On the menu: The rise of private dining clubs
• 'Charlie and Evelyn's Table' is a pop up dinner party created by husband and wife Rachel and Chris.
They have opened up their flat in Comely Bank to host dinner parties.
IN ORDER to lead a happy life, said the Greek philosopher Epicurus, 'We should look for someone to eat and drink with before looking for something to eat and drink.' An easy maxim to live by in the intellectual circles of Ancient Greece, perhaps, but harder now, at a time when Scotland has more single households than ever before – just under 400,000 and predicted to reach a million by 2018.
It's a common scenario: returning from work or the pub to eat dinner toute seule, be it a home-made saffron risotto at table or Kettle Chips and sauv blanc on the sofa. Something, somewhere has gone awry on the home-dining front, but thankfully there are people striving to bring a sense of community back to mealtimes through their own passion for food.
One of them is Rachel Rowley, 27, who lives in Edinburgh with her husband Chris. If you didn't already know that she's slightly obsessed with food, you might guess it from a certain piece of jewellery worn on her left arm – a bangle fashioned from an ornate Victorian fish fork.
"My husband bought it for 50p in an antique shop, having had the idea of heating it over our gas hob so that he could bend it into a bracelet and give it to me as a surprise gift," she says, smiling at the memory of this romantic gesture. "Unfortunately, I came home and walked into the kitchen at the crucial moment, so he panicked, tried to hide it and burned his hand quite badly in the process…"
His painful mishap did nothing to deter Chris, also 27, from using the kitchen stove. In fact, he's spending more time with it than ever because the Rowleys are the proprietors of a new Edinburgh eatery called Charlie and Evelyn's Table – not a restaurant, but a private dining club hosted in their home, or even in yours if that's the way you want it.
"I love eating and so does my husband," Rachel says. "Supper clubs and pop-up restaurants were something we got into when we moved to London after we both graduated from Durham University in 2003." Three years later the couple returned north to Newcastle, Rachel having got a job in food PR, and at the end of 2007 they relocated to Chris's home city of Edinburgh, where he works as a marketing manager in the banking sector.
Throughout these moves, the Rowleys never lost their hunger for new dining experiences: "We looked for supper clubs in Edinburgh but couldn't find any, so eventually we decided we'd start one of our own," Rachel says. After much studying of recipe books and many kitchen trials, Charlie and Evelyn's Table – named after the contemporary 1960s dining furniture that Chris inherited from his late grandparents – was born. By the start of this year the Rowleys had sent written invitations to five 'trusted and valued friends', asking if they would be the first guests at a new dining experiment – and pay 15 a head for the privilege. This, after all, was not only a social gathering but also the springboard for a potential new business.
Six months later, after blogging about their dinner parties, their most successful dishes and favourite culinary equipment, the Rowleys launched a Facebook page for Charlie and Evelyn's Table and invited Edinburghers on the social network to book in and get a taste of it for themselves. "We got 15 fans straight away," Rachel says, "plus 30 hits on our website and about the same number clicking through from Twitter."
At their flat in Comely Bank, they now host regular parties for groups of up to eight people. It started out as a monthly Saturday dinner, but weekday parties are now an option, and the couple have also catered a wedding reception picnic, a hen night and a 60th birthday party. With such small numbers, Rachel says, "we can allow the guests to have more of a say in what they want or don't want, and they seem to feel comfortable with that. We're more formal than a home dinner party, but more relaxed than a restaurant."
The Rowleys' supper club may be unique, but they are not the only Edinburghers to venture into the territory of private dining. In June, the Balmoral hotel's Michelin-starred restaurant, No1, launched The Secret Ingredient, billed as 'Scotland's first seasonal gourmet dining club'. The inaugural event – priced at 80 per ticket – was hosted by the well-known British chef and restaurateur Mark Hix, who devised a one-off menu to showcase the best local ingredients on offer during that month. Gary Quinn, the restaurant's manager, described The Secret Ingredient as an opportunity "to eat seasonal fare in opulent surroundings, and to hear the chefs talk about what inspires them".
The event attracted well-heeled couples and groups of friends who were clearly no strangers to Michelin-starred dining, but perhaps sought out the next level: closer proximity to the guest chef – the irresistible lure of celebrity – coupled with a sense of exclusivity.
By contrast, Katherine Melton-Scott, an Edinburgh-based businesswoman, describes her own newly launched restaurant-based private-dining club, Lemon & Dine, as 'very egalitarian', aimed at those with 'busy lifestyles' looking to meet like-minded types for both social and business purposes.
Melton-Scott, a former chef and IT professional, describes Lemon & Dine as a club for "people like me, professionals flitting between London and Edinburgh, with a circle of friends who are a nightmare to co-ordinate".
The idea is based on an informal dining club she and a business partner set up when they went to work in Zurich, knowing no one but each other. They very quickly acquired 150 enthusiastic fellow diners and realised it was a viable basis for a new business – but not on the same lines as the existing professional networking clubs. "I find those so forced," Melton-Scott says, "because there's a heavy pressure to do business on that day, whereas a lot of the best business relationships I have are those that have bonded over time. My aim is to put together a pool of people that are good fun, but who would probably do business in the long term. It's a different angle on what's already out there."
Something of which Melton-Scott is also very aware is the vital role played by food in this scenario. "People feel comfortable when they're sitting down and eating together, because even if you don't yet know anyone else at the table you can still talk about the food," she points out. "It's very relaxing. Unlike standing up in a crowded bar, when you sit down to eat it looks like you're all friends. We're building mini-communities at the table."
Why has this trend emerged now? "In a historical context, dining out is still a relatively fresh concept, because people didn't do it as regularly in the 1960s and 1970s as they do now," says Melton-Scott. "Over the past couple of decades it's become much more popular and affordable. We work longer hours and fewer of us cook at home, but we're still fundamentally social beings and going out for a meal is very much an event, an unofficial celebration."
For Rachel and Chris Rowley too, their dining club has become "a great opportunity for us to meet different and interesting people in Edinburgh", from which they as well as their customers benefit both socially and professionally. But surely it's also a huge challenge to turn your home into a restaurant on a regular basis? Each dinner does require a full day plus two days of preparation, Rachel admits.
"We've quickly discovered what we're both like under stress, working together in a small hot kitchen," Rachel says tactfully, "but it's always exciting and we've carved out our own roles. We're both equally skilled as cooks, I'd say, although Chris is more of a creator and takes charge in the kitchen, whereas I prefer to be overseeing things in the dining room, making it look good and run smoothly. There's huge pressure to get everything right, but a background in PR has taught me to appear calm and smiling in front of clients while swearing behind closed doors," she laughs.
"It's still a hobby, but I've just been made redundant from my job and I just want to go for it with the dining club – we don't need hundreds of customers, just the right ones. It's our hope that that more supper clubs will open in Edinburgh, because then more people will embrace the concept."
If you've yet to be convinced that this trend for communal dining is little more than a flash in the pan (sorry), then another ancient proverb you might bear in mind, as you gun through those Kettle Chips, is this one: "He who eats alone, chokes alone." Bon apettit.