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,"
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
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.