- Associated Press - Saturday, May 3, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - A “Smitten Kitchen” recipe tasting; a wine and cheese pairing; an authentic Brazilian meal; a lesson in bread making; and a night of pasta, wine and new friends. You can experience these food adventures and more with the click of a mouse on Bookalokal - a website that connects hosts with curious diners in the Washington area and around the world.

More people are ditching traditional dining options and opting for intimate and adventurous food experiences, from underground supper clubs to secret speakeasies and dinner parties thrown in chefs’ homes. Bookalokal fills this niche.

Bookalokal began in Evelyne White’s kitchen in Brussels a year and a half ago. White hosted travelers in her apartment and discovered that in addition to wanting a room, travelers wanted to connect to other people and to the local culture through food.

To meet this demand, she began hosting small dinner parties for the traveling community. The success of her parties grew, and when she launched the Bookalokal website last November, she noticed travelers weren’t the only ones interested in the intimate gatherings.

“Now, 75 percent of customers are people using (Bookalokal) within their own city as a tool to explore new neighborhoods and new cultures and socialize in new groups,” White says.

Bookalokal is not an alternative to a restaurant; White calls the food-centric events a “different kind of social experience.”

She tells stories of how one group of five strangers came together for dinner and made such a great connection that they continued to dine together in a group. Eventually, they went on vacation together, and two even became roommates.

“Those kinds of experiences, they start often around a dinner table, around a personal and intimate experience . where you really get to know someone,” White says. “You don’t know who you’re going to meet, and because you don’t know who’s going, there’s an element of mystery and openness that everyone walks into the experience with.”

How does Bookalokal work?

Anyone interested in hosting a culinary event can sign up on the Bookalokal website, where they are prompted to become verified (although that’s not required).

For verification, someone from the Bookalokal team meets with the potential host and judges them on the quality of food, communication abilities (to make sure there aren’t obvious language barriers) and value for money.

Bookalokal events range from free to $50, depending on the type of experience. Most hover between $20 and $30.

“But what we’re most focused on is finding someone who clearly wants to be doing this. You don’t have to be a Top Chef. In fact, we’ve got plenty of people who just like food,” White says.

The team member who verifies the host then writes a review based on the initial meeting.

“We’ll try to highlight the personality so that people know what they’re getting and what they’re not getting,” White says.

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