Over roast chicken and autumn vegetables, our dinner party was rolling through the requisite topics – concerns about the rise of the far right in Germany, what it really takes to make a marriage work, where to get the best Vietnamese food in New York City – but still, the awkwardness was unshakable.
Using the website Feastly, which, like an Airbnb for foodies, connects diners with chefs, my husband, Andrew, and I had paid $32 apiece on a recent evening to dine with six strangers. Two of them – the evening’s chef and her friend – were sitting directly behind us on a couch, forcing me to crane my neck and turn around to include them in the conversation. (To be fair, who in New York City under the age of 50 can comfortably seat eight people for dinner? And in other cities, like San Francisco, Feastly provides chefs access to shared space, something the company will start in New York City next year.)
At the table, meanwhile, were a computer programmer and a father-daughter duo – nice people, but a random combination of personalities suggesting more a cross section of an airplane flight than an artful convocation recalling, say, parties of Elsa Maxwell or other famed hosts of yore.
Long a major organizing principle of urban social life, the dinner party has taken a hit in recent years as restaurant culture has thrived, raising the bar for culinary accomplishment intolerably high. At one party I gave, much of my food went untouched, and one guest complained about the lighting. At another, guests left before dessert because the conversation had devolved into a discussion about how difficult it is to get one’s kids into preschool here.
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Those parties were almost two years ago. Traumatized, I hadn’t invited anyone over for dinner since. But Andrew and I had fallen into a social rut, ordering meal kits for ourselves from Blue Apron and binge-watching “Borgen,” the television drama about Danish politics.
My social life was withering. Living in a coupled cocoon may be comfortable, but all the research says that connection – the IRL (in real life) kind – is what makes people happy. So I wondered: Could I give dinner parties another try? Was there an app for this?
But of course.
Turns out, it’s possible to break bread with a new group of people every night of the week, thanks to gatherings booked through phones and computers in a continuing search to find one’s “urban tribe” (to borrow a phrase from the author Ethan Watters).
Nick Ozkan, 45, says he’s acquired seven close pals from regularly attending 10 Chairs NYC, a social dining organization run by the chef Patricia Williams. “The friends range in age from their 30s to 70s,” Ozkan, who works in digital communications, wrote in an email. Williams told me that some strangers who met at her dinner parties, which cost $80 per head, have even wound up traveling together.
Perhaps new friendships may be within reach after all.
On the phone from San Francisco, where Feastly is based, the company’s founder, Noah Karesh, 34, said that he views “the dining room table as the original social network.” And many agree. Feastly has hundreds of thousands of users across 60-odd cities worldwide.
“There’s a growing awareness of the disconnection plaguing millennials when the majority of the social interactions you have a day are through your iPhone,” Karesh said. “Someone may have 10,000 followers on social media but is eating dinner alone. People want to have offline interactions.”
But as with an online blind date, it’s best to approach a group setup with low expectations. After the Feastly dinner, I felt defeated because the other guests didn’t seem like soul mates. But Andrew thought the evening was an unmitigated success. He argued that lifelong friendships weren’t the point.
“It’s parachuting in to get a dose of varied social interaction,” he told me exuberantly on the way home.
This dip into a new social pool may be easier when united around a common interest, even if that’s trying a new cuisine, as at a Balkan dinner organized by EatWith, a communal dining service, in Harlem. There Andrew and I met a young Frenchwoman studying food cultures at NYU and an affable tech professional who brought his sister who was visiting from India. The chef, Dina, told us about growing up in the former Yugoslavia and the origin of all the dishes she was serving. It’s hard to have a bad time while gobbling homemade sirnica, fluffy pastries filled with cheese.
With such enticements, I got into the groove of dining with strangers. I liked it: the levity and spontaneity of topics that’s not possible when there’s a shared history, good and bad.
Also, there is a certain monotony to the soirees of young marrieds that make everyone go two by two, like animals in Noah’s Ark. I liked the odd number – five – at the EatWith dinner, which, I found, liberated me from talking with other wives and the conversational constraints that go with that role. (I’m a 34-year-old married woman, and other women always ask me when I’m having children – something I’m rarely, if ever, asked about by men.) Coming home from that dinner, which cost $63 apiece, I felt a wave of euphoria: freedom from the shackles of couple dates! (Andrew was equally excited about the blanched pear with honey dessert.)
