It was just before the dessert course and the thumpy EMD music got a little louder. It was loud enough for me to join our host Rebecca in a little post-dinner dancing. We moved around the long, rectangle dining table, pulling our dinner companions up to their feet to dance with us. All 11 of us moved and grooved.
Someone shouted “Conga line!” and soon were were all hand to shoulder, snaking around the table, swaying to the dance beat. It was a start of the dance party that continued until Michel served us our final course of sautéed pears.
I wasn’t at a bar or restaurant, I was in the home of a woman I had just met, with about nine strangers, who I had also just met at an EatWith dinner party.
What makes a group of people, mostly strangers, burst out into an impromptu Conga line? Well, wine definitely helped, but it was that old-fashioned recipe of friendly people coming together for a delicious meal with an gracious and adventurous host who knew how to make her guests comfortable – and when to turn music up.
How to get invited into locals’ homes and set the stage for such an evening? For the traveler or newbie to town, this experience used to be gained through friend-of-a-friend introductions or reconnection with old friends, but now organizations like EatWith and CozyMeal make dinner in local’s homes very easy for the traveler.
Following the hosting model of Airbnb, these two dinner-with-locals companies connect travelers via web site and app with hosts for meals in the local home of the chef. For under $60 a person, the traveler gets a peak into a microcosm of the local culture and a thoughtful meal with often enthusiastic and proud tour guides. You can leave with a full feeling and often new friends (Conga lines are not guaranteed).
Recently, I was a guest of both Eatwith and CozyMeal in San Francisco. Even though I live here, I felt that these two companies were excellent ways for travelers and locals to get together and enjoy good food. I did an ad-hoc dinner in the home of a local in Paris and loved it.
How Does It Work?
On both sites and apps, you search or browse a meal by location (EatWith) or date (CozyMeal). EatWith has locations around the world while CozyMeal is in San Francisco. Both sites feature meals covering a variety of ethnicities like Spanish and Mediterranean and themes like Ayurvedic medicine or a social “mixer.”
Each guest creates a profile and books a meal online. Then, the host confirms the reservation and provides instructions on how to get to the meal.
On EatWith, the hosts and guests can communicate with each other on the web site prior to the meal. For my meal, some of the conversation was around dietary restrictions, but most inquiries were around what wine to bring, which I took as a good sign for the evening. If I were attending a meal in another city, I could also imagine using this forum for directions as the best way to get to the place.
At the appointed time, the guests show up and the evening commences with the meal as planned and promised by the host.
Is It Safe?
When I traveled in the Middle East, I accepted several initiations into locals’ homes and enjoyed meals (and saw many baby and wedding pictures) with families. My family gave me a hard time about these evenings after reading about it on my blog – “How could you go into a stranger’s house? You could have been robbed! Or worse!!”
I’m socially adventurous and have a hard-earned traveler’s common sense, so I have no problem with dinner with strangers anywhere in the world, even though I was scammed in Vietnam with a dinner invitation. I can understand how others may be a little cautious going into the homes of strangers and sitting down to dinner.
Arnie, one of the founders of CozyMeal, told me that CozyMeals visits each host’s house to make sure that it means their sanitary standards. EatWith verifies each host by visiting their home and eating the advertised meal.
What’s It Like?
At my CozyMeal, my friend Asma and I arrived at a large North Beach apartment and met Arnie and his partner Kristine. They graciously welcomed us into the kitchen, plied us with German beer, and we started to talk. And talk. And talk. And talked like old friends before the appetizer course of gherkins and salami.
Arnie and his cofounder Samad started CozyMeal because they loved to cook for friends and realized that their favorite meals were not at restaurants, but at their homes. They turned this realization into CozyMeal.
Over the course of several hours we ate two versions of German currywurst with a side of Arnie’s grandmother’s German potato salad and Kristine’s chocolate cookies for dessert. Arnie took special care to show us the ingredients and share the recipe of everything we ate.
At my EatWith evening, Rebecca hosted a group of eleven with her friend and fellow chef, Michel, at her flat in the Protrero Hill neighborhood, which is a more off-the-beaten path San Francisco neighborhood. The dinner was titled “Dinner in Three Acts” and the food was Lebanese-inspired. She carefully choreographed the evening starting with a cocktail hour to meet and greet our fellow guests. Before we sat down, Rebecca requested that we sit next to someone we hadn’t talked to and introduce them to the group. These two ice-breaker activities set the stage for an incredibly social evening that progressed into more and more fun with each course and culminated in the dance party.
Photo by Eric
Throughout the evening, Michel calmed us down to introduce each gourmet course – a celery root soup, an arugula and fennel salad with French feta cheese, and a butternut squash and farro dish with tahini dressing. I remarked to my dinner companions that the meal was on par with many I’ve had in San Francisco restaurants.
I left the Protrero Hill house with a group of new friends and the high of an exceptional evening.
Photo by Rebecca
Any traveler knows, that there are many kinds of “epic” moments on a trip. There is sunrise tour of the Pyramids or cresting the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu. They are humbling in their largess. We feel connection to humanity through in witnessing these testaments to the past.
But then there are smaller moments in homes and cafes and streets that make a trip equally as special. These are the moments recaptured in stories at the bar. They memorialize our trip just as much as the postcards from Petra. These evenings are based on serendipity and connect us to the current global community.
Disclaimer and more info: I did not pay for my seat at either table. I was a guest of EatWith and CozyMeal on both occasions. Regardless, I would definitely sign up for more meals with both companies and I would pay for them. Here are those links again:
Here’s an article David Farley just wrote for Bon Appetit on what it was like to cook a meal for strangers. My fellow dinner companions Rebecca, Eric, and Dario supplied the photos from the dinner in three acts. That night, I also re-met Anne, who writes the great travel blog Part Time Traveler.