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

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

From this vision, Chiten launched Dinner Mates in New York City in January 2020. Through the website dinnermatesclub.com, she set up gatherings 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 had signed on for the second Dinner Mates event.

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

But when the pandemic hit, Chiten knew it was time for a major pivot, both for Dinner Mates and 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 relocate Dinner Mates to Portland.

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

Enough said, as far as Chiten was concerned. She and Sprout moved out of their Manhattan studio and into 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 potentially starting Dinner Mates in Portland. The social club would be open to anyone, singles and couples, young and old, but was particularly targeted at people new to the area or interested in meeting people in their community.

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

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

Lisa Bloss of Portland, toasts with Dan Fink of Portland and Suzy Kunz of New York City while dining at Ruby’s West End on a recent Saturday evening. 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 the dinner at Tandoor in March. “I didn’t know what to expect, but when I got there, people were just chatting and enjoying the food, and time went by really fast 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.

Just the concept of gathering inside a restaurant with a dozen or so folks you may not have met yet for a leisurely dinner fueled by vibrant conversation and fine wine seems so retro right now, so pre-2020. After living in relative isolation for two pandemic years, many at the Dinner Mates tables at Ruby’s in early April said the new club has come into their lives at just the right time.

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

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

FOODIE FACE TIME

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Seated across the table at Ruby’s from Reardon, Susan Hayhurst, 48, has lived in Falmouth for 10 years. “I love food, and I like trying to find community. This 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, “lots of people have lost social skills. This club is a healing idea. A reset for COVID. I appreciate sitting at a table with several people much more now than I would have two years ago.”

Chiten said pandemic seclusion has made her appreciate chances to meet with 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 gratitude – oh my God, I’m sitting here talking with someone in person. Getting together is more precious now.”

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

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

Before starting Dinner Mates, Chiten had been an award-winning independent filmmaker for 30 years. “As a filmmaker, I’m wired to want to create impact. I bring that same sensibility to Dinner Mates,” she said. “It’s never just about the meal. It’s about doing this together as a community.”

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BUSINESSES BENEFIT

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

“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 Dinner Mates members during a gathering at her restaurant, Ruby’s West End. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Cecily Upton, co-owner of Friends and Family at 593 Congress St., agreed. “It feels like the kind of organization that is a win for a lot of people right now,” Upton said of Dinner Mates. “We opened about six months ago, so having a group come in to be introduced to each other 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 hold a membership launch party at Ruby’s on May 13, offering memberships initially for $19 a month for “founding members,” though the price will rise later. The monthly fee entitles members to early invites, first dibs at event tickets and discounted ticket prices.

Members will also be able to use a newly developed Dinner Mates app that will let them contact fellow members directly. Chiten said she hopes members use the app to start connecting independently of her, and setting up their own impromptu gatherings. “Then I can get out of the way. The idea isn’t that I’m going to keep pumping out dinner events once a week,” Chiten said, adding that she will likely still organize monthly restaurant events.

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BRANCHING OUT

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

Moving to more in-home gatherings would make sense for the group during the busy summer restaurant season. Upton said while it might be challenging to arrange private prix fixe Dinner Mates parties during peak months, the gatherings would be welcome business at her restaurant and others during the offseason doldrums.

“Anything that bolsters business and social interaction is positive,” said Michelle Corry, who owns Petite Jacqueline with her husband, Steve. “It may be harder 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 for creating impact has led her to think globally in terms of Dinner Mates. She said she will relaunch a Dinner Mates chapter in New York City, another chapter will be opening soon in Seattle, and she’s even been contacted by people in Spain looking to bring Dinner Mates abroad. Memberships will be recognized at all chapters, so a Portland member traveling to Manhattan or Seattle could attend Dinner Mates gatherings there, connecting through the app. Although Chiten is not making money off the club now, she intends to build it as a business and eventually generate an income.

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

Still, Chiten said she’s grateful that 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 get 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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