Americans love to eat out—restaurant sales are set to hit a new high of $863 billion in 2019¹ — and 4 in 10 consumers agree restaurants are an “essential part” of their lifestyle¹ . But today’s diners also demand more from their dining experience.
And restaurants everywhere are answering the call. From the tiniest local restaurant to new “fast casual” chains (like chicken-and-waffles franchise Chick’nCone, which wraps a “hand-baked and hand-rolled” waffle cone around fried chicken, or the growing chef-inspired hot dog chain Dog Haus²), food culture is becoming more rarified, unique, and diverse.
High quality food and a social dining experience
Given that higher quality ingredients and craft hot dogs are disrupting the market, it makes sense that restaurants, especially higher end venues, are differentiating themselves by intensifying the dining experience. The idea is to make dining sociable, communal, and exciting. Rather than a formal, white tablecloth experience, diners are seated together and can watch the chefs make their food; servers are more like food curators, giving diners the why and wherefore of how each dish was created; and people are encouraged to meet and socialize.
“The idea is to create an intimate dinner party,” explained Tristan Pitre, general manager at high end restaurant Demi in Minneapolis, which opened in 2018. The tiny restaurant features only 22 seats in a u-shape around a chef staging table. “At a traditional restaurant setting there is a divide between the diners and the chefs but at Demi we’ve given diners the opportunity to talk to the chef, who is bringing the food to you, and get intimate knowledge about the preparation and the intent behind the dish.”
From restaurants that encourage people to mix and mingle (such as at F.L.X. Table in Geneva, NY), to dinner parties hosted by a chef at home, here’s a survey of places to meet other gastronomes, watch a great cook in action, and nosh on delicious food.
Going out to eat in
Where do you go when you want great food and great company but can’t round up your friends for an evening out? Or when you travel, how often do you wish you could meet some locals, have a meal together, and learn what life is really like in an unfamiliar place? Or what about an intimate dinner out with a select group of people who really love food, just like you?
As the British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal puts it, “To me, food is as much about the moment, the occasion, the location, and the company as it is about the taste.” Blumenthal cooked a four-course, pop-up dinner in London last summer with an event host on site whose role was to greet and introduce guests to each other so diners could “meet and socialize with new people.”
Social dining: from pop-up dinners to feasts
Pop-up dinners that encourage people to meet each other while they admire the talents and tastes of the chef is what ChefsFeed is all about. From African feasts to the Grand Gelinaz! tour where chefs all over the world remake each other’s recipes, this website and app features all the one-night-only, chef-hosted, gustatory experiences available across the country. The description of the Gelinaz! tour says it all: “Kiss the chef! He/She will be there waiting for you—su casa es tu casa—ready to hug you tightly.”
“We launched ChefsFeed Experiences (CFX) recently to connect the best chefs in the world with people seeking unique dining experiences,” said Rich Maggiotto, CEO. “This new initiative continues our mission as the "inside connection” that both enables amazing experiences for consumers and helps an incredible, hard-working industry.”
Invitation-only eating at a Michelin-star chef's home
Dinner-with-the-chef is also a niche market that some celebrity chefs are exploring. Joshua Skenes, the 39-year-old creative force behind three-star Michelin rated Saison in San Francisco, has opened an “invitation-only experience” called Skenes Place that will seat just eight in Skenes’ own dining room in his Hollywood Hills home. For $1,000 per ticket, all inclusive, guests are promised “...[an] experience where guests can be informal and let loose while still enjoying the very best products and beverages in a thoughtfully created environment.” The first dinner was held Dec. 12.
Dine with a celebrity
A precursor to Skenes Place is Oxalis, which has been serving 16-course meals in amateur chef Max Shapiro’s L.A. home since 2012. Like Skenes, Shapiro screens his guests through a website form. He only allows couples or solo diners at his table in order to “allow people to meet and converse in an intimate setting.”
You never know who you'll meet
Interestingly, the experience has deeply influenced some guests’ lives. Six women who originally attended a dinner in 2013 became close friends and today still have weekly dinners together. Recently a female guest messaged Shapiro to say she married a fellow guest she met at Shapiro’s table. “Wild stuff!” Shapiro commented.
The idea [is] to offer the same level of meticulously sourced and prepared food, but in a relaxed and fun atmosphere.
Oxalis was created, Shapiro explains, to be the antithesis of the anonymous formality of expensive restaurants. “As a young man, I would go to these establishments and feel somewhat uncomfortable and unwelcome,” Shapiro said. As an amateur cook in search of a gustatory education, Shapiro would taste and try, then go home afterwards to replicate the meal he had had. After friends told him repeatedly that the food was as good or better than at big name restaurants, Shapiro decided to organize “curated experiences” in his own home. “The idea [is] to offer the same level of meticulously sourced and prepared food, but in a relaxed and fun atmosphere,” he said.
Combining the best food with the best view
For a foodie, the world has become one giant spread. Food can be tasted, talked about, and seen on food tours, wine cruises, cooking retreats, and at pop-up dinner theater in which costumed actors and a lavish set come with a master-chef cooked meal (check out Los Angeles Eats Itself for historial dinner reenactments of L.A. history).
But what if you could set up a table at some of the most picturesque places on earth and enjoy a gourmet meal? That’s exactly what Outstanding in the Field (OITF) provides. Calling itself “a radical alternative to the conventional dining experience,” OITF offers dinners in unusual, and unusually beautiful, spots around the world. From a beach in Nicaragua to a pier in Pensacola, Florida to an organic farm on Oahu, the company’s field crew sets up one long communal table and a field kitchen where guest chefs prepare food often homegrown on site.
“Driven by a desire to organize deeply meaningful dining experiences [...] We strive to cultivate excellent service and table conversation that brings together new and old friends,” says OITF’s website.
Make new friends around the table all over the world with social dining
You can also meet new friends almost anywhere in the world—and taste home cooked, ethnically diverse food by amateur chefs—through chef-hosted dining platform EatWith. A simple search by city, date, and number of guests yields a plethora of interesting dining options such as a Balkan feast in a New York City brownstone, a dinner in a Parisian artist studio, or a Middle Eastern meal in an ancient palace in Barcelona. Offered in 130 countries, EatWith describes its mission as “bringing people together through food.”
Social dining as a pastime
An Oxford University study in 2017³ suggests people feel happier and more content when they eat with others. As technology plays a bigger role in eating out (like online ordering and even robotic restaurants such as the automatic hamburger maker at Creator in San Francisco), it’s likely that diners will increasingly crave company in addition to flavor and ingenious dishes.
For chefs, too, cooking for an intimate group is a rewarding experience since they get to create the presentation and experience according to their own tastes and interests. “At the end of the day, it’s about me having control since it’s such a personal thing to have people in your home,” commented Max Shapiro. “But I also convey [to guests] that it’s time to have fun and come as you are.”
And once they discover the pleasures of eating communally with their chef and fellow diners, fans of social dining report they do it often.
“We have attended several [OITF dinners] in various places and loved each one,” commented an enthusiastic supporter of Outstanding in the Field. And for an EatWith fan, a dinner in Rome felt familial. “Met a lot of great people from around the world and it felt like we'd known them forever. When in Rome go for it!”
Whether you prefer a familiar, friendly potluck at a friend’s house or feel that your culinary calling lies further afield with new friends in places you’ve never been, mealtime is the best way to share time with others. Here’s to making memories and bon appetit!