Looking for love... Douglas Fry does Table For Six in Canberra. Photo: Elesa Lee
The nature of this story is such that I must use a fake name to describe a fake name.
“I always use [White],” Jenny says of the alias she uses to book restaurant tables for Canberra’s latest table service. “It’s not as corny as Smith, plus it’s easy to spell and remember.”
Jenny is real – that is to say, Jenny Bibo is her real name – though her role in the world is slightly fantastic. Like some 21st century Venus, Jenny acts as an arbiter of love in the capital, arranging dinner for complete strangers via the Russian roulette relationship service of Table For Six. She selects a restaurant, and books in a half-dozen similarly-aged people under the moniker of “White”. Entrée. Mains. Dessert. Maybe sex. Possibly just someone to share in your Tamagotchi collection.
“I moved to Canberra from Queensland and found it a bit hard to break in and meet people down here, so I thought Table For Six would be really good, and it wasn’t here,” Jenny says.
“When I looked into it, they were looking for somebody to bring it to Canberra – so I decided to be the one to do it.”
Jenny started the Canberra branch in February, though the Table For Six franchise has expanded throughout Australia during the past decade. Some come for the social outlet, some come for new friends – but the Whites are all ultimately seeking love.
“Deep down, people are probably looking for a partner, but most people are just coming in and going, ‘Look, I just want to get out and open some new networks, I just want to get out to dinner’,” Jenny says.
“If you don’t connect romantically with anyone, it doesn’t really matter, you’ve still had a nice night out.”
As part of the standard vetting process, Jenny meets one-on-one with new Table For Six members before their first dinner. There’s an administrative aspect to this predate – a contract is signed, the person is verified as being over 18, and they must pledge not to be in a committed relationship. Jenny guarantees a minimum six dinners for the 12-month fee, all of which will have at least two new opposite-sex members in attendance.
New members are personally assessed to make it easier for Jenny to find a table of similar-minded people. At this point my pre-date becomes a little weird, a two-way interview stream that sees me struggling to answer basic questions about my personal interests.
“Films,” I say. “And books. I like music, too.” I also enjoy breathing air, though I forget to tell Jenny this.
“OK,” Jenny says. “What kind of music?”
“All sorts. Mostly dance music, I guess.”
“So you go to festivals and that sort of thing?”
“Yeah. Not really. Sometimes. Not that much anymore.”
Assuming that some lucky lady is bowled over by such a stunning display of colourful intrigue, I’m left to wonder – what happens after the dinner?
“They come back through me the following week and say, ‘I really enjoyed meeting so-and-so, I’d really like to meet up with them again for coffee’,” Jenny explains. “I’ll go to that person and ask them if they’re happy for me to pass on their contact details.”
While she hasn’t witnessed marriages yet, Jenny has managed to pair off quite a few couples, form new friendships and introduce newcomers to the city.
“You get all age groups, all types of people. Some very extroverted people, some very quiet, shy people, and sometimes they just enjoy being part of conversation,” Jenny says.
“There’s no real type of person that joins Table For Six, it really is a mixture – the only commonality amongst people is they’re all open to trying something different. They’ve got that right attitude of, ‘Well, let’s go to dinner and see what happens’.”
I don’t know whether I’ve got the right attitude, exactly. But I do pick up a half-decent bottle of wine before I arrive at the Turkish restaurant on Saturday night.
“Name?” the waitress asks.
She points to a table in the far corner. “Recognise that gentleman over there?”
He’s a total stranger, of course – but not to lie would be to give the game away. I take a seat next to the gentleman; Andrew will do for a name. He’s late-20s to mid-30s, same as everybody else, and presses into the corner for nervous shelter. Across the way, the three ladies have already arrived, and sit in a neat row like a heterosexual tribunal. I ask if anybody would like some wine. Declined, allergy, declined.
“Aw, yeah,” Andrew mumbles. “I’ll have a bit.”
I pour generously, drink deep and dive into the evening.
The conversation’s central nervous system is maintained by Heather, the director of a personal fitness company who regretfully followed her “loser ex-boyfriend” to Canberra.
“But every time I try to leave, I end up getting a better job here,” she says.
To her left, Kate is a public servant – in education, to be more precise – who is attending her fourth dinner; everyone else is on their first or second. Kate seems well-practised at keeping the conversational ball rolling.
“So what’re we all doing for Melbourne Cup day?” she enquires.
Staff tea room gatherings, office sweepstakes, a hired pavilion with mates at Thoroughbred Park, in Andrew’s case. Jane, on the other hand, will be overseeing a hat parade for the kids at the childcare centre she works for.
A standard working day at the centre, Jane says, begins with a ‘yard check’ to make sure nothing untoward has been left in the playground by overnight visitors – garbage, beer bottles, bongs.
Andrew also works with kids, though in a far more harrowing capacity, as an employee with Care and Protection Services.
“You have to really separate yourself from it, you have to talk it out, otherwise it can really get to you,” Andrew explains.
“That’s partly why I’m doing Table For Six, so I can find a partner to talk to this stuff about.”
When the third gentleman arrives – Walter the quiet computer scientist – the table has decided on a banquet, and as the platters of food begin to trickle out, I venture to ask Walter what his work entails. Everybody leans forward to hear the timid genius explain it in layman’s terms.
“I work for a start-up company that’s developing encryption technology. We’re hoping to win some government contracts, possibly intelligence agencies –”
LOUD MUSIC. Walter keeps talking, and while phrases like “long integers”, “fibre optics” and “can’t sell to China” creep through, he’s mostly stifled by the rasping horns that accompany the belly dancer who winds between the tables. Even after the performance ends, the music continues, and Heather grows impatient.
“That’s really loud,” she frowns. “Anyone else think that’s really loud? I’m going to ask them to turn it down.”
The table watches as she stands up and strides over to the bar; a moment later, the music quickly fades into silence.
“That was a pretty gutsy thing to do,” Andrew says when Heather resumes her seat.
“Take me as I am or watch me as I leave,” she shrugs.
Dessert, tea and coffee are offered, though the table is content to subsist on the cubes of Turkish delight that arrive by default. With the bottle of wine now looking sadly empty, I enquire about peoples’ experiences.
“It’s a great way to make friends,” Kate enthuses.
“Like, the last dinner I went to, some of the girls wanted to see the Queen painting at the National Portrait Gallery – so we organised that the following week.”
“I’ve enjoyed it,” says Jane, the sole (legitimate) first-timer. “I’m looking forward to the next one.”
The Whites are the last to leave the restaurant, and we mill outside the entrance for a few moments. The girls hug, the boys shake hands, and everyone agrees that it was lovely to have met before we all starburst into the night.