For most travelers the experiences we remember most vividly are when we connect with locals. Swapping stories with a shop owner. Learning the area’s history while trekking with a native guide. Or simply solving the world’s problems from atop a stool beside a bar’s regulars.
These are the experiences that stick, providing insight into what drives a place and its people. Thanks to a new breed of “experience-sharing” companies, like-minded locals and travelers are finding it easier than ever to connect through one of the world’s most unifying passions: food.
These services appeal to locals who love to cook and are willing to open their dining room doors to strangers. Sharing their culture with adventurous travelers is a way for hosts to hone skills, meet new people, and generate income. And, most take the role of cultural ambassador to heart.
For travelers, it’s an opportunity to see a destination from the inside, while also saving money. Since most meals are offered at a host’s home, costs are generally less than comparable restaurant menus.
How it works: From professional chefs, who like to experiment away from a restaurant, to amateurs, who enjoy sharing family recipes, experiences are offered for every taste. While most focus on communal or private dinners, some offer cooking classes and food tours. Often hosts pair beverages with courses. If not, guests are usually encouraged to bring their own.
Guests see the general area of each listing, along with sample menus or itineraries, and dates. Upon confirmation, you receive an exact address and contact information. Payment is typically made via the website, not directly to a host. Companies wait 1-2 days after the event to hear disputes, then deduct a percentage (ranging from 12 – 18%,) and pay hosts.
As with other sharing services, like Airbnb and BlaBla Car, user reviews are the driving force. Participants are verified through social media connections and contact information, plus some companies visit each host individually. Still both parties take a leap of trust. For those willing to make the leap, the reward is enjoying home-cooked food or a customized food experience while gaining local insight that even the best guidebook or travel article will never deliver.
: Select a date early in your trip. Then the insider information you gather—favorite restaurants, events taking place, tourist-traps to avoid—will pay off for the entire visit.
Not completely sold on the idea of dining in a stranger’s home while traveling? Schedule a meal in your own community first where familiarity will ease anxiety. (Plus, you will meet new people and discover local culinary treats.) Before booking a meal, engage the host and discuss any dietary restrictions in advance.
Just as you would for a dinner party at a friend’s house, bring a small gift for the host. A culinary treat from your area is always appreciated—a few spices or even recipe cards for your favorite dishes.
Eataway founder Mark Bradshaw remembers a meal with one of the company’s first hosts. “A group of about eight twenty-something French men on a bachelor party weekend booked, followed by a group of six eighty-something pensioners from Belgium,” he recalls.
“We thought it was going to be a disaster, but within five minutes of starting, it was clear the age difference meant nothing. By the end of evening, they were all singing the ‘Marseillaise’, swapping contacts, and becoming friends on Facebook.”
That experience underscores the power of meal sharing to connect people who might otherwise never interact. Bradshaw admits when the company launched in 2015, friends and family were skeptical about dining in strangers’ homes.
With partner Marta, the Bradshaws launched a simple website offering meals in their home. Within a year, Eataway listed over 350 home chefs, and continues to grow with a concentration in Central and Eastern Europe. Eataway is translated into 18 languages to encourage diverse participation.
A recent search found dinner in Krakow featuring traditional Polish stews and dumplings, served in a family’s garden, for $22. While for $25, guests in New York, get a vegetarian meal and view of the skyline from the host’s rooftop in Astoria.
: First time Uber users can enter the code “eataway,” for two free rides to a confirmed dinner. And, generally, cancellations occur less frequently with hosts who have low minimums of 1-2 guests.
Dinner with a local family in Sri Lanka served as the springboard for the launch of Withlocals in 2014, says CEO Dick Koopman. Feeding on the idea that locals are eager to share what they love about a city, the site taps into two areas important for visitors: eating and activity. Unlike other services, the experiences offered through Withlocals are all private and customized.
“It’s all about trust,” says Koopman. “You personalize your experience through contact with the host of your choice. You get acquainted, you know a bit about each other. That makes it easy to tour through a city or to sit at someone’s table.”
The site lists experiences in Asia and Europe and vets all hosts through company ambassadors who take photos photos and approve experiences. Not all listings involve home-cooked meals, many feature curated food experiences in the city.
A recent search found what’s billed as a refugee dinner in Berlin for $40, where guests taste traditional foods from an asylum-seeker’s homeland while learning more about the culture. Travelers in Rome can experience a Michelin star tour, sampling four different restaurants with a local in the know, for $119.
: As with other sharing services, either full payment or a deposit is due at the time of booking. Meaning if your trip is still weeks out, you fork over funds upfront.
Camille Rumani and Jean-Michel Petit founded VizEat in 2014 after dining in local homes while traveling and working abroad. “We felt that gathering travelers around the table of locals was the best way to experience the culture of countries you’re traveling in,” says Rumani.
“We usually say as a joke at VizEat that food is the first social network and it has been so for millennia.”
Today, VizEat lists 20,000+ hosts in 110 countries, focusing on a range of food experiences including cooking classes and market tours. A recent search found a paella cooking class in Barcelona and a pastry class in Paris, each for $35.
In addition to user reviews, VizEat follows up with each host and guest for feedback. Rumani says guests often credit this as the highlight of their trip.
“Our hosts are the soul of their city, they know their own city by heart and they love to share tips and secret addresses with their guests,” she says.
: Select an experience based on menu as well as host. Rumani encourages messaging before booking to find a good fit, saying the experience should begin long before you ring the bell.
Extra Pro Tip
: First-time users get $10 off with the code PASTETRAVEL.
CEO Susan Kim says EatWith also began with one traveler’s personal experience. While visiting Crete, Guy Michlin snagged a dinner invitation with a local family, (through a friend of a friend.) The occasion soon turned into a community gathering, allowing Michlin to see Greece through a local lens. After returning, he founded EatWith in 2012.
“We find that food brings people to our tables initially,” says Kim. “But the connections they have at these tables are what brings people back. After talking and listening to stories from our guests and hosts, we’ve realized that community is the underlying ingredient.”
Today that community includes 500 hosts in 30 countries from Argentina to Israel. A company focus is host development. Each home and menu is reviewed and approved for uniqueness, quality, cleanliness, and passion of the host.
A recent search in Los Angeles turned up a Greek feast for $69, with an already sold out date, and a wine dinner in Malibu, for $115.
: For in depth interviews with home chefs, check out EatWith’s blog. And, hosts present a trial meal to receive certification. Look for the “demo event” stamp on listings to be a part of a host’s first dinner.
According to Rinita Vanjre Ravi, the inspiration for BonAppetour came from yearning for a feeling of home. “My co-founder, Inez (Wihardjo) and I were in Paris on Christmas Eve and all of the restaurants (except for the most expensive) were fully booked or closed,” she says. “Hearing all the happy families in their homes, we thought, ‘How nice would it be to join a Christmas dinner with a family here?’”
Since founding in 2012, Vanjre Ravi has dined with more than 100 hosts and can’t imagine experiencing a city without meeting locals and having a home-cooked meal. “Food is something that really brings people together,” says Ravi, “in a way that is beyond language or cultural barriers.”
A recent search in Tokyo found a traditional Japanese gyoza making class for $75, while in Sofia, guests can experience a traditional Bulgarian feast for $21.
: Let hosts know about special occasions, says Vanjre Ravi, recalling a recent marriage proposal a host helped facilitate at a dinner in Tuscany. Hosts want to make each experience special.
Jess Simpson is a writer chasing a dream of slow travel in a fast world. Now accidentally running a hotel in Bulgaria’s Rila Mountains. Find her on Facebook and Instagram.