The practice of social dining with strangers: going out to eat in

The practice of social dining with strangers: going out to eat in

Ema Johnson

Going out (alone or with friends) and paying to dine with strangers within the private home of an amateur chef is the authentic model of what is termed a supper club. There are many names for and variations of this type of dining experience. The terminology used most among media and the movement itself, to describe what ‘social dining’ is include: ‘pop ups’, ‘anti-restaurants’, ‘underground dining’ and ‘supper clubs’. Venues can range from warehouses, bookshops, empty shop units, or private homes.  All these variants broadly speaking can be termed ‘social dining’ experiences. This is an emergent phenomenon of the last five to ten years, and is seen to be part of the sharing economy. The popular view is to assume these new dining concepts are set to disrupt the restaurant industry in a similar way Airbnb has done to the hotel industry or Uber to the taxi industry. However, this is a misconception, as the experience of a supper club is closer to a wedding breakfast than it is to paying to dine in a restaurant.

Studying this phenomenon revealed why social dining in its truest form, the supper club, has emerged as a popular dining option within major cities. Supper clubs unearth new perspectives around the meaning and appropriation of commensality, eating alone and eating out occasions. Social dining offers up a new type of third space in cities. The practice of supper club dining highlights how these alternatives have been adopted by those with lifestyles that the normative restaurant format does not cater for. I will draw on qualitative research undertaken in 2014, on the London social dining scene to explain why this is so.

One of the first London supper clubs was established in 2009 by MsMarmiteLover, who took inspiration from visiting a Cuban ‘Paladar’, which directly translated, means palate in Spanish. The ‘Paladares’, began in Cuba in the 1990’s providing the first taste of private enterprise for Cubans, and gave tourists an alternative to state run restaurants. A paladar is often run out of the front room of the family home and the offering is simple. It is typically what the family can afford to eat themselves, so Paladares offer a view of real Cuban life. In the UK, the social dining movement has grown to offer upwards of 200 events each month in London alone. This is now a global movement particularly with residential chefs ready to host strangers in 29 countries worldwide (see Eatwith).

The execution of cuisine can vary from high-end Michelin level standards, cooked by ex-bankers in exclusive homes to simple dishes exemplifying immigrant roots of some London residents. The typical price per head is in the region of £20 – £35, however there are hosts who offer a night of dining for free in order to meet new local people (theclaptonpot). At the opposite end, some supper clubs can charge up to £100 (thelondonfoodie) rivalling the experience if a high end restaurant. The price does not include drinks as it is illegal for any hosts to serve and sell alcohol without a license, and this ‘BYO’ (bring your own alcohol) practice can be a key bonus for diners thus avoiding the high mark-ups experienced in some restaurants. The frequency of most supper clubs tends to be fortnightly or monthly and the focus or theme is typically a global journey of cuisine and cultural education of the host’s roots, experience and inspiration, for example a voyage through a continent in six courses, or a celebration of seasonal ingredients.

The popularity and appeal of these events can vary. For hosts social dining can be an outlet of expression that fulfils a passion, or a way to earn extra money and a chance to do some moonlighting for a potential next career move. For the professional chefs taking part, it can be a way of testing new concepts, flavours and menus and locations. For those in lower ranked positions hosting a social dining event can enable them to break away from the rigidities of culinary style in the day job and showcase their skills in order to build a reputation.

It is within the professional gastronomic arenas, mainly in France, that most of the protest against the social dining movement has occurred. Paris apparently has almost 3000 home restaurants already, and is home to the first known and longest standing supper club (Chez Jim), now running for over 30 years. The main criticisms have been that the amateur chef is not just under cutting the restaurants on price, but they are potentially dangerous, due to being untrained, unregulated and therefore unsafe. The defence coming from some hosts in the social dining scene is that this model of dining is actually more cost efficient and more sustainable than restaurant operations. As the menu is pre-planned and the number of guests known, the purchasing is more precise and wastage less. If there is excess food it is often offered as seconds or to take home in doggy bags or eaten by the hosts themselves. The dual purposing of existing sites is also seen as an efficient use of precious space in dense cityscapes.

Airbnb and Uber are the best-known corporate backed faces of the sharing economy, and corporate backing exists within social dining also. Eatwith has received $8m funding to try and establish itself as the Airbnb of social dining. Large firms masquerading as one-off ‘pop ups’ also help to give social dining a dubious reputation. However, putting aside corporate influence, industry governance and politics, there are meaningful practices emerging for the patrons of these spaces. The authentic supper clubs, which are run in real homes by passionate amateur chefs, are emergent third spaces in neighbourhoods enabling connection and a sense of belonging for single households, new native residents and foreign settlers or travellers. Social dining has occupied a void many other dining experiences cannot fill. This was experienced first-hand in Dalston, one Saturday night in August 2014, over a ten-dish trip around the ‘Stans’.

As the table was set for twelve and 9pm approached, guests rang the doorbell, were greeted and proceeded to opened their bottles of wine sharing them with fellow strangers. When I asked about why they had chosen to book their places, narratives emerged, which showed there is more to a supper club than foodie hosts showing off their homes and culinary skill or elite professionals wanting to network. Most notable were the ways in which the supper club space was used by some female diners and volunteers.

