Meet New People at Cape Town’s Dining Clubs

The Mother City gets less cliquey at these meeting and eating events 

“You know, by the time I came back from my trip around the country, I had gained 5kg,” laughs Sonja Kruse, aka The Ubuntu Girl, who is hypnotising a small audience of diners at La Case Tropical with stories from her recent journey hitch-hiking across South Africa. The tall, auburn-haired firecracker set off with just a small backpack, R100, a camera and pure faith in the kindness of strangers for a 351-day trek through all nine of the nation’s provinces. She stayed with and got lifts from gogos, friends and ooms who always insisted on feeding her. Food, explains Sonja, was the main thing they all had in common and was a universal that said “you’re welcome” and “we’re friends” in a way that language sometimes couldn’t.

The 20-odd people listening to this inspiring story at the Congolese eatery in Sea Point, including me, a maths lecturer who recently moved to Cape Town, a travelling business profiler who’s next stop is Angola, a young local couple and a pair of girlfriends, could all certainly relate to the thought of making acquaintances over a meal.

We’re here as part of a Food and Chatter evening. As co-founder and organiser of the eating events Lisa Huang explains, “It’s a social dining club for Capetonians and visitors interested in meeting new people and rediscovering Cape Town through food.” Lisa started Food and Chatter, firstly, because she had a knack for throwing dinner parties anyway and, more importantly, as a recent transplant to the city herself (she came in 2010 because of her previous work in finance), she found it pretty hard to make friends. She met her business partner, Ovi Pacuraru, on a couch surfing website, and since October 2012 they’ve been unclicking Cape Town’s cliquishness through unique dinners at restaurants that are off the beaten path.

The first ever Food and Chatter event was at a now closed Taiwanese restaurant. “I’m from Taiwan, so I thought it would be best to start with something I know so that if I make a mistake, at least I know about the food and I can improvise,” she says, adding a giggle.

The evening was Chinese New Year themed and, like all of the suppers she organises, the food was served family style, which meant that people had to share dishes, pass plates and, therefore, talk to each other.

Pre-set courses also force diners to interact instead of spending the first few minutes at the table studying a menu, and because food is really emotive, people tend to click quickly over a meal. “If you talk about holiday puddings, hot glühwein, sundowners or picnicking in a park certain images come into mind,” Lisa says, and it’s easier to connect around these types of experiences because they tend to transcend cultural differences. Lisa says people have made business, friendship, and even romantic connections over a Lebanese curry or a Mexican taco served at a Food and Chatter dinner.

Not to mention, the occassions introduce diners to the smaller, not-so-popular host restaurants, and gives the eateries opportunity to showcase their signature dishes and let new patrons sample more on the menu than they would on a regular night out. For many Food and Chatter experiences, the chefs and owners of the eateries are the storytellers of the evening and make things more personal by sharing tales of the kitchen and family history.

At La Case Tropicale, before dinner is served, Mama Betty greets us Japanese style – with a “Konnichiwa” and a bow – and tells us that she was born in the Republic of Congo, but spent years in Japan with her husband while he was getting his PhD. She came to Cape Town so that her children could learn to speak English. Her son helps her describe the night’s meal of traditionally prepared greens, beans, rice, saucy, spicy chicken and fish, and, though it’s all new to us, the savoury scents and Mama Betty’s inviting smile make it all seem as familiar as a home-cooked Sunday dinner.

Food and Chatter isn’t the only social group in Cape Town using food to get people out of their shells, though.  A newer social dining platform, Dine With Us, which had its first official dinner in July 2013 at El Burro, has also been the reason for burgeoning buddy-dom and business partnerships around the sometimes isolating city. One of the co-founders of the startup, Rael Phillips, tells me the story of a recent transplant to Cape Town who attended the first three or four dinners organised by Dine With Us and ended up meeting a couple of people that he now regularly hangs out with. Like Food and Chatter, the supper nights are pre-organised so that all people have to do is sign-up and show up. Rael’s platform is more like the Facebook of eating out though, because the Dine With Us site allows users to create a profile and choose a few interest groups to join. Categories include everyone from pizza lovers and vegans to football fans and photographers, so you can opt into an event knowing that you’ll at least have something in common right off the bat. Diners can also make their choice based on the restaurant or because they can see that someone they’ve always had a friend-crush on is going to be there.   

Rael started his platform because he felt there was a gap in the market for an event where people could socialise and network at a more interpersonal level. Cape Town is certainly not short on get-togethers and industry talks and seminars, but the city is a notoriously difficult place to start a conversation with someone new or form a meaningful connection.

“We did a lot of research around the dynamic of sitting at a table,” says Rael. “There’s a certain number of people that can share a meal together before it becomes cliquey within the dinner table, so we try to limit things to between eight and ten people.”  They also try to put a lid on awkward silences with little gimmicks, like baking riddles and jokes into fortune cookies, so diners aren’t stuck trying to make talking about the weather sound witty.  And just like Food and Chatter, the menu features a selection of a restaurant’s best-of dishes and the bill is settled online; people just have to bring cash for the tip and drinks, and if they intend to rely on the hard stuff for Dutch courage, Dine With Us partners with Rikkis taxi cabs to allow diners to pre-order a safe ride home. So far, dinners have been held at tried-and-tested establishments like The Woodlands Eatery in Vredehoek and Fat Cactus in Mowbray, but as the network grows and new members with different interests join, they’ll expand their repertoire of eateries.

For both Lisa and Rael, the ultimate goal is to have people taking part in these events on a regular basis, choosing to go to a dinner when they want to shake up their social lives or try a new kind of food. And judging from the response to both organisations, Capetonians may not be so cliquey after all; they just needed a little delicious encouragement.

How to join

Food and Chatter currently runs through their Facebook page and member newsletters, which users can sign up for to receive information about the dinners. Bookings are made directly through Lisa, and once EFT payment has been confirmed, you get an RSVP email with directions to the restaurant. The price for each dinner includes the meal and the tip and, depending on the theme, drinks as well. The number of seats available varies according to the restaurant.  

You can sign up with Dine With Us on their website, where you’ll have to create a profile and have the option of choosing interest groups. Diners are notified if there is a specific dinner that matches their interests; otherwise, the dinners are posted on the home page. All the payments are made via the site using a credit card, or money can be deposited into an online wallet, which will be credited accordingly. A minimum of four people is required for a dinner to take place, and if an event is cancelled, your wallet gets refunded.

The Bill: The price for both Food and Chatter and Dine With Us dinners range from R120p/p to R250p/p depending on the dinner and if there is a special guest.

Tip: If you’re too shy to go on your own, round up a friend or two to join.

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Is Strand Street the new street du jour? Pop in and have a look at the cool repurposed interiors at VIXI Social House.

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