The Case for Eating with Strangers When Traveling
New social dining sites source local companions to share meals
Are you a food enthusiast looking for a novel way to meet new people? Social dining — eating a meal with strangers — is becoming increasingly popular among travelers both in the U.S. and abroad.
A growing number of platforms like BlendAbout, PurpleDinner and MealSharing are harnessing the power of the Internet to connect strangers over dinner, at private homes and restaurants. The trend is an offshoot of the sharing economy that spawned popular peer-to-peer sites like Airbnb, HomeAway and Uber. First popularized by tech-savvy young people, it has spread to other users of computers and smartphones.
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For travelers, it’s a way to meet locals while experiencing new cuisines, customs and cultures in authentic settings. For those who opt to participate in meals closer to home, it’s a non-threatening way to get out of the house, enjoy a shared dining experience and potentially meet new friends who live nearby.
Home-Cooked Tapas in Spain
Josie Schneider and Conrad Knutsen, 61 and 75 respectively, are intrepid travelers who have been professional housesitters since 2010. The married couple was planning a trip to Spain with two other couples last year and found out about two women in Madrid on HomeHostedMeals.com who were hosting a dinner during their stay. They signed up at a cost of 25€ per person.
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Schneider and Knutsen left the menu to the discretion of their local hosts, Ángeles and Lorena. The social worker and psychologist, both in their 30s, professed a love for cooking and entertaining. Josie brought a small house gift from her home in Michigan. At 7 p.m., the women came in two separate cars to pick up the couples and drive them from their hotel to an apartment about 25 kilometers outside the city.
Although the women weren’t fluent in English, Schneider was able to use some of her Spanish language skills as they got to know each other in the car. When everyone arrived at the high-rise apartment, living room furniture had been moved aside, so a few small tables could be placed together to accommodate the group. The table was elegantly set with china and crystal wine glasses.
The traditional dinner of small tapas-style dishes paired with wines lasted until midnight. One of the recipes on the menu had been handed down from Lorena’s family.
“I got to ask a lot of questions about government, politics and culture,” says Schneider. “In someone’s home, you’re more likely to get straight answers than you would from a tourist guide,” she says.
Would she do it again? “Absolutely,” Schneider says. In fact, she’s considering hosting dinners at her home in Ann Arbor because she, too, loves to cook and entertain.
Restaurant-Hopping in Cherry Hill, N.J.
Tiffany Hair, 47, an accountant by profession, organizes social dining experiences in New Jersey restaurants through Meetup, a popular social network that makes it possible to organize or join a multitude of interest-based groups that meet locally.
Hair organized Saturday Dining in Cherry Hill more than seven years ago because she wanted to meet others who were interested in trying out area restaurants. Ranging in age from their 20s to 70s, the group has been meeting about once a month. The menus are a la carte so everyone can choose what they want and pay for their own portion of the bill. Participation is limited to 20 to 24 people per event.
Focusing the group around food facilitates the social aspects of the get-together, says Hair. “Often, people begin conversations based on the food choices on the menu and it leads them to share everything from travel adventures to cooking tips,” she says.
Some people form strong ties with other members. “I’m really an introvert by nature but I’ve become close friends with six or seven women through this group,” she says. “We have gone on cruises together and often do things outside of Meetup.”
How the Sites Work
Each site, many of which have mobile apps, operates a little differently. But signing up for a social dining experience usually entails only a few clicks of a mouse or keypad. Sites like MealSharing, Blendabout and Meetup make it especially easy to register through existing Facebook accounts. Once logged in, potential guests can search for meals by cities and neighborhoods.
For example, on MealSharing, each meal page also includes information about the host, the menu and the cost. Because these meals take place in private homes rather than public places, visitors are provided with verified phone numbers and reviews with feedback on past meals. Most events are priced to cover the expense of the meal, which is paid at the venue.
The Appeal of Social Dining
There is something inherently social and, perhaps, transformative about breaking bread with strangers. Schneider still stays in touch with her new friends in Madrid.
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“Sharing food facilitates interaction,” says Willa Zhen, an anthropologist and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “When you’re sitting next to someone, you have to talk, and small pleasantries lead to bigger conversations. Eating at the home of a stranger adds novelty to the experience because you get to take a peek inside someone’s personal space and way of life, their music, books and decor,” she adds.
In terms of the culinary experience, Zhen says that home cooking transcends the restaurant experience. “While restaurants provide more consistent and perfect dishes, no restaurant meal can compare to one home-cooked with love and care,” she notes.
Like the rest of the shared economy, experts predict that social dining will continue to expand.
“There is a growing demand for new, unique experiences in travel, especially among Millennial travelers, who demonstrate a strong appetite for more local, authentic experiences and more exploring and decision-making through online and mobile services,” says Douglas Quinby of Phocuswright, a travel industry research firm.
A Few Tips Before You Go:
- Meal-sharing experiences are more likely to be available in large cities rather than small towns.
- Arrangements generally need to be scheduled in advance, and often involve emails or conversations over Skype between the host and guests to confirm attendance and event details.
- Dining with strangers requires a sense of moxie and adventure. When dining abroad, language or cultural barriers may need to be overcome. Most hosts are flexible about menus, willing to accommodate food allergies and aversions, but home-based meals don’t offer the same choices as restaurants.
- Like other parts of the largely unregulated sharing economy, social dining is predicated on some degree of trust. Users always need to be vigilant about making offline arrangements with strangers. Restaurant-based social dining experiences are likely to be less risky because they are held in public spaces.
Irene S. Levine is a psychologist, lifestyle and travel journalist, and member of the Society of American Travel Writers who produces MoreTimeToTravel.com, a blog offering advice and inspiration for travelers over 50.