One diner, who arrived alone wasn’t looking to find an intimate mate, as she had a boyfriend who lived in a different city however, travelling every weekend to meet up was draining, so staying locally apart appealed. She had not lived in the area for that long, yet she loved her shared house and its residents, but saw them in passing, infrequently and as a result didn’t socialise with them yet. She saw her neighbours even less, had the occasional wave to say ‘morning’ once or twice when putting out the rubbish or dashing off for work. This was her third lone visit to a supper club and her second to a local one. She saw using supper club’s as a space allowing her to meet people locally, whom she could perhaps get to know and quiz about what was going on nearby.

Another guest also spoke of visiting other supper clubs, and typically when eating out would spend more on a meal out than was being asked by the supper club. She spoke of eating out alone in a restaurant as something she would never do, for fear of unwanted attention and feeling uncomfortable. When friends were busy with kids or other commitments and she wanted to go out, the supper club was a good choice. The supper club, for her, provided an enjoyable alternative to either staying in or eating out alone ‘you still get to have a night out like going to a restaurant… and it’s so handy as I can just walk home afterwards’.

A Japanese teacher, who had travelled across town to visit this particular supper club, spoke of loving the city of London and enjoying her job. Socialising with new colleagues was nice, but she would rather not be around them out of work time. She was attracted to the supper club to taste food from a region she would possibly never get to visit. Plus the prospect of meeting new people from other parts of London appealed.

In the kitchen, was the host with three assistants, the host rarely left the kitchen, only to serve and introduce a new dish, narrating the provenance justifying its place on the menu. She saw her job as being to run the kitchen, carefully ensuring that all dishes were made to an exacting standard of authenticity. The host was passionate about authentic recipe collection. It was evident that the supper club and recipe collection were a good way for her to connect with people. She happily recounted asking people she barely knew, on the street, at the bus stop or at work about their food heritage. This resulted in new recipes to add to her collection. The host lives alone and hosts the supper club once a month. She is renowned for her supper club, often receiving new recipes from friends and colleagues and is never short of requests from people wanting to volunteer in her kitchen.

One of the kitchen volunteers, originally from France, was a regular at this supper club. This particular supper club was known for its charitable focus as 75% of the menu price is donated to charity and the food is prepared by a selected regular volunteer network. When asked about making the food at the supper club she said she didn’t usually cook or eat this type of food herself nor had she ever attended a supper club as a guest. Her meals during the week in her shared house were something ‘simple and quick’, typically noodles and vegetables. The time spent at the supper club reminded her of the family weekend meals she would help to prepare and eat back in France, which she missed sometimes. The volunteering also gave her a route to do something worthwhile in her spare time.

The food was served in big bowls, passed and shared around the table. Chatting to the guest’s revealed the diners were from other parts of the country or from different countries, drawn to London mainly for work. What emerged from conversation around the table also that the guests did not have any children dependant on them or other caring responsibilities or immediate family living nearby. Yet this had been a very familial evening of feasting and conviviality, akin to that of a celebratory occasion; a wedding or big birthday, where dinner guests may look at a seating plan, having no idea of who the person next to them is, or how they have come to be there.

Conversations spanned birdsong in Lincolnshire, cycling in London, traveling in younger years around Asia, the trouble with the Greek economy and many other things, including the food served and all its flavours. The evening closed around midnight with the first guests leaving at 11.30pm all going separate ways. I was walked to the bus stop by a male couple who lived just around the corner; they bid me a safe journey, probably never to be seen again.

The supper club observations relating to women, solo households and London new comers opens up new thoughts around how public space and evening third spaces can be imagined. A quote from a female diner at another supperclub evening shows best how certain places fit certain people or a particular gender; ‘…my husband would never come to an event like this and sit sharing dinner with people he doesn’t know, yet he thinks nothing of taking himself off to the pub and standing at the bar on his own’. For women, who may live alone and are free of commitments, this might be their go-to space to feel at home on a Saturday night? Supper clubs have poked up through the cracks within neighbourhoods that commercial spaces and corporate business models cannot fit into. Appearing in spaces where the economies of scale for profit making enterprise are absent. Momentary connection and participation is the most valuable currency offered at a supper club. These alternative dining options enable people to eat with others, adding a new option to eating out and provide an alternative to eating alone for those individuals who may feel a sense of anomie and desire a local belonging.

Listening to guests narrate their experiences of eating out, busy routines and travelling histories revealed social dining is an experience many seem to enjoy. While the hosts, be it amateurs or professionals, cook for the love of food and the culinary creativity, for the guests, food appeared to be a background aspect. However, I feel these ‘stranger encounters’ could not have emerged if the food experience were not positioned as the focus. In places where common space can come at a premium, supper clubs exemplify a new type of commensal nightlife that offers people the chance to brush up against neighbours and congregate for a while. For those with no family or close friends nearby a sense of belonging, a feeling of being comfortable in your surroundings, knowing the place you inhabit, a sense of home and connection can be found among local strangers in someone else’s home.

 

Ema Johnson is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the Sustainable Consumption Institute at The University of Manchester. Her present research focuses on the meal provisioning practices of solo older households. Overall her research interests are within alternative approaches to meal provision, commensal relationships, neighbourhood third spaces, and social participation.   

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