When Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008 and wealth manager Liz Doyle found herself out of a job it seemed the perfect time to come home to Belfast to spend some time with her family.
And losing her job turned out to be a stroke of good fortune as her less than impressive forays on the dating scene here prompted her to set up the Fine Dining Club, a bespoke way to find the ideal partner.
Indeed, so popular has it become that Liz says she even has some MLAs and a few of the country’s super wealthy among those who have signed up.
Liz (43) explains how that visit home five years ago changed her life: “I was coming home for six months then heading back to London,” says Liz, now 43. “I had no intention of staying put.”
Having gone to school in England at the age of 16 it had been at least 20 years since she had spent any considerable time here. On her return Liz discovered that most of her friends were now married with children.
“I would go to a dinner party on a Friday night and the talk would be nothing but primary schools, which I didn't have a clue about,” said Liz. “If I was really unlucky there would be the dreaded spare man for me to be set up with, then because the parents had to get up early for the kids the whole thing would be over by 10.15pm.”
While doing a series of financial jobs while she was here Liz bemoaned the Belfast dating scene.
“I tried to date online,” Liz explains. “I met one guy online who told me was 46, 5ft 10ins and sent me a picture of a guy with dark hair. When we Skyped he told me his webcam was broken so he could see me but I couldn't see him. Then we met for lunch. My first thought was, why would you send your dad on a date? It turned out he was 54, not 46 and that picture was 24 years old.”
Working in the financial sector in the world's largest city had previously given Liz a busy social life. “On a Friday or Saturday night someone from work would send out at text arranging to meet at a restaurant and you could bring anyone you liked with you. You would end up in a crowd of 20 out of which you had met two before. It was a fantastic way to meet people,” says Liz.
“I also had a bit of a habit of matching people together, I would think that so and so would get on really well with someone else and it usually worked. A pair of my best friends are married now because I introduced them.”
A friend of Liz's, Kim Johnston, had also recently returned from London and was lamenting the lack of a dating scene for singles over the age of 35. They came up with the idea of a night out for single people to meet and mingle.
“It was supposed to be a one off,” says Liz. “We booked a private dining room for 30 people in Deanes restaurant in Belfast and started asking people if they would like to come. I had done everything you're supposed to when you move somewhere new. I had joined the tennis club, the gym, the book club and I started asking single people I'd met through those if they wanted to come.”
In all 34 people attended that first evening in March 2009 — 17 men and 17 women. At that point, things started to change.
“My phone didn't stop ringing after that,” says Liz. “People had heard of it and were asking if I was doing another one. For two years the fine dining was just a hobby for me until September last year when I registered as a sole trader. Now this is a full time job.”
Anyone wishing to take part in the dinner party must first arrange to meet with Liz in person. She takes up residence in the Wellington Park Hotel in Belfast most weekday evenings and asks everyone to bring a passport or driver's license with them. Small touches like this are for everyone's safety.
“I turned down one guy recently who refused to meet me and bring ID with him,” explains Liz. “He just sounded odd and it didn't sit right with me.”
Next, Liz will spend around half an hour going through a form with the potential diner about their hobbies, likes and dislikes and what they are looking for in a partner. Getting to know the individual will help Liz to introduce them to like-minded people.
“It also means that whoever comes to the dining club, particularly women on their own, will know at least one person in the room — me. I might have met someone else who I think would make a good match and introduce them straight away.”
The meeting also enables Liz to make sure people are ready to start dating again. She has a strict rule that people must be divorced or separated for at least a year before they attend the dining club.
“I had a farmer phone me up,” says Liz. “He told me he was thinking of leaving his wife and thought it might be a good idea for him to come along. I turned him down straight away.”
Guests are met with a Champagne reception before they sit down to a three-course meal. The gentlemen move two places between each course so most people have the opportunity to meet and chat over the course of the evening.
The next day Liz will phone to find out how many people clicked with each other . She will encourage dates, up to three so you can be sure, for those who got on well but didn't necessarily find each other attractive.
“It can take a while for a couple to gel and really start to get along and I think that takes at least three dates,” says Liz.
To join the Fine Dining Club costs £500 a year, a similar fee to an online dating site such as eHarmony for a year. There are no prerequisites such as educational qualifications or income. “I have consultants, MLAs and judges but I also have plumbers, electricians and so on that come. There are three people in the club who appear on the Irish Rich List and I didn't even know they were wealthy until I read it. We have all sorts of people, they just need to be single.”
It's been such a success Liz has also launched the Country Dining Club. Designed specifically for farmers or those living in the country. Diners have been known to come from as far as Donegal and Monaghan. There are also social events open to non-members. Tickets cost £100 and include a Champagne jazz reception, a three course meal and the evening will be rounded off with a DJ for singles.
Thanks to the Fine Dining Club there have been three marriages, two babies, more than 50 ongoing relationships and well over 1,000 dates. Liz modestly says she can't take all the credit.
“Two off the marriages I didn't see coming. The first came from the very first club and I wasn't expecting it at all.”
Liz didn't expect the Fine Dining Club to reach that heights it has but she's looking forward to expanding to Dublin and elsewhere. For her, this is a more honest form of dating. Statistics show that 60% of people lie on their online profiles lie about their weight with 48% lying about their height. Liz completely agrees with these figures. She says: “Men lie about their height and their income, women lie about their weight and their age. It's one of the reasons I ask everyone for ID.
“This way it's a bit safer for women and a little more honest — it's harder to lie in person.”
Jane, (43), is divorced and runs her own business in Newtownards. She says:
When I tried internet dating I felt that all the men on it were married. Either that, or in their profiles they would say they were 6ft 2ins and when you'd met them in a coffee shop they would be 5ft 4ins.
I'm a tall girl so there's a reason I look for tall men and I could never understand why they thought they wouldn't be found out.
I heard Liz talking on the radio and phoned her up. You meet her in somewhere like the Wellington Park Hotel and she takes you through a form that will give her a bit of a feel for you. She seems to work her dinner parties around those who are around the same age group with the same interests.
You do get a bit nervous before you go to the first one. I nearly turned the car around on my way there but I made myself go and as soon as I got there Liz put me at ease. She took me by the hand and brought me to a group of people she thought I would get on with. I've been to three or four dinner parties now and I've really enjoyed each of them. I have gone on dates afterwards and Liz really helps you with that too.
She makes sure you're wearing the right thing and that you're not too nervous. A friend of mind who came with me one night dated two guys at once and is now still with one of them.
It's an event that pushes you out of your comfort zone but once you go it's so easy.
You are seated between two single men and if you don't like anyone you just wait until they move on for the next course. It's much easier than going into town and meeting someone with beer goggles on who won't even remember speaking to you the next day.”
George (45) is a farmer and single parent from Co. Down. He says:
I saw the advert for the Country Dining Club in the Farming Life and then got in touch with Liz. She told me what she was trying to do and I thought I would go for a laugh if nothing else. You find when you work on a farm and you're a single parent you don't really get out to see people the way others would. I wouldn't do internet dating. I would prefer to meet people face to face rather than have them hide behind a computer screen.
I've now been to three dinner parties. You do get nervous before the first one because you don't really know what the protocol is but Liz absolutely puts you at ease. I like that everyone there is from a similar background and I've even met people I would have known years ago on the singles scene before I got married.
I've met some lovely people and had a great time. I've been on some dates which I enjoyed even though we didn't suit each other. It's nice to know that there's a bit of potential out there for you.”
The next Fine Dining Club open to the public is the Spring Fling which takes place at the Wellington Park Hotel on Saturday. For tickets and information go to www.thefinediningclub.com