NEW YORK CITY — When Erica Horning, 26, walked along a Midtown street, she found herself locking eyes with a beautiful stranger — a tall man with olive skin and green eyes dressed in skinny jeans, combat boots and a T-shirt.
They both broke into a smile, but kept walking. Then came the first look back and smile. The second. And finally a third.
"I put my hands up as if to say 'OK, now what?'" said Horning, a recruiter who lives near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The man ran over to her, started up a conversation and got her number. A few dates followed and the two are friends to this day.
The meet-cute — a term for a film or television scene in which a couple with a romantic script ahead of them meet for the first time — is sacred to Horning. It's why she doesn't date online and swears she never will.
Whether or not the meet-cute turns into a relationship, "those moments, I don't want to miss out on them," said Horning, describing them as "special, exciting and unexpected."
In comparison, online dating for Horning seems transactional while lacking the energy of an offline meet-cute.
Media headlines and blogs might herald the popularity of online dating, but there are many who keep their love life offline or have returned from the digital world exhausted and burned by smartphone apps and websites that promised a soul mate.
While it is difficult to know how many New Yorkers are keeping their search offline, a 2013 Pew Research Center study found that only 38 percent of single and searching Americans have used an online service. In New York, more than 1 million people are listed in census data as single and between 20 to 34 years of age (the age bracket most likely to be dating).
Speed dating and singles groups are seeing a small influx of refugees from the latest dating websites and smartphone apps, such as Tinder, according to Dave Cervini. He took over the New York City franchise of 8 Minute Dating, a speed dating service, in 2003.
In the early 2000s, speed dating became hugely popular as a rebound to the first generation of online dating websites, according to Cervini. Match.com, which claims to be the first dating site, started in 1995.
It can be rewarding to step out from behind your phone or computer and into a potentially unnerving context, Cervini said.
"You will wind up going to an event to sit with people face-to-face who have also given that same commitment to be there," said Cervini, who claims that there have been 85 marriages from the different singles events and services he runs. Cervini also met his fiancée at the New York Social Network, another event he runs that attracts mostly singles.
Milton Siegel runs five of dozens of singles groups in New York that are listed on MeetUp.com, including one called "Sick of Online Dating."
He has also seen an increase in people joining his groups in recent years. The group "NYC Speed Dating and Singles Events" had 600 members when Siegel took it over in 2012. Now there are more than 2,100.
"If you go to a face-to-face event, you may or may not meet the love of your life, you may not even get a date," he said. "But at least you meet people."
At the singles events Siegel also offers a sympathetic ear for online dating horror stories about the rude behavior of many online daters and the digital mechanisms that allow for a "shopping cart mentality." At an in-person event "people will at least talk to you" rather than email you a few times and then disappear, he said.
Going out to events, even those not specifically dedicated to dating, can expand a singleton's social circle and bring him or her closer to meeting the right person, dating experts say. Deliberate event-going is something New York City dating coach Nancy Slotnick advises her clients focus much of their attention on when trying to find a mate, not spending hours online.
"I think there's a swing-back to people wanting to meet organically," Slotnick said. "There's no perfect way to meet someone, but you have to let yourself be open and vulnerable — go to an event without cowering in a circle — it's getting back to the basics of personal interaction without being able to hide behind a computer or phone."
Slotnick herself runs an online-based dating service — Matchmaker Cafe, an app that works through Facebook — but once participants express interest in each other based on a brief profile, one of Slotnick's employees immediately contacts the pair to set up a date. There's no back-and-forth messaging.
"Our goal is to get people to meet," Slotnick said. "The expectation is just a 20-minute coffee or drink, just to figure out if you have that chemistry that you obviously can't feel through a profile."
And as apps like Tinder are changing up the virtual meeting landscape, longtime online dating sites are beefing up their get-offline-and-meet efforts. Over the past two years, sites like OkCupid and Match.com have added meet-in-person events, like beer tastings, trivia nights, or simply co-opting a bar space for drinking. Match.com members can bring single, non-member friends to the events, too.
"Our events have definitely become very popular and we keep expanding," said Cayla Gebhart, a spokeswoman for Match.com. "The benefit here is that you can go to a bar or a fun event and know that everyone there is single and looking to meet someone."
But even some of those who've tired of online dating say that they won't give up on it entirely.
"I feel like the best way to use online dating is as a kickstarter to getting yourself out there," said a single 39-year-old lawyer who asked that her name not be used. "I can't say I've had such great experiences, but if it's part of putting yourself in the mindset of dating and being open to meeting people, then it's just a piece of the whole dating process."