Moved from New York, foodie social club finds eager eating community in Portland

Laurel Chiten started the Dinner Mates social club in Portland after leaving New York. Club members enjoyed a gathering at Ruby’s West End on a recent Saturday night. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In 2019, while Laurel Chiten was still living in Manhattan, she walked into a restaurant near her Upper West Side apartment and had a vision. Chiten said she could imagine people from the neighborhood gathering around a large table to get to know each other and build community.

From this vision, Chiten launched Dinner Mates in New York in January 2020. Via the website dinermatesclub.com, she held rallies at restaurants in Brooklyn and the Upper West Side in January and February, open to anyone interested in buying a ticket. She said about 75 people signed up for the second Dinner Mates event.

“We filled the restaurant and sold. It was definitely gaining momentum,” Chiten said.

But when the pandemic hit, Chiten knew it was time for a major pivot, both for Dinner Mates and for herself. She and her dog, Sprout, decamped to South Portland, where her cousin Leah lives. Leah, who spells her last name Chyten, said she urged her cousin to move Dinner Mates to Portland.

“It’s a city that is looking for a community. People are friendly here,” Chyten said. “And it’s a food scene. I told her it would be an amazing place for her.

Enough said, as far as Chiten was concerned. She and Sprout moved from their Manhattan studio to a house near Willard Square in South Portland in December. One night, to test the waters, Chiten posted on Portland’s nextdoor.com site about the potential startup of Dinner Mates in Portland. The social club would be open to everyone, singles and couples, young and old, but particularly aimed at people new to the area or interested in meeting people from their community.

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Chiten woke up the next morning to 50 responses from people wanting to know more about Dinner Mates. Within three days, the number rose to 350.

So Chiten revised his website and relaunched Dinner Mates in Portland, starting with a few virtual cooking classes and dinners. In February, Dinner Mates held its first in-person event at Friends & Family in Portland, followed by gatherings at Tandoor, Petite Jacqueline and Ruby’s West End. Dinner Mates events are intimate, a reserved table or two for Taneight to 12 people who buy tickets for dinners at a fixed price (about $39 to $69).

Portland’s Lisa Bloss toasts Portland’s Dan Fink and New York’s Suzy Kunz during dinner at Ruby’s West End on a recent Saturday night. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“It seemed like a good reason to get out and get to know people,” said Lisa Bloss, 51, of Portland, who attended dinner at Tandoor in March. “I didn’t know what to expect, but when I arrived people were chatting and enjoying the food, and the time was flying by because we were having so much fun.” Bloss said she enjoyed her Dinner Mates experience enough to bring her husband, Dan Fink, to the next event.

The simple concept of gathering in a restaurant with a dozen people you may not have met before for a quiet dinner fueled by lively conversation and good wine feels so retro right now, so pre-2020. After living in relative isolation for two pandemic years, many attendees at Ruby’s Dinner Mates tables in early April said the new club had come into their lives at just the right time.

“I really like the idea,” said Dan Reardon, 74, of Portland. “I think building community is very important, especially now. We have separated too much.

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Portland’s Dan Reardon tries homemade carrot cake during the Dinner Mates event at Ruby’s. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

GOURMET FACE

Sitting opposite at Ruby’s in Reardon, Susan Hayhurst, 48, has lived in Falmouth for 10 years. “I love food and I love trying to find community. It feels like a nice kind of coming out party,” she said.

Suzy Kunz, Chiten’s friend in town from Manhattan for the event, said she thinks that while staying home during the pandemic, “a lot of people have lost their social skills. This club is a healing idea. A reset for COVID. I enjoy sitting at a table with multiple people much more now than I did two years ago.

Chiten said the pandemic isolation has made him appreciate the chances of meeting people face-to-face all the more. “I live alone. And so when we’re sitting here at the table, I can’t help but feel grateful – oh my God, I’m sitting here talking with someone in person. Getting together is more valuable now.

