When is the last time you ate a meal with a group of people you don’t know?
If your answer is never, you’re missing out on the latest food trend sweeping the globe that turns strangers into friends – one meal at a time. From intimate gatherings of some of the most recognisable names to low-key, casual meetups among the regular folk, the trend towards dining with strangers is catching on in the UAE.
At a recent high-society gathering put together by Club Uno Dubai, 24 people with fashion industry influence gathered in the designer Nadine Kanso’s Jumeirah Beach Road garden for an exclusive dinner.
Though the guests all had ties to the fashion industry, many had never met before. As the evening’s host, Kanso says: “I don’t want to say I had my doubts, but it’s the first time I have done this. I was a bit nervous.” The intimate affair lasted several hours and Kanso seems thankful for the experience. She says: “People need these small groups where you can get the best out of everyone around you. Where you can have nice conversation, longer conversation, not only just ‘Yes, hello, how are you?’”
For people used to attending big galas with big names, the dinner offered an unusual break from the norm. Mimi Shakhashir, the designer behind the Dubai-based Kaleidoscope by Mimi, was one of the guests at Kanso’s dinner.
“We tend to be invited to so many launch events and openings where we see the same A-listers. It was so refreshing to meet new people in a relaxed get-together in such a cosy atmosphere. Not only did we enjoy good food, but great conversations.”
Elisa Kottmann, an organiser from Club Uno, says: “It is something special. It’s so easy to increase your network very, very fast if you’re active on social media. But sometimes it’s nice to just go back and do it face-to-face.”
Club Uno’s third gathering in Dubai tonight will focus on food. The Michelin-starred chef Giorgio Locatelli – an Italian from London – will host the event at the Palm Grove, a private setting within the Atlantis, The Palm hotel. Guests on the list include the Radio One DJ Sheena, fooDiva blogger Samantha Wood, Agriprocity’s owner Nicole Rogers and the fashion designer Rami Al Ali.
For the lucky few who score an invitation to one of these events, the night is sure to be a memorable one. However, if you’re not on Club Uno’s radar for an invite, but still want to dine with unfamiliar faces, you’re in luck. There are a range of other organisations in the UAE offering their own version of the opportunity.
Restronaut is one of the best-organised concepts for dining with strangers in Dubai. Tables are built on themes and anyone interested in the topic (and even those who aren't) can sign up to join the table. The pre-paid dinners keep no-shows to a minimum and the theme provides subject matter to get conversation flowing. Restronaut's co-founder Leith Matthews says it may sound intimidating to some, but he has seen first-hand how quickly strangers make connections. "It's a big step to attend a table with strangers for the first time. But then you realise it's not awkward. In many cases, you have more fun and it's more exciting to be meeting new people than even it is to be sitting with your oldest friends, because it's all so new and fresh." All of the dinners have a set menu and are held in Dubai's newest and trendiest restaurants. Matthews says they set up about four dinners a week, which seat between eight and 12 guests. Restronaut, which already has a strong following in Dubai, will launch in Abu Dhabi this month. Book yourself onto a table by visiting www.restronaut.me
The Dinner Club by No. 57
The Emirati friends Buthaina Al Mazrui and Alamira Noor Bani Hashim started Dinner Club by No. 57 a little more than a year ago and it has since turned into one the most exclusive dining adventures in the capital. To get an invite to one of these private dinners is a big deal. They are held in strange locations and kept secret until just a few days before the dinner. Previous dinners have been held in an empty swimming pool, a construction site and a public bus. Although they are usually held in Abu Dhabi, a recent dinner was even hosted on the back of a lorry in New Delhi, India. Bani Hashim, who selects the site and focuses on the decor, transforms the locations into luxurious settings. The inspiration for each dinner, the guest list and the menu remain a secret until the night of the dinner. One thing that never changes is that most people in attendance don’t know each other at all.
“We’re never going to invite the same people,” says Al Mazrui. “We’re going to do it in a random location every time. We want it to be really special. We don’t want to do it too regularly. The maximum we’d do it is twice a month.”
The idea initially started as a way to generate buzz about the duo’s plans for a new cafe. Now, their dining with strangers concept has a life of its own. They keep the dinners small, never more than 16 people. Al Mazrui cooks all the food herself, which is impressive since she has a full-time job. She says: “It’s a lot of hard work but we’re so passionate about this. I’m so proud.”
Though an invitation to one of these dinners is hard to come by, soon anyone will be able to stop in and try the locally and seasonally inspired food at their boutique cafe called No. 57. It’s set to open in the summer.
Lime & Tonic
Lime & Tonic is a social concierge service that highlights some of the most interesting dinner experiences Dubai has to offer. Their occasional Secret Supper Club with the chef Tomas Reger is one such event, bringing strangers in Dubai together for an unforgettable evening. The dinners are comprised mostly of professionals working in the city and include both the young and old. "They are nearly always strangers," says its founder, Tariq Sanad. "We don't have suppers above 20 people and we ensure they are interactive with a theme." Sanad says people come for many reasons, but mostly to "do something different and extraordinary [rather] than a dinner at a restaurant". Past themes have included art, fashion, disco and The Emperor's Table. The dinners are never held in a restaurant, which makes the occasion even more unique. Previous dinners have been held in an appliance showroom, a courtyard, an old restaurant kitchen and a coffee roastery. "I think people want to do something that is different," Sanad says. "Meeting new people is an element that is an added plus." The Secret Supper Club is open to everyone, but it is not a regularly scheduled event. Lime & Tonic emails subscribers about forthcoming dinners so those who register online (it's free) will be the first to know about the next secret gathering. Sign up at www.limeandtonic.com
Meetup dubs itself "the world's largest network of local groups". With nearly 16 million members around the world, it's one of the easiest ways to meet like-minded people wherever you happen to be. In the UAE, Meetup has several food-loving groups who get together to sample a variety of meals at a wide range of restaurants. Jessica Jung, a German expatriate, started the Cheap Eats Ladies Group in Abu Dhabi last November. The group has already met 14 times, with new faces from one meal to the next. "People love the idea as a way to try new restaurants and meet new people," Jung says. She says 90 per cent of the women in the group are single professional women, though all females are welcome to join. While the focus of Cheap Eats is to enjoy inexpensive food with new people around the capital, the Meetup group Fine Dining with Strangers seeks out high-end eateries. On a recent Fine Dining Meetup, a handful of strangers gathered at Rangoli at the Yas Island Rotana. After a minute or two of introductions, conversation flowed easily among people who seemingly had nothing more in common with each other than a love of high-end food. Had each of them not stepped outside their comfort zone to attend this potentially awkward dinner, they likely would have never met. And that's the beauty of it. By the time the dinner was over (after midnight), the guests left as friends who promised to meet again. A bonus: if you can't find a Meetup that interests you, you can always create your own. To find your own strangers to dine with, visit www.meetup.com