“Why would you want to go to a stranger’s home and eat with people you don’t know?” a friend asked incredulously.
“The hosts aren’t picked at random off the street,” I protested. “They’re professional chefs and fabulous cooks who open their homes to small groups for private dining. It’s a pop-up restaurant, like a small supper club.”
“Yes, but you all sit together. There’s no telling who would be next to you.”
“That’s the fun part!”
My friend just rolled her eyes.
We were talking about EatWith, one of the most successful entries in the hot, new peer-to-peer shared economy: private dining experiences. You go online to see what’s available in your city – or one you’ll be visiting – checking out menus, costs, reviews, and availability. The number of guests is usually eight to twelve, depending on the size of the host’s dinner table. As with restaurants, the prices vary widely according to geographic region. You book online, pay in advance, and never have to worry about tips or hidden extras.
Wherever we go, Rich and I are always looking for ways to get deeper into the local culture, and we were delighted to discover that EatWith has host chefs in more than 150 cities around the world. In Seville, we’d loved their cooking class/paella lunch in the historic Triana Market. In San Francisco, we chose Laila’s Culinary Journey to Morocco, and persuaded two intrepid friends, Kathryn and Peter, to join us.
We met Laila and her Russian boyfriend, Mark, on the rooftop terrace of a high rise overlooking Twitter’s world headquarters and a large swath of San Francisco. Laila told us she came from a Moroccan Burber family by way of New York City. “In Morocco,” she said, “a guest is a gift. And in the Burber tradition, we always start with Medjul dates for luck.” Nibbling on dates and slices of baguette topped with ricotta and Moroccan honey (“from stingless bees,” Laila said), we introduced ourselves.
“This is our sixth EatWith dinner,” confided a retired physician. “My wife and I just got tired of eating in restaurants.” When he mentioned he wanted to visit the pandas in China, a young Asian woman exclaimed, “I was just there! And I was so disappointed. They just stopped letting the tourists cuddle the baby pandas.” (I refrained from blurting out, “They were letting random people hold endangered baby animals with large teeth and claws? And no one thought that was a bad idea until now?”)
A tall young man named Paul seemed reticent to talk about himself, but I soon wormed his secret out of him: he’s a chef working for EatWith and was supposed to remain incognito while doing a routine review of the hosts. I peppered him with questions, including how the company manages quality control with such a diversity of venues. For one thing, he explained, guests are asked to rate their experience using a five-star system like Amazon’s. “If a host’s rating slips below 4.5 stars, we immediately look into it,” he said.
After detouring to admire the building’s fire pit, we wound up at a long table in Leila and Mark’s kitchen. Laila served us slices of moist, rich bastilla, a sweet-savory chicken pie dusted with cinnamon and sugar. It’s a popular dish in Seville, where everyone tells you it was traditionally made from pigeon until finicky modern standards forced them to switch. Leila described how she sourced the chicken and other fresh, organic ingredients from a local farmer’s market and imported spices from her favorite souk in Agadir, Morocco. Tagines appeared filled with perfectly baked salmon laid tenderly over chermoula pepper sauce. After a dessert of strawberries and grapes infused with rose water, we moved to the living room for fresh mint tea and traditional honey cookies. The talk flowed on, from food to travel to technology to footwear; we had been warned in advance this was a shoe-free apartment, and the men rose to the occasion with particularly festive socks.
It was my kind of evening. And one of the best things about it was knowing I could arrange similar dinners just about anywhere in the world via EatWith and others such as VizEat, Bonappetour, Plate Culture, Feastly, HomeFood, and Eat with a Local.
Thinking about trying it? As with all sharing economy experiences, you’ll want to read reviews very carefully. Make sure the menu appeals, find out if any special dietary needs can be met (yes, some provide gluten-free fare), and if abroad, check what languages are spoken by the hosts. Go with a friend, preferably several, if you can; it’s more fun and you’ll feel more relaxed. As with conventional restaurants, you may not find every meal to be a life-changing experience, but you can be sure you’ll have plenty to talk about afterwards.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I don't accept sponsorships of any kind. EatWith and other shared dining websites are mentioned here because I thought you might find them interesting. I haven't tried any of the others yet; if you have, I'd love to hear about your experiences.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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