“Take a picture of me with Jesus,” a woman at the end of the long dinner table says to her friend sitting across from her. She snuggles up to the tall man she'd met an hour before, whose shoulder-length brown hair does, in fact, lend him a Jesus-like air. Jesus, whose real name is Thom, poses agreeably.
These are a few of the dinner guests brought together by a website called Eatwith. After signing up on the site — which is sort of an Airbnb for dinner parties — and booking their reservation to eat a family-style meal made by chef and former Chopped winner Jeremy Bringardner, the 10 or so diners convene on his downtown L.A. rooftop patio, strewn with festive lighting and a canopy of bougainvillea.
Bringardner — a nutrition-focused chef who works at the health-food chain restaurant LYFE Kitchen — and his fiancé, Lynette Coll, use Eatwith to host monthly events at their home. They cook, mix drinks and entertain people they've never met.
As the night begins, Coll, a bubbly, outgoing actress and mixologist, shakes up cocktails of tequila, lime juice, grapefruit and ginger for the guests, who mingle awkwardly for a minute or two before sinking into conversation. It's the conversation specifically that positions Eatwith as more than just a way to book your next meal. Its users — in 150 cities worldwide — say it offers a unique way to make connections.
“I wanted to meet more like-minded people that were foodies when I moved here full-time,” says Michelle Homme, a recent transplant to L.A. ”With restaurants and other pop-up-style supper clubs, you always have to find a date or a friend to go with you. This is kind of cool because I feel comfortable showing up solo. I don’t have to worry about making a plan with someone else. I can just show up and meet new friends.”
The guests study Bringardner as he prepares the appetizers in his open kitchen. Pork meatballs (with avocado, kumquat and perilla leaf), oat “risotto” (with mushrooms and pecorino) and giant oysters with fresh horseradish are then passed around on large trays. Unlike pop-up dinners that also take place in people's homes, interactions with the Eatwith hosts are often a major part of the experience; they allow guests to hang out in the kitchen and sometimes join them for the meal.
Jenny Young, who has attended several Eatwith dinners, says restaurants no longer appeal to her. “Here, you don’t get the mystery of what’s going on in the kitchen. You get to see everything,” she says. “The food has been so good. It has more flavor. It’s fresher. You taste everything. I haven’t gone to a restaurant for a long time.”
The website, originally created to allow international travelers to enjoy more unique, authentic dining experiences while traveling, has also found a niche among transplanted residents in cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Away from their families and friends, the diners are drawn to meals that provide a more intimate, communal experience.
Eatwith is part of a growing food-meets-tech sphere. Foodie Shares is an app that lets you order meals from local home chefs. Kitchen Surfing provides customers with a selection of chefs and menus for private-event hire. With both of those, however, the customer eats chef-made food in the comfort of their own home, with guests of their choosing. Eatwith sets itself apart (as does Europe-based VoulezVousDiner) by making the experience eating with the hosts and strangers as important as the food.
Like other share-economy websites, EatWith has a system in place to safeguard both hosts and the diners. Only 4 percent of chefs who apply to host are accepted, and individuals who join the site must build detailed profiles before signing on to attend the dinner parties.
When it's time for the main course, Bringardner and Coll's guests make their way to the outdoor patio, which in this case involves climbing up over a shelf and stepping through a large open window. The guests reach out to help each other step down on the other side.
The hosts bring out course after course of vegetable and seafood dishes. At one point, everyone lifts glasses of cold strawberry soup to cheers. Between plates of charred octopus with fennel and Korean noodles with lobster, cauliflower, crispy shallots and parmesan, Bringardner and Coll sit down to tell the story of how they got engaged last year and where they plan to marry this summer. The seemingly endless supply of wine (guests are encouraged to bring a bottle) continue to be poured.
This eight-course meal with cocktails — which finishes with Thai-basil shaved ice with fresh lychee and a slice of Bringardner's mom’s blueberry crisp — had a suggested donation of $65.
For Bringardner and Coll, the Eatwith dinners have been a creative outlet as well as a way to meet new friends. One dinner ended with guests piling into the building’s rooftop hot tub (in their clothes).
“We do it because it’s fun,” Coll says. “For [Bringardner] it’s a way to create new dishes that he cannot do in the restaurant because the restaurant is very specific. Here he can play. He has no rules. He can do whatever he wants. We were looking for a creative escape. The moment it stops being fun, we’re not doing it anymore.”