Beyond going out in public and meeting new people, a passion for good food is another major motivation for those interested in Dinner Mates. “I am a self-proclaimed foodie. That’s actually why I live in Portland,” said Liz Vella, 48, a resident since 2007. “It’s a great opportunity to experience the local food scene in a totally different way.

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“It’s as much a dining experience as it is a social experience,” said Jake Dryden-Jaffe, General Manager of Petite Jacqueline.

Prior to launching Dinner Mates, Chiten was an award-winning independent filmmaker for 30 years. “As a filmmaker, I’m wired to want to create an impact. I bring that same sensibility to Dinner Mates,” she said. “It’s never just a matter of meals. It’s about doing it together as a community.

BUSINESS ADVANTAGE

As the first course of roasted beets with orange, feta and mint rolled out of the kitchen, Corrina Stum, host and owner of Ruby’s with her husband, chef Matt Stum, explained her Spanish white wine pairing for the dish to Dinner Mates guests. She later said that groups like this can also help restaurants connect with their communities.

“Most of these people are our neighbors,” Stum said. “We’re very passionate about community events, and now that we’re coming out of COVID, we want Ruby’s to be a safe place for community gatherings.”

Corinna Stum serves carrot cake to members of Dinner Mates during a gathering at her restaurant, Ruby’s West End. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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Cecily Upton, co-owner of Friends and Family at 593 Congress St., agreed. “It feels like the kind of organization that’s a win for a lot of people right now,” Upton said of Dinner Mates. “We opened about six months ago so bringing a group to show up and the restaurant for a positive experience here is obviously wonderful.”

Chiten has plans for Dinner Mates to evolve into a membership-based group. She said Dinner Mates will host a membership launch party at Ruby’s on May 13, offering memberships initially for $19 per month for “founding members,” though the price will increase later. The monthly fee entitles members to early bird invites, early event tickets, and discounted ticket prices.

Members will also be able to use a new Dinner Mates app that will allow them to contact other members directly. Chiten said she hopes members will use the app to start connecting independently of her and hosting their own impromptu get-togethers. “Then I can walk away. The idea is not that I’m going to keep having dinner parties once a week,” Chiten said, adding that she’ll likely still be hosting monthly restaurant events.

BRANCHING OUT

Ideally, Chiten hopes the Portland Dinner Mates community will start hosting dinner parties at their homes. “As a member, you can feel comfortable having other members in your home because you know they’ve been vetted first,” she said.

Switching to more home gatherings would make sense for the group during the busy summer restaurant season. Upton said while it can be difficult to host private fixed-price Dinner Mates parties during peak months, gatherings would be welcome at his restaurant and others during the offseason slump.

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“Anything that enhances business and social interactions is positive,” said Michelle Corry, owner of Petite Jacqueline with her husband, Steve. “It can be more difficult to coordinate these events in the summer. But sometimes people forget to go out in the winter, so it’s important for people to have a social network like this in Maine.

Dan Fink, right, and Suzy Kunz, center, of New York City laugh as they sit at a table at Ruby’s. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Chiten’s relentless drive to create impact has led her to think globally in terms of Dinner Mates. She said she would be re-launching a Dinner Mates chapter in New York, another chapter will open soon in Seattle, and she has even been contacted by people in Spain looking to bring Dinner Mates overseas. Memberships will be recognized at all chapters, so a Portland member traveling to Manhattan or Seattle could attend Dinner Mates gatherings there, by logging in through the app. Although Chiten is not making any money from the club at the moment, she intends to grow it as a business and eventually generate an income.

As interest in Dinner Mates grows, Chiten remains extremely busy organizing and marketing the events, including the next planned gathering, a three-course family dinner at The Honey Paw on May 12. She said it was time for her to hire an assistant. “It’s a lot of work,” she says.

Still, Chiten said she’s grateful her efforts have paid off so far. “The more people hear about it, the more they sign up,” she said. “People are hungry, pardon the pun, to come together right now. This couldn’t be a better place for Dinner Mates. Portland is a foodie town, but it’s small enough to be manageable.

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