The square wooden table fits just beneath the windows of the townhouse near the Anne Frank House. Tourists and locals both stroll along the stone street outside, heading toward the busy cafes of Amsterdam’s Jordan district. The dozen dinner guests inside are oblivious, sipping a lusty local wine and swapping get-to-know-you stories.
But this isn’t your typical dinner party. All but a single guest is a stranger to Caro van der Meulen, host of the weekly Friday night Caro Kookt “living room restaurant.’’
“It is a wonderful way of meeting people and hearing their stories,’’ says van der Meulen, who has sat with hundreds of guests from around the globe. “It’s amazing that there is always a link between people.’’ One night, two people who hadn’t seen each other in 40 years ended up at her table. Another week, it turned out that a man who arrived alone was using her dinner as his first social event after the death of a partner; the other guests swept him into their fold.
This particular evening, the table includes a Dutch couple living in Switzerland, a mother and grown daughter using the meal to cap a day of shopping and a young woman whose guest is here as a birthday treat. A builder and his wife, a doctor, reveal a passion for African travel, and soon they are trading stories and tips with another Africa-going couple, an American travel journalist — me — and her husband.
Van der Meulen’s Friday repast is one of a dozen living-room restaurants listed on Amsterdam’s official visitor website, Iamamsterdam.com, under the Things to do/Dining Out tab. (It is also listed on the website iens.nl.) But the phenomenon isn’t limited to the Netherlands. Worldwide, meals with locals are posted on sites including Eat With, Meal Sharing, Cookening, Feastly, Traveling Spoon and Eat With a Local. Airbnb is quietly experimenting with the concept, report numerous news outlets, though the company itself is keeping mum.
Like renting a room through Airbnb, living-room restaurants give travelers unique experiences at affordable prices. Some sites simply pair travelers with locals who meet them for shared meals in a restaurant. Others allow home cooks to play chef, sometimes for one-time events, others for a set evening each week.
Website founders like Guy Michlin of EatWith say they were spurred by a quest for authentic travel experiences.
“After four days of tourist traps, we were invited to dinner with a very warm and welcoming family in Greece,’’ he recalls. “The experience was just so amazing, when I came back to Israel I thought, there just has to be way to give more people this experience.’’
In the year since it launched, EatWith has paired a couple of hundred hosts with thousands of visitors to North America, Europe, Australia and Japan, Michlin said. Guests search their city of choice and find locations, meal descriptions and costs. In Rome, for instance, Veronica, “a young oriental archeologist,” offers pasta-cooking lessons ($51 per person) or a three-course meal served in her garden ($47). In Barcelona, Gino Latino offers a fresh “epic fish” dinner for $23 per person.
Like EatWith, Mealsharing includes dining reviews. To ensure safety and trust, co-founder Jay Savsani built in a two-way system, allowing hosts to “flag’’ inappropriate guests in advance of accepting meal bookings. Diners sign up through their Facebook accounts, allowing both hosts and guests a better sense of the people they are connecting with. From the 1,000-plus meals that have been facilitated by the site, the only complaint has been about a guest not showing up for a booked meal, said Sasvani.
He and his co-founders like to view meal sharing “as something we’ve all done before but it’s kind of been lost,’’ he says. Hosts are encouraged to make whatever they might normally eat at home — even peanut butter sandwiches. For more elaborate meals, they request that guests “chip in’’ on costs.
The site currently lists meals in 468 cities in 60 countries including the U.S. In Chicago, for instance, Enitan offers a dinner featuring flavors of Africa ($10 chip-in requested), while Pendar serves up a Persian meat stew and vegetables for a $12 chip-in.
Like other website founders, Vicki Edmunds is an avid traveler who founded EatWithALocal in 2009 after her family exchanged houses with a family in Slovenia. “We were invited to use the spices in the cupboard of the people who lived there. When Corrie, my daughter, saw the different choices she said that she would have loved to have dined with the family who lived in the house,’’ she says.
At the time, Edmunds was unable to find sites that matched travelers and local meal hosts, so she started her own. Today EatWithALocal boasts 3,000 members worldwide who dine together, trading lodging and shopping tips, and life experiences as well.
Regardless of where they book their meals, travelers typically find set menus — often based on seasonal ingredients. Hosts are urged to follow local laws governing restaurants and food service. In Caro van der Meulen’s case, that means arranging all dinners in advance by email, so the events are technically classified as catering arrangements rather than restaurant meals.
Van der Meulen started her dinners four years ago, when she lost her job at a telecom firm during the economic downturn. Her once-struggling weekly dinners have become so popular that guests have to reserve months in advance. The rest of her week is now booked with catering jobs.
On this particular Friday night, the evening begins with a glass of wine from the shop just down the block. The first glass is included in the modest meal price of 18 euros (about $25) per person, with a nominal charge for additional glasses.
Most of the guests this evening are Dutch — atypical, says Caro, as we’re all now calling her. All speak English, and though some conversations flip into the local tongue, most of our fellow guests are mindful of language constraints. A hearty loaf of homemade bread is passed, served with local olive oil. After a few glasses of wine, laughter fills in the gaps.
“The idea of eating at somebody’s home, meeting all kinds of different people, seemed very interesting and exciting for us,’’ said Yvonne Oomen-Laumans of Geneva, at the table with husband Roger.
We move on to ravioli rolled that afternoon, each filled with an egg yolk and finished with a light mint butter sauce made with the herbs that grow near the stove. Our main course is lamb Wellington, the meat tender and mild inside the pinched homemade crust artfully finished with the letters, L.W., and served on white porcelain with roasted white asparagus. We pass the salad greens family style.
By the time a home-baked cake arrives for dessert, we’re well into a fourth (or is it fifth?) bottle of wine. The mother-daughter pop off early to catch a train; the young workers head out for a late evening soiree. A handful of us are left, trading stories that are more or less true. Eventually even we grab our coats and head for our beds.
“We didn’t know exactly what to expect,’’ sums up Yvonne. “But the whole evening matched up with the expectations of having a nice meal with interesting people in a fantastic atmosphere. I’d definitely recommend it.’’
Dine with locals
Caro Kookt: Caro van der Meulen offers her Caro Kookt dinners in an Amsterdam townhouse most Fridays for a cost of 18 euros. Book well in advance via email at email@example.com. For other Amsterdam options, look on the official visitor website http://www.iamsterdam.com, under What to Do/ Eating & Drinking / Dining Out / Living room restaurants.
For dinners in local homes worldwide, most in English (be sure to ask.), or to sign up to host, check out the following websites. Most require a free membership.
EatWith, www.eatwith.com: Easily navigated site with meals in North America, Europe, Australia and Japan.
Feastly, www.eatfeastly.com: Focuses on meals in U.S. cities.
EatWithaLocal, http://eatwithalocal.socialgo.com: This early site connects diners primarily in Europe and the U.S.; it offers fewer set events than other sites.
Mealsharing, www.mealsharing.com: Members and meals in 425 cities. Options available for carnivores, vegans and vegetarians.
Cookening, www.cookening.com: Started by a trio of French chefs, this site offers options in France and beyond.
Traveling Spoon: www.travelingspoon.com: Oriented to Asia, the site offers meals, cooking classes and market tours.