Connecting with locals on a trip used to be one of the unpredictable charms of travel. You had to strike up a conversation with a friendly local on a train platform—or on a bus or at the market—to finagle an invitation to share a home-cooked meal with a real live family. Now all you have to do is go online. The website, Eatwith.com, founded earlier this year by entrepreneurs in Israel, is trying to formalize the serendipity of those random encounters by creating a database of people who want to eat with you. More than 400 people in 23 countries have signed up to be “hosts,” offering dinner cooked in their homes for the 20,000 people who’ve registered as “guests.”
In Ljubljana, Slovenia, for $28 a person, you can dine on beef soup with noodles, salad and roasted potatoes, made with organic ingredients from the host’s own garden. Or if you are in Tokyo, you can visit a supermarket with a local, a translator in her 40s, to buy ingredients for a sushi dinner, then go to her traditional-style Japanese home (a treat, since most Japanese now live in Western-style accommodations, as her profile points out), help her make the meal, then eat it. The price for the experience is $57.
Guy Michlin, an entrepreneur in Tel Aviv, came up with the idea for the site while on a trip to Greece with his wife and child. “After four days of tourist traps, I’d had enough,” he said. He was invited to Friday-night dinner at someone’s home and realized what he’d been missing. “It was such an amazing experience—the food, the people. We stayed there till midnight,” he said.
The site launched in February, focusing on Barcelona, where it has since become popular, with more than 200 hosts offering meals. But the appeal of the idea has spread beyond Spain; Michlin says the site has had about 4,000 applications from people wanting to host dinners in 101 countries, including Canada. Once it has received an application from a prospective host, an EatWith rep visits the person’s home to sample dinner and help set a price.
Those who host the meals say money isn’t their motivation. Manon Lair, a thirtysomething in Paris who showcases French gastronomy with wines and cheese, charges guests $31 a meal. But after EatWith takes its 15 per cent commission and she pays for the ingredients, “I don’t make a profit,” she said. “I do this for the pleasure of welcoming strangers to my home.”
Andrea Ruani, an Italian who describes himself as a former couch surfer who settled in a Barcelona flat with two roommates after getting a job, hosted two to three dinners per week this summer, serving pasta in his garden. His interest in the idea of an economy based on sharing drew him to the site. “You have to stay for three hours, sharing food, the house, the emotions,” Ruani said in an interview. And while he got mostly tourists in the summer, now more people from his own city are coming for the home-style experience.
Not all meals are simple. Anaïs Jaccard offers a lavish experience in the Brooklyn apartment of her co-host, Emily Parkinson. For American Thanksgiving they will serve what they call a “gradation of birds”—a turkey, a duck, a Cornish hen, and a quail laid out in descending order on the table—for $34. The experience they offer prompted a Swedish firm to send a group of 10 architects temporarily working in New York to Parkinson’s home, instead of to a restaurant, every week for more than a month.
The guests seem happy with the service. “When I signed up I was not sure [what] to expect, but they went above and beyond all my expectations!” reads one review of a meal with Jaccard and Parkinson. A review of a Barcelona dinner compliments the chefs and their home: “Their house was warm, friendly . . . I instantly felt comfortable.”
“We are recreating the good elements and taking out the bad elements of meeting with a stranger,” said Michlin. The only bad thing to happen at one of Ruani’s many dinners was when the night was so much fun that his flatmate appeared at 1 a.m. and said, “Please let me sleep.”