“It’s like SeaWorld. If you sit in the front row, you might get a little wet”, Peter Droste said, chuckling. He was using an eBay-purchased vacuum sealer to prep a duck for sous vide cooking as guests trickled into his Brooklyn apartment — a converted Williamsburg storefront — and were greeted by Lola, his dog. The apartment, bisected into a private bedroom and public (at least for the night) dining area by a temporary wall, belonged to Droste and his wife Morgan Beetham. In the dining room, a large, makeshift table was propped up on sawhorses, running the length of the room until it butted right up against Droste’s kitchen. In three hours, twelve strangers would sit down at the table for a seven-course dinner, each person vaguely connected through word of mouth. But right then, the place was a mess.
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The couple, their arms covered with tattoos, ran around the apartment pulling the evening together. Beetham laid down a tablecloth and dotted it twelve times with vintage silverware. Droste, in a black shirt, black toque and black chalk stripe apron, prepped dinner. The couple was casual about the night; they had been preparing dinner for strangers for just under a year as part of their underground supper club, Calva, named for Calvados rum, the main ingredient in a cocktail paired with the first course.
Calva began because Droste was disappointed with his “lack of input on the big picture dining experience” while he worked three years for what he called a “culinary free-jazz group”, Highlands Dinner Club. Tired of his complaining, a fellow chef dared him to put his money where his mouth was and create something better. Two weeks later, testing started; a month later Droste served his first Calva meal. Now, a year later, when he isn’t doing his other bill-paying “side hustles” like bartending, he’s cooking twice weekly for a group of adventure-seeking foodies who are actively ditching the traditional restaurant scene in favor of a home-cooked meal from Droste and conversation with eleven strangers.
“People want to do the next cool thing, experience something new. Restaurants are all the same, in a way. We’re doing something different with dinner tonight and supporting our neighborhood’s chef in the process.”
“People want to do the next cool thing, experience something new”, Annie Malarkey said. “Restaurants are all the same, in a way. We’re doing something different with dinner tonight and supporting our neighborhood’s chef [Droste] in the process.” Malarkey (who photographed the dinner for Gear Patrol) learned about Calva through a fellow photographer who works at the New York Times. The guests at Droste’s place had learned about the dinner largely through word of mouth; each of the diners was connected to someone else. Well, except for the guy from Feastly, one of the main platforms for finding underground supper clubs, and one of the places where Calva lists its dinners.
Founded in early 2013, Feastly is a marketplace for home-cooked meals, connecting the people who make them to the people who want to eat them. Turning social media into a tool for actual socializing, for a small fee the site allows pop-up restaurants, home cooks, foraging hikers, yogis teaching mindful eating and Calva’s tattooed founders to find foodies looking for a new, albeit strange, dinner experience. While many physical interactions have been replaced with screen swipes and clicks, Feastly emphasizes food because the “dining room table is the original social network”, according to founder and CEO, Noah Karesh.
The shared economy in which these underground supper clubs, social dining platforms and Kickstarters exist is expanding rapidly. In a legal gray area, strangers use the internet to connect with each other for car rides, beds to sleep in at night and other services, including dinner. The internet broke down the limits of brick and mortar and cut out the middle man; now consumers and producers can meet in a deregulated, trust-based marketplace. This is how Uber is threatening yellow cab companies and how dining clubs may eventually, if not threaten traditional restaurants, then divert the flow of patrons to other options.
The internet broke down the limits of brick and mortar and cut out the middle man; now consumers and producers can meet in a deregulated, trust-based marketplace.
The two largest social dining websites were founded for the same reason. The creators of Feastly and EatWith found themselves in Guatemala and Crete respectively, trying and failing to find authentic local food at restaurants. After chance meetings with welcoming local residents, both founders had unforgettable experiences that made them realize that a channel to really explore local eating was missing.
“Food has a real effect on people”, said Naama Shefi, the Marketing Director of EatWith in New York. “When we enjoy great meals together, it’s very intimate.” This intimacy leads to roughly 60 percent of EatWith users staying in touch with a host or fellow diner after the meal has finished, according to the company.
“What we’re trying to do is come up with a new dining category”, Shefi said. “Right now people either go out or stay in. Now they can have the home-restaurant.”
Despite its origins as a travel-focused platform, 70 to 80 percent of EatWith’s New York participants are locals. The popularity of EatWith in New York and San Francisco is a product of “food culture that is developed and sophisticated, with residents who just want to meet other foodies”, Shefi said. EatWith, founded in Tel Aviv, Israel, was an obvious fit for other countries like Spain, where communal eating is still a major thread in the cultural fabric. Cities in Spain have even been working directly with EatWith to help promote the site. In the U.S., however, things are a bit different.
As with Feastly, EatWith is “in a legal gray area at the moment”, admitted Shefi. According to a statement from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in New York, “Home-based restaurants are illegal throughout New York State. When the Health Department learns of a meal service operating out of a home kitchen, it can order the operation to shut down, issue a ticket… and take further enforcement action as needed.” Other cities where Feastly and EatWith are currently spreading share similar policies.
“Right now people either go out or stay in. Now they can have the home-restaurant.”
But these platforms and clubs show no sign of slowing down. Droste recently took on Calva as a full-time occupation; both EatWith and Feastly plan to be completely global in the coming years. To protect themselves from legal suits, both dining platforms have an intense screening process for applicants, even going so far as to taste their food. In addition to “verifying” chefs, each site features hundreds of Calva-type experiences and allows users to scroll through dozens of reviews of each dinner in order to find a meal they’ll trust. Droste, on the other hand, while a user of Feastly, likes word-of-mouth recommendations and the trust inherent in them. While the platforms allowing adventurous diners and chefs to find each other online are growing, surely they haven’t yet caught up with the excitement for underground dining clubs still off the radar in cities across the country.
Well into Calva’s dinner, filled up on courses of duck confit and lamb chops, a cross-section of Brooklyn’s culinary types sat around the table, mostly chatting, unsurprisingly, about food. An alleged teenage prodigy chef, Johnny Future, buzzed with excitement while a food blogger talked, perhaps to excess, about social media with a local filmmaker. As the guests watched Droste balance raspberries atop a chocolate desert, Jessica Matson, a Brooklyn florist, continued to make small adjustments to the table’s flower arrangements, which she had provided. True to form in the sharing economy, it was a night of contradictions: beautiful floral arrangements in a makeshift dining room; a family of strangers; multiple courses on sawhorses; rules, but no regulations; a restaurant in a home.