake

Dating is an evil practice. It forces people who barely know each other to spend awkward hours suffering through dinner and a movie, a night at the theater, or a weekend trying to find their way home from a foreign country that doesn't even have the courtesy to use English as its primary language.Most people know within minutes whether an encounter will lead to romantic bliss or if they would be doing themselves a bigger favor by quietly slitting their wrists with their butter knife. True story: One of my more memorable trysts wasn't even supposed to be a date. It was a few summers ago, and I had invited "Jerk" (his real name) to come with a group heading to Rocky Point for the weekend. He seemed nice enough; he owned several restaurants, meaning we would have common interests to discuss. And his greatest virtue: He offered to drive. He also had a girlfriend, which I figured made him a nonthreatening tagalong.

As soon as we arrived at the beach, Jerk plowed into the Scotch. He chugged tequila. He downed all amounts of vodka, beer and wine. If it was in liquid form, he drank it. Memories of his girlfriend back home quickly dissipated, and later that night, I woke to find my bed filled with foul-smelling ooze. It was Jerk. After a couple of enthusiastic pops to his skull, he got the message and stormed angrily away.

All the way back to Phoenix. In his car. Without me.

Now, given that it was Rocky Point in August (I'm smarter now), the temperature was roughly 150 degrees with humidity so thick that if air had an alcohol content, Jerk would have sucked it down, too. The other members of my group, having arrived earlier than I and quickly realizing that the weekend would be better spent in hell, had split. So there I was in Mexico, stranded with just a 115-pound dog that hated me for bringing him on this sweltering sojourn when he had perfectly good air conditioning at home.

Long story short: By chance, I ran into someone I knew who agreed to take me back to Phoenix. Yet, he'd just suffered an unfortunate incident in the cab of his truck involving large amounts of fireworks, and that, combined with my cranky, much-too-large pet, meant I spent the five-hour drive home on the floor under what was left of the scorched dashboard, dog spit dripping into my hair.

So I think what Kim Arendt is doing is a good thing. For the past year, Arendt has been organizing casual dinner parties for singles tired of the bar scene and looking to meet new friends. People can enjoy no-obligation dinners once or twice a month, chat -- and then run away.

Dining Singles is not a romance service, Arendt emphasizes, although several of her guests are currently coupled with people they met at the dinners. Rather, it's a group of some 35 career-oriented types who enjoy good restaurants and simply don't have a regular companion to come along.

"While we don't have a dating theme, I put people at tables with others who have hobbies or backgrounds in common," she explains. "The rest is up to them. I will say that when I see people sharing phone numbers with each other, I know I've had a successful dinner."

As far as she knows, her home-based business is the only organized dinner club in the Valley.

It's a mixed crowd, including doctors, bankers, stockbrokers, lobbyists and marketing professionals ranging from 25 to 75 (most are 30 to 50, Arendt says). Guests pay a $60 membership fee and $35 for each dinner they attend. It's a good deal, too, including an appetizer, salad, entree, dessert and coffee, at such places as Citrus Café, Romeo's Euro Café, Sam's Café and the Melting Pot.

Dining Singles is extremely popular with women, who often come in groups, Arendt tells me. "They could really care less about meeting a guy -- they're there to make new friends with common interests. The guys, of course, are very interested in finding dates."

While most people are on their best behavior for the dinners, Arendt does reserve the right to cancel the memberships of any "Jerks" who may sneak in. One former member, she recalls, couldn't keep his mouth shut, insulting everyone around him at his first -- and only -- dinner.

Keeping the focus on dinner helps the get-togethers remain stress-free, Arendt figures. "Years ago, I was a member of a dating dinner club, but I was never lucky enough to meet Mr. Right through it. Here, there's no pressure -- just mix, mingle, enjoy a good dinner, and if you want, go out for drinks later with your new friends."

Ladies, if you go, just be sure to take your own car.

After Dinner Mint: The winners of the 10th Annual James Beard Awards have been announced, and Phoenix's nominees didn't make the cut. The chefs made a great showing, however, with three out of five nominees for the Best Chef in the Southwest hailing from Arizona (Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco, Robert McGrath of Roaring Fork, and the winner, Janos Wilder of Janos in Tucson). Vincent on Camelback was nominated for the Outstanding Service Award, given to a restaurant demonstrating the highest standards of hospitality in the nation, but was beat out by some yokel from New York.

More Mints: I'm of the opinion that the onion is a peculiar vegetable. I despise them raw (one of the few foods I won't eat; they give me a tremendous headache), but I do enjoy them sautéed, roasted, served hot in soups and chilled in ice cream. Okay, I've never had onion ice cream, but it certainly sounds intriguing. You can find out for yourself at this weekend's 12th Annual Sweet Onion Festival, held Saturday and Sunday at Glendale's historic Sahuaro Ranch. Grand Canyon Sweet Onions will be presented in every edible and drinkable form imaginable, so stock up on your Breath Savers.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet