Dining table the original social network
In restaurants and homes across the city, strangers are making friends over dinner tables. Communal dining is perhaps the latest trend to hit the Washington food scene, and it’s here to stay — at least for a while.
Among the eateries offering excellent food and company is the Big Bear Café (1700 First St. NW) in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Every other Sunday in the summer and fall, and weekly during the winter months, Big Bear hosts a family-style dinner using fresh ingredients bought at the farmer’s market outside the café.
An email goes out a week or two before the dinner laying out the menu and inviting neighbors to join them. Folks can also sign up at the café. Anywhere between a dozen and 30 people will show up for the family-style meal, and at $50 per person —$60 plus tax if you include a wine pairing — it’s among the more affordable options in D.C., and a tasty one at that.
Feastly is another new start-up facilitating the communal gatherings. Chefs, both amateur and professional, submit a dinner menu online and invite anyone to join them at their home for a gastronomic experience — the goal being to establish a table-wide social network. Prices vary, but the average is around $35 per person.
“We believe that food is more than just a tool for nourishment. It’s a vehicle through which we create and sustain relationships and traditions,” said co-founder Noah Karesh.
With more than 40 dinners prepared already this year, Feastly has set its sights on New York and beyond, with a view to going global.
Karesh said being invited to one of these dinners “adds a sense of adventure” to the whole experience.
“There’s a voyeuristic nature to these dinners. You’re invited into someone else’s space. So there’s a sense of trust,” he added. Diners help prepare and serve the food and clean up afterward.
It’s not just start-ups offering this dining experience — more established restaurants have made it a hallmark of their business model, including the Belgian-owned chain Le Pain Quotidien, which has 60 stores here in the United States. Brasserie Beck, at 1101 K St. NW, has been doing it for five years.
General Manager Ramón Narváez said the table is booked by a single large group most of the time, but occasionally is used to seat individuals and small groups together. While it might not be their original choice, patrons, when given the chance to move, usually choose to stay put.
“They lose their inhibitions. Food and wine, it’s a great lubricator. They get into each other’s conversations. They talk a lot more about the food,” said Narváez.
The meals Chef Anthony Acinapura serves at Brasserie Beck remind him of Italian Sunday family dinners back in Union City, N.J., where “everything is loud and crazy until the food hits the table and suddenly everyone goes quiet. I’m just bringing it back to basics,” said Acinapura.
The farm-to-table concept is important to its practitioners; how it develops varies from place to place.
When the Big Bear Café opened in 2007 alongside the Bloomingdale Farmer’s Market, the kitchen was ill-equipped to turn out such a production. But the seeds were sown in the most organic way, beginning with festive meals during the holidays with friends and neighbors staying in town (including Croke brothers Matt and Gareth, who own the Boundary Stone pub a few blocks north on Rhode Island Avenue).
“We’d have Thanksgiving at their house and they’d have Easter at our place. Twenty to forty people would show up,” said Big Bear owner Stu Davenport.
But the meals were not restricted to the holidays. “Friends of mine would have family dinners. They’d do it every Friday for about six to eight people and bring in new people all the time. And everyone would cook together,” he said.
Davenport knew he had to develop the concept at Big Bear — he had access to the food at the weekly farmer’s market. But he was missing two key ingredients: a properly equipped kitchen and a chef to cook in it.
Enter Clementina Russo, an Italian-American from Houston. She arrived in the neighborhood last summer with her fiancé and had just completed her Ph.D. in physics, and needed a gig to sustain her while she worked to get some papers published.
A regular at the café, Russo thought maybe she could bring something fresh to the table. Having grown up around food and the restaurant business, she too saw the potential.
Russo addressed the kitchen situation, including purchasing a stove, developed a menu — albeit limited, initially — and changed it every day. Because of the tight quarters and the proximity to the dining room, Russo found herself in direct contact with her customers, who would walk into the kitchen to express their appreciation. “You typically aren’t as exposed to your clients as you are there. It’s like an extension of your living room. That’s not common for chefs to have that kind of exposure and gratitude,” said Russo.
Communal dining works because it has three important ingredients: a comfortable setting, great food and real people. Le Pain Quotidien spokeswoman Cai Pandolfino summed it up best: “It’s a place for people to gather around the table in a traditional way.”
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