But the next morning, my enthusiasm for this newfound social outlet waned. I received an email from EatWith asking me, “Who would you eat with again?” The rating system that’s a staple of transportation services, like Uber, now extends to leisure.
Susan Kim, the chief executive of EatWith, which is now in more than 200 cities around the world, told me the site “wanted an innocuous way to establish if people wanted to connect again.” The dining service, Kim said, is helping many people fill empty places in their social lives.
“We have a lot of recently divorced people using the site, because one ex-spouse often takes all the friends,” she said.
I understood why EatWith wanted feedback from guests about others guests. Truth be told, I was happy to see that, despite mooching cabernet from another guest because I forgot to bring wine, someone thought I “made an impression.” Still, I wasn’t sure I wanted a nice evening out to be followed by having to rate it.
“EatWith is kind of like Tinder for couples,” Kim told me. But therein lay the problem: I had been too thin-skinned for Tinder as a single person!
For a change of pace, I decided my next foray into social dining would be one in which someone else provides the funds for me to host people in my home, offering a modicum of social control (though also the responsibility of cleaning up).
OneTable is an organization that encourages millennials – of all backgrounds and religions – to host Sabbath dinners. A nonprofit that has hosted more than 3,000 dinners in its current hub cities of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Denver since last year, it provides what they call “a nourishment credit” of $15 per person for up to 10 people that can be used at vendors such as Whole Foods, FreshDirect, Instacart, Etsy or Seamless.
For young people, said Aliza Klein, the executive director of OneTable, “It’s a little countercultural to have a home-based meal these days.”
OneTable encourages hosts to create a theme for their dinners, which have been organized to support down-ballot races or to give socks to the homeless. (There was even a Fashion Week Sabbath.) “Millennials don’t like to gamble with social experiences,” said Klein, who is in her 40s. “The more they know what to expect, the more people will show up.”
After sifting through OneTable’s inspirational Pinterest boards, I settled on a Mediterranean theme.
My dinner was posted, and when it closed for sign-ups, no strangers had registered. (I couldn’t help noticing a dumpling-making Sabbath dinner seemed to fill up quickly.)
To ensure Andrew and I wouldn’t be eating alone, I had invited two friends – a couple, Reid and Danielle – and they invited two friends, Aaron and Tamar, neither of whom we knew or knew each other. In other words, not unlike a traditional dinner party.
The day before the dinner, I took advantage of one of OneTable’s 56 Sabbath coaches, a mix of Jewish professionals who can offer advice on rituals and hosting. I needed less of a tutorial about the Jewish customs and more about how to impose some structure to the meal and the conversation. After all, my friend Reid pointed out a pitfall to socializing lately: “All we do when we get together is talk about the election and our favorite TV shows.”
Sarah Krinsky, a fourth-year rabbinical school student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan and a OneTable coach, suggested I ask all the guests to talk about a question they’d been wrestling with over the last week or month.
“I think that can get at some of the things we don’t usually talk about,” Krinsky said.
I also wanted to steer the conversation, as much as possible, away from the election, which, at that point, was less than a week before. I’d reached my capacity for political conversations for the year, and was convinced after reading the entire internet that week that no one had anything new to say on the topic. (Little did I know.)
Before our guests arrived, Andrew, who barely ever takes Advil, asked me if I had a Xanax. The combination of a trip to Moldova the next day and the stakes of Nov. 8 were about to put him over the edge.
I briefly considered canceling the dinner. (“Who would want to be around such anxious downers?” I thought.)
I looked at my glaring overhead light and wondered how long it would take someone to lodge a complaint. We would have just been better being miserable alone.
But then the guests came. No one asked why I didn’t make salmon, as promised, no one left early or criticized the lighting or talked incessantly about New York City preschool admissions.
Instead, we lit the Sabbath candles. We talked about our work, the world, what we were grappling with both personally and professionally. I couldn’t believe how much I was enjoying myself. It was – and I found this shocking because socializing is usually stressful for me – an exhale moment.
Andrew forgot about wanting a Xanax. He said being with other people soothed him.
I remembered why civilizations form bonds beyond their families. When a group of people connects, with just enough wine, there’s a release. It’s the feeling that you could sit at the table for hours and not want to check your iPhone. It sounds simple, but it felt like nothing short of a miracle.
Now I just have to work up the courage to invite them back.