Anita Michaud moved to New York in 2021 just after graduating from the University of Michigan. Given the metropolis’s culinary reputation, Michaud was eager to embrace new food and new friends in the city she had always dreamed of inhabiting. Yet in a hub of over 8 million people, getting to know those people was challenging.

“Moving to New York can definitely be an isolating experience,” Michaud said. “I kind of had this assumption that since there are so many people here, it'd be just so easy to meet people… And then I actually got here and I realized that was not the case.”

With its waitlists and cosmic-based rating system, the New York City restaurant scene also proved to be intimidating. “There was this sense of ‘in the know’ that you had to have to be able to access these different, cool things that were happening,” she said. “And I was like, I'm not really cool.”

Thus, Michaud decided to bring the plates and the people to her. “I wonder[ed] what would happen if I invited people off the internet to eat dinner with other strangers at a stranger's apartment.” So she did. Dinner with Friends began as a small Instagram account of about 50 followers (mostly friends of friends). In no time, “it kind of took off in a way that I was completely surprised by.”

Photo by Sophie Ming

Dinner with Friends isn’t your standard Friday night floor-takeout with freshman year roommates. The venture is inspired by the Chinês Clandestinos of Lisbon — hidden restaurants tucked inside residential apartments. Dinner with Friends calls itself “a place to meet new and old friends.” The site of these meetings is transitory, circulating among a roster of “hosts” whose homes become makeshift restaurants for the occasion. Hosts must be able to prep, cook, and accommodate sizable groups (one of the prerequisites is a dining room table that can reasonably seat at least five). These traveling gatherings of community dining aim to introduce guests to new cuisines, and perhaps most importantly, to facilitate new friendships.

“I think people are…looking for a way to meet people…in a way that feels maybe a little bit curated, but not overly so,” said Michaud.

Despite the required application process for becoming a host, Michaud considers Dinner with Friends a casual and accessible experience. There’s no formal dress code to adhere to or probing conversation prompts to endure. Strangers, the evening’s chef included, share a table and a meal, often developed around a theme (a film, a favorite restaurant, a destination).

Dinner with Friends isn’t the only community dining business popping up in recent years. The terms “dinner party,” “collective,” and “community” seem to be sprouting up everywhere in the online food world. Kendra Austin's Third Cup, “a collective and dinner party” started in 2022 in New York, offers events with food and cocktails on its website, “and an opportunity to meet your new best friends.” Dinner Party, a warmly-lit Brooklyn restaurant where strangers share tchotchke-topped communal tables, presents the opportune environment for making small talk over rustic prix fixe dishes and exchanging phone numbers by candlelight. The restaurant, which opened in 2021, is meant to feel “like you’re dining among instant friends,” according to the website. Lucky Dinner Club, another Brooklyn-based initiative, also puts friendship first. Its online bio describes the monthly dinner party as a gathering of “strangers becoming friends, crushes, and creative collaborators,” all in one night.

Photo by Tanner Hoffarth

Food has been the catalyst for romantic relationships since Samantha’s season 1, episode 4 tryst with Jon, “the hottest chef in New York,” in Sex and the City. There seems to be no reason the mealtime method of connecting couldn't work for friendships. In 2023, seven years after the launch of Bumble BFF, Bumble announced its standalone app, Bumble for Friends, that aimed at forging friendships. Dining and finding friends at the same time then, seems to make perfect sense. (Is there any alliterative outing more classic than the dinner date?). Now, since the isolation of 2020’s lockdowns, the notion of finding friendships over food has been at the core of a new generation of community-focused culinary businesses.

Artist and event host Liz Chick regularly invites strangers into the cavernous art studio a friend helped her score on Craigslist. Under the name RecCreate Collective, Chick leads events and creative workshops. Food was central to the equation from the beginning. This April, she conceptualized Collage Club, where guests could come and meet and cut and paste, because she wanted to share the space. She baked coffee cake for the 20 to 25 people who showed up for “a wholesome sweet morning,” (and in an oversaturated miasma of aesthetics, and cores, “wholesome” is highly sought after online and IRL).

Photo by Liz Chick

The key to connection is when guests “could do an activity together and then they could eat together,” Chick said. Since that first coffee-cake fueled craft session, she has planned cake decorating parties, cookie decorating workshops, and oat milk-making classes. If there’s anything to be learned from primary school sandbox sessions, nothing bonds people like making a mess. “They're all like squeezing their oat milk bags, and I don't know, it just got messy and fun and weird,” she said. “It was really cute to watch everyone start to interact with different people throughout that process.” Naturally, of course, the event concluded with a cereal party where crafters sat down to try their fresh flavored oat milks with a bowl of cereal. “I think they're just, really craving to do hands-on things with other people,” said Chick.

“It's such a beautiful part of life to get to…be open to new connections and meeting new people and like just the beauty of a stranger,” Chick continued, “I think people have extra appreciation for that now.”

This spring, Michaud incorporated other cooks into the formula, after Dinner with Friends exploded from what she calls “a selfishly motivated” need to commune with other New Yorkers.

Now, Michaud is able to watch other New Yorkers make friends. At each dinner, she observes the subtle shift that occurs when diners crossover from cautious strangers to something like comfortable friends. “There is something really beautiful about being able to connect fully in person and being fully engaged,” she said.