Social dining assembles groups of people for meals at private homes and restaurants. Most are food lovers, but they find other things to talk about
My friend Alexia and I are seated in the middle of a six-person table for Sunday brunch at Toronto’s Kanpai Snackbar, a Taiwanese-fusion restaurant in the heart of Cabbagetown. Seated to the left of us, a sickeningly cute millennial couple: the husband, a tech executive born and raised in Toronto, and his wife, a petite Parisian deeply interested in cooking. On our right, another, more subdued pair: the male, a late-thirtysomething Fedex lifer, and his girlfriend, a giggly and observant woman from small-town Quebec.
“Get me that caesar, stat!” I announce playfully, trying to break the ice. The prospect of getting through this four-course menu was becoming increasingly doubtful, given the throbbing pain at my temples. (I had had one too many cocktails the night before.) Headache or not, it’d be bad form to ruin the upbeat energy at our table. After all, Alexia and I came to eat, and to mingle too – we were at our first U-Feast social dining event.
U-Feast hosts group dining experiences at various Toronto restaurants, where chefs serve one-of-a-kind tasting menus. The organization is a product of the social dining revolution that’s sprouted in Canada, the States and Western Europe. Over the last few years, websites like Feastly, EatWith and Vizeat have grown in popularity, both for travellers and local food enthusiasts. The sites connect chefs with diners, who purchase tickets to land a spot at a host’s table, and meals are served in the chef’s home or at other predetermined venues.
There are a few reasons why social dining has become so successful. First, it allows chefs and home cooks to be monetize their work without the risk of owning a restaurant. But perhaps more importantly, it provides a socially acceptable means to meet new people, a rare opportunity to sit down and talk with strangers. The old-fashioned dinner party becomes a break from social media, and the bubbles in which we normally live.
In Toronto, RNDMDNR (say “random dinner”) was created to bring groups of people of varying ages, careers and lifestyles together for sit-down dinners at various restaurants in the city. David King, the brains behind RNDMDNR, thinks there’s a massive benefit in conversing with people outside of your immediate social circle.
“I think that the more conversations you have with people from different backgrounds, the better you can understand people who are different from you,” says King. “So, everyone hates Donald Trump, right, for example? There’s a guy that I know from the coffee shop that I go to and he’s a Trump supporter. I was having a conversation with him about why he supports Trump, and whether or not that changes my perspective and what I think [doesn’t matter]. At least I understand the perspective of someone else.”
When Guy Michlin, co-founder of EatWith, was touring Greece, he found himself at an underground dinner hosted by a local home cook. “It was a pretty life-changing experience for him, and he wanted to bring that experience to more people,” says Susan Kim, CEO of EatWith. “So the company [became] really focused on providing these very authentic, in-home dining experiences – essentially, dinner parties where the chef and their stories were kind of at the forefront, [where diners got to] meet new and interesting people around the table [also].” In 2012, EatWith launched in Tel Aviv, and Israel’s largest city continues to be the company’s most lucrative locale for social dining, followed by Barcelona and San Francisco.
Social dining can be a community-building exercise for chefs, too. Kevin Schuder is vegan chef who uses Feastly to put on dinners in his home. He recently relocated to Chicago from San Francisco. In his former city, veganism and social dining are prevalent, but in the meat-heavy Midwest, he discovered that finding a strong community of vegan eaters was going to be more of a challenge. Schuder began posting messages on a vegan Chicago meetup group and before long, diners interested in elevated vegan cooking began to show up at his table.
Along with meeting like-minded people in the Windy City, Schuder believes that social dining also breaks down the barrier between customers and chefs: “At a restaurant, I feed 150 customers a night, and you don’t get to know people’s names or get to interact with them the same way,” he explains. “But with [Feastly] dinners, I almost feel like an MC, you know? I’ll explain the dish before each course a little bit, get to meet people individually and cater to them a bit more.”
Courtesy Kevin Schuder
Some of chef Kevin Schuder’s vegan dishes
Schuder’s Chicago home holds up to 28 diners – in one room, a long, wooden farm table for 20, and in another room, an intimate table for eight. Sharing a meal in someone’s home is all part of the magic of social dining; it evokes those warm feelings – and sometimes heated conversations – that you don’t often get at restaurants.
Back at the U-Feast brunch, the tech exec is ranting about the legal pot dispensaries that have sprouted all over Toronto. “Ask the people working in dispensaries where they get their weed, and most of them get really angry, because it’s probably from the Hells Angels,” he says. I have no opinion on that, but it’s an interesting theory. Forgetting the rule about not discussing religion or politics, we move through topics including declining wages for millennials, Charlie Hebdo, and the fact that Amazon has recently leased 20 aircraft to build its own shipping network (bad news for the Fedex guy at our table).
After the meal, I feel refreshed, and it’s not just because my hangover has melted away. Talking to new people actually feels good; it’s a welcome change from speaking with my best friends and co-workers. But could I really relate to the four strangers at the table? In complete honesty, our shared interest was the food. Yet we conversed seamlessly, we listened actively, we chuckled a lot, and we learned a few new things along the way.