Selecting the perfect mix of people and organizing them all around a table without upsetting anyone is one of the most difficult tasks when organizing an important dining occasion – an exciting menu and sumptuous dishes are not always enough to turn a simple lunch into an event to remember. This is often especially true when our diaries are swamped with invitations to weddings and various public events. There’s a big risk involved: that our guests might die of boredom and eat too much in the process, from one last shrimp to yet another slice of cream-covered cake.
It is for this very reason that a number of new ‘social dining’ services have been launched: virtual organizers of the perfect table, they ward off the risk of gaffes and the apathy of guests to the same old dinner party chit-chat, and help with organization and encourage socialization long before the event has even started. There’s Simpleseating, for example, which has been manna from heaven for wedding planners and engaged couples suffering from the crisis of having too many relatives, colleagues and friends to seat: this firm’s software helps organize the seating plan, and creates a plan of the tables which can be shared with all guests, via email or Facebook.
There’s also Social Tables, which in addition to seating all of your guests at ‘virtual’ tables, inviting participants to have their say and allowing them to give their opinions on the seating arrangements, also lets your guests socialize amongst themselves before the event. Knowing who you’ll be sitting next to at dinner, you can get in contact beforehand and chat via social network, through the same site, exchanging a few first words and hopefully breaking the ice. It even allows you to ask the bride and groom that most awkward question: Can I change tables? The system works well even for smaller dinner parties, helping bring together a selection of guests who perhaps don’t know each other very well for a meal, such as a dinner at a club in which the members don’t usually socialize with one another, but might have a particular passion or interest in common.
And then there’s the pleasure of dining together as a way of meeting people. Here, the food is often just an excuse to make friends: better than speed dating, or even a dinner party at a friend’s house, the Grubwithus website organizes dinners for groups of between 4 and 25 people, and suggests a restaurant and a low-budget menu (around $25 in total, with restaurants usually giving out a group discount). The site books the table automatically, and rewards the first members who sign up for the dinner. From the second invitee onwards, the price rises, a little like Open Table’s auction system, the most famous site that allows its members to buy dinner at a famous restaurant for a distinctly agreeable price – all you have to do is book using a credit card before anyone else does.
Grubwithus’s ‘dinners in the dark’ last for around two hours, in which time you can chat with your fellow diners and make friends. It’s good for single women too, who can check the profiles of every guest on the site itself beforehand. Thankfully, no guest can remain anonymous, and gatecrashers are not allowed at the table. For now the service, which first started in Chicago, is only available in some of the larger US cities, from New York to Los Angeles, and from Boston to Seattle. But in just a few months is has already proved itself to be a success, having attracted around 10,000 members, who have created profiles for themselves on the site and actively participate in events.
If, however, your lunchtimes are dedicated exclusively to business, a lonely salad at your desk can now be transformed into a career opportunity. All you have to do is sign up to Let’s Lunch, fill out your professional profile (which connects automatically to LinkedIn) and join the game, or rather, the table: the site organizes meals for two which last around 45 minutes – the perfect amount of time for a business lunch. Let’s Lunch sends invites to members who have the same professional interests (a little of everything can be found, from marketing to banking) and a relatively equal online reputation (an indicator which is calculated automatically when you enter your personal information). Once a month, however, even for those members who don’t have a particularly full résumé, it is possible to win a lunch with a genuine business guru, turning an ordinary lunch break into a big chance for career development. Just be careful not to get any spinach stuck in your teeth.
A kind of LinkedIn for fuller bellies, there’s also Lunch Tree, which was set up in late 2010 and which is for now focused solely on the city of San Francisco: this is a smartphone application which allows members to set up a lunch date with people with similar professional backgrounds. At 10 am a message is sent to your cell phone: are you free to lunch with Mr. or Miss. X? And by 11am – subject to both invitees having space in their diaries – the definitive confirmation arrives, again via SMS, with the address of the restaurant (which is as convenient as possible for both guests), a map of how to get there, and your lunch partner’s contact details. And the bill? It’s always split, each person paying for themselves, in order to avoid embarrassment.