“We believe you are all sitting at the table because you bring something to it,” Lily Montasser told the room at the Jane Hotel in the West Village on a Thursday in late March. The group — 10 men, 10 women — had come for a night of cocktails, getting-to-know-yous and, hopefully, some romance.
To get a seat at this metaphorical table, the guests had paid a $60 nonrefundable application fee (part of which covered a background check), answered a series of questions (for example: “You’re most likely to be found … A. sweating it out at Equinox B. “at a 5-star hotel in Cabo or C. summering in Montauk”), sat for a virtual interview and ponied up an additional $150 for entry, all to meet a handful of singles who had also been vetted by Ambyr Club, a speed dating company in New York.
Founded in December by Ms. Montasser, 29, and Victoria Van Ness, 25, Ambyr Club is positioning itself as a counter to the current crop of dating apps, where options are plentiful but “energy,” as the company’s website puts it, is harder to read. Ambyr has hosted seven events at trendy bars in Manhattan — a callback to a time when first impressions didn’t rely on overwrought, curated digital profiles but in-the-moment answers to fishbowl questions.
“What’s old is new again,” said Julie Spira, a dating coach who runs a company called Cyber-Dating Expert. She noted that the first documented speed dating event was held at a coffee shop in Beverly Hills in 1998. The host, Rabbi Yaacov Deyo, “was trying to form connections for Jewish singles so they can stay within the tribe,” Ms. Spira said, “and it caught on.”
Online dating was already popular, but even after the advent of Match.com (where Ms. Spira met her current partner) in 1995, “there was still a stigma towards online dating,” she said, “and if you did meet someone online, you certainly wouldn’t tell someone in the ’90s.”
Speed dating, on the other hand, was a socially accepted way to vet potential partners in person — not to mention wildly efficient. Using data from a speed dating company called HurryDate, a 2005 University of Pennsylvania study found that most people gauge attraction within three seconds of meeting.
“If you look at the swiping apps, it’s less than three seconds for a person to decide whether to swipe right or left,” Ms. Spira said. “It’s a millisecond!” After Tinder arrived in 2012, she saw several speed dating companies shut down, including HurryDate and No Waiting Dating. “They got old and stale because dating apps were the new shiny way to meet someone,” she said.
But as with all things shiny and new, dating apps eventually got old for some users. So old, in fact, that some of the companies behind them began hosting bar gatherings where strangers would meet (gasp!) in person. Catering to disaffected online daters has remained a marketing tactic for such companies. It was only a matter of time before speed dating came back.
Maxine Williams, 26, founded We Met IRL, a speed dating company for people of color, in January. “I came up with the idea in December after attending a speed dating event in Manhattan that wasn’t very diverse,” she said. Her event attendees seemed to agree; Lauren Williams, an influencer, attended a We Met IRL event in February because, she said, “dating in New York is a sham.”
CWAQ, which stands for “connect with a qutie,” was also inspired by disappointment. Kevin Rabinovich, 24, a freelance event producer, was let down by the lack of structure and diversity at such events. At a singles’ mixer in January, he noted that for “anyone who’s not straight or cis, there’s nothing here.”
CWAQ events are open to people of all sexual identities. (Both Ambyr and We Met IRL say they’re aiming to host L.G.B.T.Q. events in the coming months.) They are also priced on a sliding scale; attendees can get in free or pay up to $20.
The founders at Ambyr stand by their $150 admission fee, which covers an open bar. As Ms. Montasser put it: “If you were to go on a date with 10 different people, how much would that cost you?”
Ambyr’s biggest challenge now is gender parity. Ms. Montasser said that women make up 75 percent of the application pool. Both founders regularly seek out men to apply, but the hunt often comes at the expense of their own dating lives.
“We’ll find a really great guy who is perfect, and we can’t even have him,” Ms. Van Ness said. “We’re going to send him off to Ambyr for the greater good of the company.”
Ms. Montasser agreed. “Now I can’t take a good guy without feeling guilty,” she said.
Toward the end of an event at Primo’s in TriBeCa in late April, Ms. Montasser struck a gold singing bowl (she believes its vibrations “activate the throat chakra”) to announce that it was time for the attendees to pick their top three dates. Matches would later be connected via email.
One couple, however, opted for expediency: cozying up at a table in the next room, where they’d finally be alone — and off the clock.