Dining with strangers yet to take off in New York

Guests at an EatWith Taste of Trinidad dinner party, hosted by Ms Christienne Dobson (fourth from far left), in New York last month.
Guests at an EatWith Taste of Trinidad dinner party, hosted by Ms Christienne Dobson (fourth from far left), in New York last month. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • In a penthouse apartment in Manhattan's Chinatown on a Monday night, Ms Lisa Larsson chopped shiitake mushrooms and looked rather relaxed for someone about to host a 14-person dinner.

She had arranged the party through the app AirDine, which lets users pay to eat at strangers' houses, rating the experience afterwards. Ms Larsson, 26, was hosting the first party in the United States.

The guests arrived. Mostly millennials, they displayed a dinner party-appropriate gravitas.

There was only a whiff of cynicism when Mr Noor Shams said the doorman did not recognise Ms Larsson's name and "for a second, I was like, 'This is a scam'".

While other companies have conquered car rides (Uber), bedroom rentals (Airbnb) and errand running (TaskRabbit), AirDine and services such as EatWith and Feastly are trying to master shared dining.

Yet social dining has not caught on in the same way so far and a few of the apps have already shut down.

The challenge is not finding hosts willing to invite strangers over. It is finding guests willing to show up.

"My thought was, 'It must be hard to find these amazing chefs and hosts and convince them to do it out of their home.' That actually hasn't been the obstacle," said Ms Susan Kim, chief executive of EatWith. "When people try it, they love it, but how do we get people to try this new way of experiencing a city or a new way of eating out?"

EatWith focuses on travellers. Feastly signs up professional chefs as hosts. VoulezVousDiner lets travellers and other diners request hosted meals on specific days. AirDine asks hosts to arrange fixed dinners and, ideally, fill the table with strangers. And BonAppetour and VizEat offer food experiences, such as market tours, along with meals.

The companies take a percentage of what hosts charge guests to attend, usually 15 to 20 per cent. Hosts can set whatever price they like for guests. Ms Larsson charged US$10 (S$14) a head, while lots of EatWith and Feastly meals run US$80 and up.

At Ms Larsson's apartment, the guests took their seats at a candlelit table to eat the first course of salmon sashimi. The second course was filet mignon and cucumber- pea salad. Third course: lamb with shiitake-cream sauce and berries sauteed in Hennessy.

Soon after, Ms Larsson's AirDine ratings came in: five stars from each guest.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 08, 2017, with the headline 'Dining with strangers yet to take off in New York'. Print Edition | Subscribe