food / travel

"Airbnb Of Food" Allows You To Break Bread With Strangers

Just as Airbnb allows people to share their homes, a pair of new "table d'hôte" sites are giving amateur cooks a chance to share their tables.

Preparing dinner for unknown guests
Preparing dinner for unknown guests
Aïna Skjellaug

LAUSANNE — Setting your table for complete strangers, getting reimbursed for food expenses — and hopefully, making friends in the process.

That, in a nutshell, is the concept behind websites such as EatWith or Surfing Dinner, Internet platforms that give everyone a chance to eat out, albeit not in a restaurant. The sites are part of the so-called sharing economy, offering people an experience that is both social and original — an improvised kind of table d'hôte.

Léonard, a 35-year-old Belgian man who arrived in Lausanne a few months ago, decided to give it a go as a host. "I knew about the concept of EatWith in Brussels and thought it would be a good way to meet new people," the computer engineer says.

Léonard's first step was to visit the website and suggest a menu, a price, a date for the dinner, and a maximum number of guests. "I wanted to play with stereotypes by offering homemade moules-frites (mussels and fries), gourmet ice cream, and do a tasting session with different Belgian beers," he says. "It worked pretty well because in two days, I had my four guests." The improvised restaurateur fixed the price of the meal at 25 Swiss francs ($25.25) per guest.

Then came the long-awaited meal. For extra effect, the Belgian, who doesn't like to do things halfway, put on a satirical Manneken Pis T-shirt for his first guest, who arrived at 7 p.m. The Manneken Pis, meaning "little peeing man," is a landmark sculpture in Brussels of a boy urinating into a fountain.

The guest is Marco, a 39-year-old Italian who soon proves to have quite the sense of humor. He's later joined by Lilliane and Séverine, two friends from Lausanne who are both in their 40s. Soon things are in full swing at Léonard's place, in the heart of the working-class Boveresses neighborhood.

"We love going out and meeting people, but with the mentality in the region, it's not always easy. Talking from one table to another at a café barely ever happens. Nowadays, everything is done through social networks," says Séverine, who heard about the meal-sharing platforms through word-of-mouth.

Léonard's mussels, superbly spiced, and his fries, coarsely chopped, are to die for. And the beer ... after the Angelus and the Barbar we're now onto the Médiévale. As glasses and bottle are emptied, cheeks turn redder, the volume goes up around the table, and signs of awkwardness disappear.

Marco imitates his boss, effecting a strong Vaud accent. He mimes uncomfortable situations in the Lausanne metro, and has fun pointing out certain Swiss idiosyncrasies. Lilliane and Séverine laugh heartily: They had no idea they'd also see a one-man-show tonight. Léonard is delighted — and looking forward to plans he made with Lilliane to go see an open air movie on Saturday.

Another table d'hôte platform, Surfing Dinner, was launched last year by a Lausanne couple. The experiment has been quite successful: Since October 2015, about 100 such meals have been organized.

Unlike platforms such as Airbnb and Uber, Surfing Dinner doesn't handle any money. Dinner guests pay their host in person. And yet the system works surprisingly well. Out of all the guests who've signed on to attend Surfing Dinner meals, only one was a no-show. Legally, however, the table d'hôte is still something of a gray area. In the canton of Vaud, it's allowed for gatherings of up to nine people. In Geneva, it's not allowed at all.

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