With website names like Eat With, Side Tour, VoulezVousDiner and Feastly, a new food trend that is sweeping New York and other cities allows diners to enjoy fine meals inside someone else's home. Think of it as Airbnb for hungry people.
It's easy to think these sites are all about the food, but they're not. The food is often just an excuse for what can essentially be a really great party with a bunch of people you've never met.
Recently I went to a "taco party" I found through the Eat With website. I paid $40 to go to the home of two fun-loving Latinas. They have a great apartment, filled with art, just across from the Brooklyn Museum. As soon as their guests arrived, they made it a point to shove rum drinks into our hands.
Katrin Bergmann came all the way from Frankfurt, Germany — she was part of a gaggle of German tourists who turned up — because she'd seen a segment on Eat With on German TV called "How to Survive in New York."
"We thought we wanted to do something different from a normal tourist tour, and we wanted to talk to real people who live here," Bergmann said. "And so we have real Brooklyn people around us ... and Germans."
The hosts, Glori Linares and Victoria Delgado, kept shuttling between the dining room and kitchen, frying up empanadillas stuffed with Oaxaca cheese. They're both vivacious and easygoing — perfectly suited to the job of hosting a bunch of strangers and dealing with "unforeseen circumstances," like an episode last summer when a guest fainted after a little too much rum on a hot day.
But I actually went for two dinners, and one was nothing like the other. The second dinner was in the East Village, in Manhattan. The host: a Wall Street banker turned Hindu monk named Rasanath Dasa.
We sat in Dasa's apartment, discussing authenticity and the pure life, capitalism and self-denial, all the while sipping water and having what might be some of the best soup I have ever eaten. If this all sounds a little strange, and surreal — it was. It was also completely mesmerizing.
Vipin Goyal co-founded Side Tour, the site where you can sign up for Rasanath Dasa's dinner. He said the company takes pains to find people who are more than just good cooks.
"It was people who we thought would be really remarkable for other people to get to know," Goyal said.
The idea seems to be succeeding. Side Tour says some of its hosts make anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 a year, and in the fall the company was bought by Groupon.
Meanwhile, Eat With is adding dining experiences in dozens of countries. Not that anyone's expecting home dining to replace restaurants, at least not in New York. After all, there are only so many New Yorkers who can cook and are willing to play host in their tiny apartments. But that doesn't make the experience any less fun.