Would you eat in a stranger's home?

The sharing economy expands to dinner parties with travel and dining startup Eatwith. We take it for a test drive in New York City.

Last week I attended a lovely dinner party in Lower Manhattan. With great food, warm ambiance and lively conversation it might have passed for any other memorable social outing I've had over the years, except that I paid $46 to attend this home-cooked meal – and I arrived not knowing a single person, including the host. 

A few days earlier, I browsed through the listings on EatWith, a website that connects diners with home-cooked meals inside private homes. The range of possible venues was small but promising, with about 18 hosts throwing open dinner parties over the upcoming month. At apartments across New York City, there were budding chefs offering options like Japanese pub grub, Russian comfort fare, South Asian fusion and a Sunday brunch with pancakes and mimosas. I opted for a night of creative Indian tapas.

That evening's meal – one great leap into the unknown – is just one part of the so-called global collaborative economy. Sites like Airbnb blazed its trail, creating a platform for locals to rent out spare rooms or entire apartments to visitors seeking something more personal and immersive than a traditional hotel or B&B can offer. This created vast new opportunities in the sharing economy, while helping to change the nature of travel in its own way.

EatWith, an Israeli start-up launched in 2012, similarly promises to reconfigure traditional notions of eating out. You can feast on arròs negre (seafood and rice with squid ink) in Barcelona, Anatolian mezes (small plates) in Istanbul or seasonally inspired Modern Australian dishes in Sydney. With hosts in more than 30 countries (and growing), the opportunities for travellers and locals to bond over a meal are almost limitless. Some countries have only a handful of hosts – Ireland and Slovenia have a mere two hosts between them – while Spain and Israel have a wealth of offerings, with scores of welcoming home cooks nationwide. (Barcelona, surely the EatWith capital, had more than 50 options for a recent Friday night.) 

"The best way to break away from the tourist experience and enrich your connection to a place is to interact with real people in their own private spaces," said Guy Michlin, co-founder of EatWith. Michlin was on vacation in Crete in 2010 when by chance he received an invitation to dine in the home of a local Greek family. That event inspired him, and after returning home to Tel Aviv, he and his business partner strategized a way to make the home-dining experience accessible to every traveller. "We began to envision a global community of passionate hosts and guests," he said.

Like Airbnb, EatWith and other dinner-hosting start-ups operate in a grey area of the law. A New York City Health Department representative stated in Bloomberg Businessweek that, “in New York City, people who offer meals to the public for money are considered food service establishments and need permits. The city does not allow meals to be served to members of the public in someone’s home.”

To help avoid those restrictions in New York, the price for the meal is labelled a “suggested donation”, which may help keep regulators at bay. And Michlin, a former attorney in Israel, seems well aware of the legal issues which vary from country to country. In Israel, the tourism ministry has helped train prospective hosts; while in Spain, health inspectors have examined host kitchens.

However, the haze of legal issues surrounding EatWith has not stifled interest by prospective hosts. In the last several months, EatWith has received thousands of applications from hopeful cooks, who range from kitchen dabblers to professionally trained chefs. Shuchi Mittal Naidoo, who hosted the event I attended, is the author of the cookbook 29. Indian Tapas. She staged the evening of tapas in her apartment high up in a residential tower near City Hall. The sun was just setting when I arrived, and after introductions, I joined the seven other guests at the apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows, watching the lights of the Woolworth Building and One World Trade Centre slowly flicker on as an amber glow spread beyond the Hudson River. As twilight arrived, Mittal Naidoo laid out dainty hors d'oeuvres (eggplant toasts and cauliflower fritadas), poured everyone a glass of wine and got down to cooking.

The first course, a lush soup of cumin-roasted mushrooms, red lentils and cilantro, set the stage for the entire meal of creative, richly flavoured cooking, with a subtle use of spice. Ms. Mittal Naidoo, who had spent the whole day preparing, fluidly moved between guests and kitchen, happily doling out seconds (and thirds), while making sure the mint curry biryani and cardamom French custard came out just right. She put great effort into the smallest details, from the pitcher of mint-infused water to the homemade date-and-ginger tea served at the end of the meal. The $46 I paid covered five elaborate courses (with 15% of the fee going to EatWith). Portions were small (this was Indian tapas after all), but there was plenty to go around; no one left hungry. Wine was not included, though guests were welcome to bring their own – and everyone in my party did, happily sharing their pinot and rioja with one another.   

With some guests gathered on throw pillows around a low table, and others on bar stools at the kitchen counter, we talked of food and travel, photography and arranged marriages (a few glasses of wine among strangers often leads conversations in unexpected directions). We also discussed the EatWith phenomenon, and how surprisingly successful this dinner party was going. "The whole experience is just as much about connecting with new people as it is about the food," said Gigi Kwon, who had attended five other EatWith dinners prior to this one.  All the same, "phenomenal" is how she described her other meals. "You get so much more out of these dinners than at a fancy restaurant," Kwon said.

EatWith is only one of several sites that bring strangers together for unconventional dining experiences. Conceived in Washington DC, Feastly operates similarly to EatWith in a handful of cities around the US. VoulezVousDîner, which launched in France in 2011, aims to break down French stereotypes with dinners in Paris, Marseille and Lyon, as well as London, Cape Town and Buenos Aires. And while not specifically geared toward dining, US-based Sidetour offers other unusual eating experiences, such as market walks, cooking workshops and supper club outings. Among these EatWith contenders, VoulezVousDîner seems to hold the most promise for travellers, given its abundant offerings in Paris. It also has rather unusual dining experiences – one host takes his party on an evening stroll around Montmartre after the chocolate mousse is served.

Meanwhile, success is far from guaranteed in this emerging new market. Homedine, which operated on a similar model to EatWith, and Grubwithus, which arranged restaurant meet-ups, both ceased operations in 2013, less than two years after launching.

And just because someone wants to host a dinner party doesn't mean they necessarily should. EatWith is careful to vet each of its prospective home cooks and issues an “EatWith verified host” badge. This indicates an EatWith employee has personally approved the food quality, cleanliness and interpersonal skills of a host. The company also provides a $1,000,000 insurance policy to anyone hosting a meal. It's a wise idea, but hardly scalable for rapid growth. In the future, EatWith has plans to use its community members to take over the vetting process – which could, of course, lead to a decline in the quality of vetting, no – but in the meantime, expansion has been a slow process. Meanwhile, dinner guests also provide crucial feedback by posting reviews of the affair, which can help guide future diners toward or away from a particular host.  

How EatWith and its competitors will play out in the years to come is uncertain. But in the meantime, there is a whole world of home-cooked meals with prospective new friends for adventurous diners.