At its peak, the pandemic changed the way New Yorkers were able to socialize. But a growing number of restaurants and pop-ups are helping diners reconnect in a way that was strained for much of the past few years. Group-friendly dining, while nothing new in NYC, is seeing a resurgence with more communal set-ups that encourage people to mingle, make friends, and even hook up.
When it came to opening her first restaurant, owner Cami Jetta of Fort Greene restaurant Dinner Party deliberately placed strangers at what might have previously been considered the “dreaded group dining table.” It was not an immediate hit when it first launched last summer. She attributed the initial hesitation to mixed attitudes toward COVID-19 guidelines, as well as potentially lingering feelings of social anxiety during the pandemic. These days, Jetta says, she can barely tell which groups came together or solo as they eat a rack of lamb or a rhubarb Eton mess.
“I think it’s been really encouraging that in the past couple months the interest is really growing — at first it felt like when we sat [strangers] communally they weren’t really talking to each other,” she says. “I feel vindicated in my belief in the restaurant that people do want to meet their neighbors.”
While many solo diners will still prefer to be precisely that when they dine, some are looking for new avenues to make new friends — not online.
Last month, Abena Anim-Somuah debuted Friendly Style, a dinner series piloted at various top restaurants in the city — Gage & Tollner, Cosme, and Dept of Culture — with the intention of gathering strangers under the guise of a shared love of food. Diners were given assigned seats, but nobody was asked to share their job titles because as Anim-Somuah, a former tech-worker-turned-Instagram-baker says, she wanted to avoid something “New Yorkers place too much importance on.”
So far all Friendly Style dinners have been free to guests, paid for by venture capital raised for Eden, her forthcoming membership supper club. Almost everyone at the waitlisted dinner, who had overwhelmingly found the event via Twitter, had come alone — many were new to the city, and some had just gone through break-ups.
In December 2020, Randa Sakallah was tired of dating apps and started her newsletter Hot Singles, which highlights a different single person each week. Quickly, the emails became a hit, and soon, she was fielding requests from people looking for in-person dating events. In February 2022, she hosted two ticketed dinners at Dinner Party, one specifically for the queer community. While dinner dates can often seem “more intense,” Sakallah says, she bet on the group dining experience to be a fun way to facilitate conversations and perhaps spark a potential crush.
While Sakallah had previously hosted a dating meet-up event at the bar Blinky’s in Williamsburg, she says that there’s a certain “fantasy” people can have about how easy it actually is to meet people in bars — particularly, she added, for “people who might not be into drinking that much” or are sober.
This new crop of restaurants and pop-ups offer interactive ways to connect that don’t necessarily have to rely on liquid courage. At Anim-Somuah’s opening night for Friendly Style, she wanted to be sensitive to varying relationships to alcohol; in addition to wine, she provided non-alcoholic drinks like kombuchas from Unified Ferments.
The new entrepreneurs behind restaurants like Dept of Culture and Dinner Party, and the first of the wave — such as Ariel Arce’s Greenwich Village spot Niche Niche with its living room layout with rugs and an open kitchen — have found that tasting menus, where everyone is mostly eating the same meal at the same cadence, can help be a social crutch.
Arce tells Eater that these pop-up dinners and communal style restaurants hinge not just on the format but on the personality of the host — not everyone nails both. “An MC of sorts is necessary,” she says, to help keep the pace of these dinners lively. At a restaurant like Dept of Culture, for example, chef Ayo Balogun entertains diners with stories of his youth in Nigeria at each course. When Sakallah hosted at Dinner Party, she wanted an ice breaker, so she held a megaphone. At Anim-Somuah’s dinners, she would earnestly ask diners about their favorite 3 a.m. foods.
When Niche Niche opened in 2019 that meant a new host curated the wine list with a different menu for dinner every night. Even though not all tables are communal at Arce’s restaurant, guests often come with a friend or date, and a host speaks to groups of tables at once to help create the feeling of a dinner party. Since the pandemic, she’s had to scale back guest sommelier takeovers, but Arce hopes to increase the experiences to at least multiple times a week. Arce says convivial spaces like Niche Niche may be more sought after than ever coming out of the depths of the pandemic.
For his part, chef Jay Rodriguez has been turning actual living rooms into reservable limited-run restaurants with his Hera pop-ups. He says he hopes to bring that same energy — the flirty, seat-swapping, and conversation starters — to the brick-and-mortar he’s shopping for currently.
While bars will likely remain easier places to meet someone new, the pandemic seems to have proved that diners are craving alternatives for a variety of reasons. Restaurants are becoming spaces that are more than just about feeding hungry diners. Some have transformed into spaces where people can potentially meet someone new and feel the rush of being pushed out of their comfort zone a bit.
“We were apart because of COVID, but people don’t just want to return to the old-style of dining,” says Rodriguez. “Everyone seems more open now.”