With Europe on edge after the bombings in Paris, it is good to be reminded of the joy of sharing a meal with strangers. But what happens when you don’t know anyone at a dinner party, not even the host?
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During a recent evening in Brussels, I rang the doorbell of a complete stranger’s home promptly at 7 p.m. His ground-floor apartment was in an art nouveau-style row house built in the 1930s. The door opened, and Maher, an Egyptian political science Ph.D. candidate at Ghent University, gave me a warm welcome. (He, like other hosts of such dinners, chooses not to publicize his full name.)
I was the first to arrive for his “Egyptian Evening” (dinner and a movie), and as I took off my coat in the entryway, I resisted the temptation to blurt out that famous quote from “A Streetcar Named Desire”:
“I’ve always depended on the kindness (and in this case, the cooking skills) of strangers.”
BookaLokal — a new dining experience
Maher is just one of nearly 1,000 BookaLokal hosts in 47 countries, in more than 100 cities around the world. BookaLokal is a group dining website. To sign up for a dinner, go to bookalokal.com, choose which city you wish to dine in, browse the dinners, choose one and pay online.
The site was founded in 2012 in the Brussels kitchen of Evelyne White, a 32-year-old harpist, travel enthusiast and former investor from New York. I got to ask her a few questions before the dinner. Here’s what she told me about this unique dining experience.
How did you come up with the idea for BookaLokal?
Evelyne White: “I was inspired by the success of ‘sharing’ companies like Airbnb. If people can open their homes to strangers, why not open their kitchens and dining room tables?”
How does BookaLokal differ from other group dining sites?
Evelyne White: “BookaLokal has the widest range of hosts, from amateur hosts to professional chefs. Whereas some of our competitor sites only allow top chefs to join the site, we believe the best experiences can sometimes come from people like you and me, who are just passionate about hosting and meeting new people.”
This was certainly true of Maher, who is also the former editor-in-chief of The Daily News Egypt. He was an engaging host who gently steered us through the evening as if we were all old chums. We were a cozy group of eight in all (if you include one guest’s toddler), who hailed from countries such as Egypt, Portugal, Turkey and America.
Meals made with love
The homemade dinner, served buffet-style, was simple and delicious: baba ganoush and pita bread; vegetables (peas, zucchini and carrots) cooked in tomato sauce and flavored with pepper, cinnamon and lemon juice; and kebab halla (beef cooked in creamy onion sauce) served with rice.
After serving ourselves, we settled down in the darkened living room to eat our dinner in front of “Ana Hurra” (“I Am Free”), an entertaining, thought-provoking Egyptian feminist film from 1959, which Maher projected on his living room wall.
Maher isn’t the only host with creative dining ideas: From a recent look at what’s offered on the BookaLokal website, choices include “Dinner Served on a Vintage Boat, Docked in the Amalfi Harbor,” Amalfi, Italy ($55); “Pig Roast and Comfort Food,” Washington, D.C. ($50); and “Dinner Inspired by Famous Food Quotes,” given by a former opera singer in New York City ($100).
A variety of venues
In addition to dinner, some hosts provide a variety of other eating and drinking experiences, such as “Seville Tapas and Wine Tour,” Spain ($50), and “Indian Buffet and Bollywood Dance Lesson,” Belgium ($42).
Worried about language barriers? Languages spoken by each host are listed on their profile page. Maher speaks English and Arabic; Ester, who lives in Rome, speaks Italian, English and Spanish.
“Our hosts come in all shapes and sizes,” said White. “We have culinary students, experienced host families, supper club organizers, and people with a passion for sharing their culture and connecting with new people.”
What are BookaLokal’s plans for the future?
Evelyne White: “Although BookaLokal started as a social dining site (a place to meet new people), we are seeing increased interest in private dining. If a host serves amazing Portuguese food for groups of six to 10 guests, why not book the host for a dinner with your own group of 10 friends?”
After the Egyptian film, we helped ourselves to more wine and Egyptian black tea (with cloves), and had a relaxed discussion about the film, women’s rights and Egyptian politics. Talking with people you don’t know within the confines of dinner at a stranger’s house is oddly liberating — perhaps similar to the surprise and delight of striking up pleasant conversations with strangers on an airplane. BookaLokal is a great dining choice for tourists visiting a new country, expats living abroad, and anyone interested in being inspired — and maybe even transported to another culture — by good food and stimulating conversation. As the Egyptian evening came to an end, I was reminded of another quote, this one from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savairn’s book “The Physiology of Taste” (1825):
“Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travelers due to reach their destination together.”
Main photo: The “Dinner at the Artist’s Home and Studio” in Amsterdam ($37 per person) featured ciabatta with salmon, crème fraîche, horseradish and dill; lasagna with pancetta and artichoke; and affogato al caffè. The hostess’s apartment is on the ground floor facing the IJ harbor, and when the weather is nice, she serves dinner outside on the quay. Credit: Copyright 2015 www.petrahart.com