In a Belgravia townhouse on a sultry Sunday evening, Helena, a 30-something fashion designer, is delicately sprinkling pretty edible flowers on to a salad of feta, watermelon, cherry tomatoes and microgreens. For someone about to host dinner for five complete strangers, she looks surprisingly serene.
Helena has organised this dinner party through the app AirDine, which allows users to eat at strangers’ homes around the world. With a similar feel to Airbnb, hosts set up their own profiles, concoct a menu and set a price per head; diners then rate the experience afterwards. The app was launched in Sweden in February 2016, and currently has 30,000 users. It’s now expanding to Britain and 23 other countries. Tonight, Helena, from Gothenberg, is hosting the first ever UK experience.
Along with four other guests, I have booked in for dinner in Helena’s kitchen, having paid just £10 (through the app in advance) for a three-course meal. Two glamorous psychologist friends, Carole and Macarena, who are doing a course nearby, arrive. Two more guests turn up separately: Stine and Abbie, who work in fashion and TV respectively. (Stine is Swedish and Abbie lived there for a year, which is how they discovered the app.) We range in ages from our mid-20s to our mid-40s.
I like that element of the unexpected, not knowing the people around the dinner table
‘I first heard about AirDine from friends in Gothenberg and thought it sounded fun. I like that element of the unexpected, not knowing the people around the dinner table,’ Helena explains. ‘Usually when I have friends over for dinner, it’s always the same crowd, but this is an interesting way of meeting new people and mixing it up a bit.’
Helena is adamant that she has no aspirations to become a restaurateur; for her, this is all about meeting new people and trying out something different. ‘I have to admit I didn’t take the money side of things too seriously because this is my first time, but I picked affordable ingredients and went for simple, tried-and-tested recipes. I wanted to be able to join my guests at the table without stressing over the food.’
In Sweden, AirDine has been nothing short of a phenomenon. In any given week in Gothenberg, for instance, there are some 30 dinners taking place across town. When Abbie lived in Sweden she was a regular user: ‘I found it a great way to meet new people. It was a mixture of men and women, from all walks of life, meeting in an informal setting.’
AirDine is the latest of a handful of supper-club launches. Website EatWith started in 2012 in Barcelona, and is now available in 34 countries, with some 11,000 dinners under its rapidly expanding belt. Feastly, soon followed, allowing professional chefs to host informal dinners in their home or anywhere but a restaurant. And since last year, you can book supper clubs via Airbnb.
AirDine, meanwhile, is the first to launch as a snazzy app, with an emphasis on connecting strangers rather than showcasing chefs. Many users, I’m told, see AirDine as a relaxed alternative to soul-crushing dating apps. ‘Sitting around the table is a much nicer way to meet new people,’ says Abbie, sparking off a heated discussion of the worst Tinder dates we’ve ever had.
Now that Airbnb has made us all comfortable settling into a stranger’s home, perhaps the UK is ready to swipe right to share a dinner table with complete strangers.
On the menu tonight is poached salmon with a crème fraîche dressing, alongside that beautiful feta and watermelon salad. Pudding is home-made berry ice-cream topped with fresh raspberries. It’s more reasonable than the average AirDine dinner, which hovers around the £22 mark in Sweden (15 per cent of which goes to the app).
Helena passes a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc around the table; earlier she made sure our glasses were liberally refilled with prosecco as we milled around the balcony nibbling olives, while she put the final touches on our meal.
All drinks are included in the tab, and as we take our seats and toast our hostess, we agree she could definitely up her price tag. It’s a delicious meal, but this isn’t a super-fussy five-course foraged tasting menu. It’s just simple, home-cooked, healthy food in a comfortable setting.
Charlie Hedström, AirDine’s chief executive, believes that this more laid-back approach – whereby cooks are not screened and prices kept low – is one of the secrets of its success.
‘It has to be said that some of the AirDine suppers I’ve had couldn’t be called a huge success in terms of the food,’ says Abbie, recounting one incident where the host hugely underestimated how tricky it was to prepare gnocchi from scratch. ‘We ate a few hours late, but it was still a really fun evening because of the company.’ Like Airbnb, hosts are not vetted, but the reviews system allows picky diners to make sure they’re not taking any gambles.
However, there’s nothing amateurish about tonight. Our dinner time is set at a 6pm arrival for a 6.30 seating, and we eat bang on cue. There’s something pleasingly retro about this – today a dinner party feels significantly more novel than eating out in a restaurant. While dining out used to be considered a treat, over the past two decades it’s become an everyday occurrence.
According to researchers at Manchester University, it’s so routine that 75 per cent of us don’t bother dressing up for the occasion. Not surprising when, as a 2013 Zagat study found, most Londoners eat out an astonishing four times a week – on a par with New York, Tokyo and Paris.
Instagram has only added to the pressure to eat at different hotspots with exhausting regularity; if you haven’t shared a picture of your avo-on-toast brunch or a pulled-pork taco in 48 hours, friends might wonder if you’re still alive. Meal delivery services like Deliveroo and UberEATS have also massively upped the calibre of takeaway food, while meal-kit delivery services like HelloFresh have made everyday cooking feel a little bit more special – and both have changed the way we eat at home.
But in our pursuit of casual dining and street food, something has quietly slipped off the menu. We’ve lost the traditional dining-with-friends experience, and it’s this void that social dining apps are seeking to fill. As much as I love the food-truck scene, I am sometimes left hungry for something more intimate, some lively debate, and all the informal comfort of a home.
And I’m not alone. ‘Kitchen suppers’, the more casual incarnation of the dinner party, are on the rise. Gone are the pressed tablecloths, folded napkins and three-course meals and in their place are lasagne or cottage pie with a salad, with dirty pots and pans in the sink.
It may sound like a millennial thing, but it was the Camerons who helped champion this new era of entertaining with their intimate dinners with donors and supporters at Number 10. We may not do dinner parties like we used to, but we still appreciate that eating in offers something more intimate than dining out: good conversation, home-cooked food and perhaps the chance to extend our social circle.
At Helena’s place, we keenly discuss whether first impressions are a reliable barometer of someone’s character, our travel plans for the year ahead, the joys of storytelling collective The Moth, and hotly debate how you can wear gingham without looking like a cowgirl.
We’re oddly open about past and present relationships, perhaps revealing more to a bunch of new faces around the table than we would to close friends. It strikes me that it’s often possible to have more edifying and enjoyable conversations with strangers, while ‘catching up’ with close friends or family can feel a bit forced and perfunctory.
‘With strangers, there’s no existing framework for conversation, so it can be on anything,’ agrees Helena. With friends, it’s all too easy to slip into conversational ruts. And an AirDine night doesn’t need to be a big, rollicking one, either; the low prices and informality of the supper means it’s not a wrench for Carole to disappear before 9pm to put her kids to bed, and the rest of us leave just before 10pm.
While it was a fascinating evening, it also felt, well, Scandinavian somehow. Will AirDine really work in the UK? Are Brits more likely to outstay their welcome and drink the host’s Smeg fridge dry? Are we more socially awkward around strangers? Are we less willing to step outside our social comfort zone?
There are certainly cultural obstacles to overcome when you roll out a social experience across the world, where social norms vary greatly. But if there’s one thing I know about the notoriously fickle hospitality industry, it’s that appetites change fast. And right now, we might just be working up a hunger for the good old-fashioned soirée.