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Want a new dining experience? Book a local

Wednesday - 4/30/2014, 7:01am  ET

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Bookalokal's website connects diners and hosts for food events that range from dinner parties to workshops and food tours. (Courtesy Bookalokal)

WASHINGTON -- 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 D.C. 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 connects hosts to those searching for a unique dining experience. Many events are dinner parties; some are workshops. (Courtesy Bookalokal)

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.

A host puts the finishing touches on a dessert at a Bookalokal event. (Courtesy Bookalokal)

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.

Bookalokal has grown from one host to more than 300, based all around the world. Seventy-five percent of the people who host once sign up to host again, White says. And most hosts throw events an average of four times a year.

"Most people are doing it with a passion; it's not an easy way to make money," White says. "It's really more about, I love wine, I love cheese; let me put on a wine and cheese night and see who will connect with other people who love the same thing.'"

White says dinner parties are the most commonly listed Bookalokal events, but more "classes" and workshops are popping up on the site as well.

"We have a guy who studies beer and food pairings, and he does a weekend beer tour where he takes locals and tourists to his three favorite, oldest breweries in Brussels," White says.

In D.C., one resident offers a free guided tour of the Dupont farmers market, where he introduces guests to the local growers and producers and discusses the local agricultural movement.

White says she's also seeing piqued interest from small business owners who want to host events in their commercial spaces.

"If you owned a local chocolate shop, it'd be a great way to get in new customers to try your chocolate; have a chocolate tasting in your shop. If you had a bar or a brewery, you could have people into your space. We're diversifying away from just home-cooked events. They're great, but a lot of people have spaces that they can use to bring in new customers to their local products."

Since food and, often, alcohol is involved in Bookalokal events, White says the hosts need to be familiar with local legislation. She cautions against hosting too frequently.

"If someone is running a restaurant in their house, that is illegal," she says, advising those who want to hold events often to do so in a commercial space.

"We're also making sure that we include more and more of these experiences that fall out of the purview of restaurant regulations," she says.

"What we say is that we are selling tickets to experiences. And people are buying a ticket, not as a substitute for a restaurant, but because of whatever that host is providing and the fact that it's a group social dining experience."

After witnessing Bookalokal's success in Brussels, White's decision to expand to D.C. was an obvious one, she says. Both cities have a strong food culture and a large international community. Both cities are also a temporary home for many people looking to connect to others during political or government assignments.

Jackie Woodbury is the city launcher for D.C.'s Bookalokal. She started the job three weeks ago and says she is excited by what she's seen so far.

Last week, she attended a momo-making party at a food blogger's house. A momo, she explains, is a dumpling native to Nepal.

"You're kind of transported to Nepal through a food blogger in D.C.," says Woodbury, who has lived in the District for seven years.

The evening had an impact on other guests as well.

"From that event, there are two people who decided they are going to be hosts now because of the wonderful experience they had," she says.

Woodbury attended another Bookalokal party and dined with a newlywed couple in their apartment in Bloomingdale. The hosts, who had just returned from Barcelona, chose the theme "Around the World in Small Bites."

"It was probably one of the best dinners I've had in D.C.," Woodbury says.

Both Woodbury and White predict Bookalokal events will spread to areas in Virginia and Maryland as more become aware of the events going on. White saw a similar pattern in Brussels and its surrounding towns.

"In the beginning, we could only get people to come to things smack-dab in the center and now we're outside of Brussels. People are eating at each other's farmhouses in the countryside because they found communities out there. That's really great for rural areas," she says.

But for now, White and Woodbury are focusing on growing the number of unique food experiences available in the District.

"We're so lucky in D.C. to have the world's cuisine at our finger tips," Woodbury says. "And it seems to be picking up very quickly."

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