What service industries will tech demolish next? As Lyft and Uber have dismantled taxi monopolies and Airbnb has undermined formerly impenetrable hotel chains, prophets of the sharing economy are buzzing that the restaurant will be the next great institution to crumble. Meal-sharing start-ups--Feastly, Eatwith, CookApp and VoulezVousDiner--seem to make this easy. Why travel across town to an anonymous hole in the wall or wait a month for a reservation? Now, all that you need to do is browse a few profiles, pay online, and then show up at someone's house.
Meal sharing offers many perks that restaurants can't. It gives chefs the freedom to make more creative food; an Eatwith dinner I recently attended, for example, channeled the streets of Chiang Mai with nouveau California panache. But there's also a casual intimacy about dining in someone's home that you can never quite capture in a restaurant. As I got to know my fellow Eatwith diners over a pre-dinner cocktail, we all just seemed excited to be there. By the time we were slurping down our bowls of Kuaytiaw served for the third course (in between the panko-crusted Tod mun and the flank steak Namtok that we were invited to eat without utensils) the conversation had turned to comparing teenage strategies for smuggling weed onto airplanes. And after we had polished off our ramekins of coconut crème brûlée and were hailing our rides home, we all agreed that while the food had been fantastic--more inventive, we thought, than most of the city's Thai fusion offerings--it was the overall experience that was truly one of a kind.
By offering the excitement of fine dining in the company of complete strangers, meal sharing might seem poised to revolutionize the concept of dining out. Yet is it really a revolution? If we consider its history, meal sharing might merely be reversing a trend that started about 350 years ago.
Take Paris in the 1760s: the cultural epicenter of the Enlightenment. Then, as now, the urban landscape was in a state of transition. Improved transportation combined with a growing consumer culture brought oodles of genteel newcomers to town, and the local dining scene was struggling to keep up. If you were visiting and couldn't score an invite with aristocratic friends, the only option was often the table d'hôte (the host's table): a no-frills, pub-like environment that catered to a neighborhood clientele.
Options at the table d'hôte were sparse. There was no menu or personalized service. Diners got to pick from whatever the cooks happened to whip up that day; if you turned up a few minutes after the dinner rush, all the best dishes would certainly be gone. Nor was there any real privacy. Tables were communal, and hospitality was an afterthought. Without the moralizing force of communal ties, outsiders were distrusted. They were precisely the kind of people likely to skirt the bill or try to make off with the silverware.
Sure enough, a new, innovative, and disruptive business model soon came along, adding important new features to the dining experience. In contrast to the fiercely insular table d'hôte, where family and friendships dictated the service one could expect, anyone who could pay the price got to enjoy these new establishments... even strangers, even women. It didn't matter who you were or where you came from. Patrons were seated at private tables, letting them enjoy a meal in comfortable solitude. Even the food benefited from the makeover in service. In these new establishments, you could come in fashionably late and still order à la carte off a menu instead of making do with the greasy leftovers that had been lying around all day.
This business model was extraordinarily successful, and it was incredibly scalable too. By the 20th century, it could be found almost everywhere in the world.
It was called the restaurant.
The restaurant addressed many of the same issues that meal sharing hopes to solve. It also sought to optimize the experience of dining out, especially for out-of-towners fearful of getting ripped off. The first restaurant-goers actually resembled meal-sharing enthusiasts in many ways. They were mobile, cosmopolitan, and liked to keep on top of the latest trends.
Yet the restaurant was invented during an age when anonymity was a luxury. Mutual distrust between the host and the diner were insurmountable obstacles to enjoying a great meal out. Today, the tables have turned. The standardization of hospitality and a Michelin-star repertoire have reduced the odds of having a bad dining experience. Eating with strangers, once the thing you were compelled to do because there was no other option, is suddenly a unique offline experience. We invented the restaurant because we didn't want to eat with people we didn't know. Only now are we rekindling our admiration for the communal table, and finding that eating with strangers can be surprisingly enlightening.