When in Tel Aviv, Eat as the Tel Avivians Do

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Holidays, it is said, are when some of our best thinking gets done. Even, it turns out, on not-so-great holidays. And so it happened, that, two summers ago in Crete, Guy Michlin had an epiphany.

“I was with my wife, Michal, and daughter Alma, and we basically fell into every possible tourist trap,” says the 39-year-old lawyer with a business degree from Stanford who was working, back then, for a solar energy clean-tech company. They ate at bad restaurants, spent a lot of money, and didn’t meet anyone local or get any authentic sense of the island at all.

They were not loving it.

Until, one evening, Michlin was invited to a home-cooked dinner through the family of a girlfriend of an acquiantance he once met at a solar energy conference in Berlin.

“Our hosts invited the neighbors, and some cousins. And then someone’s grandpa showed up,” he recalls. Dinner lasted through midnight, with tender beef stew cooking on the stove, various characters walking in and out, and a conversation that veered from the financial crisis and corruption to relationships and all-time favorite movies. “It was basically the highlight of our whole trip,” admits Michlin. “I felt like a local for a few hours. And it got me thinking.”

And so were planted the seeds that were to become EatWith – an Israeli startup that matches tourists (or anyone else) who want to eat - with locals who want to cook for them. It’s the foodie’s take on Airbnb, the online social networking marketplace that pairs people looking for somewhere to sleep with those looking to rent out their homes.

Typically, travelers might want to venture into local’s homes—but just don’t, claims Michlin. “You don’t have a reason, or any common ground to get started on," he says. "Usually, you walk around with a Lonely Planet or some other guide and go where all the tourists go.”

The solution, he says, lies in breaking bread together.

Cut to central Tel Aviv last week, where, in the kitchen of a cluttered apartment on Buki Ben Yagli street, Luigi Piacentini -- an Italian architect who moved to Israel a year ago -- is in his kitchen, sporting yellow and orange sneakers, sprinkling fresh basil on his focaccia, and mildly berating himself.

The confusion, explains Piacentini, whose Hebrew can get a little jumbled, comes with Tuesday and Thursday. Sometimes, “okay, oftentimes,” he admits -- he mixes up the two words.

Which is how he double-booked.

“I thought the guests wanted to come for dinner next Tuesday,” he says cheerfully, checking on the simmering onions, sipping a glass of red wine and humming. “But no matter,” he adds, wiping his hands on his sweaty T-shirt and shorts, “I’m just putting some final touches on here.”

Upstairs, on the roof of the apartment where Luigi lives with his Israeli wife, Idit, and their daughters Ella and Tal (6 and 4, respectively), a dozen friends are settling in to watch a video. It’s movie night, and was planned long ago.

But downstairs is where the real action is: There, the table is set, wine is being poured, Frank Sinatra is crooning over the crackly loud speakers and a whole other group -- “Turns out they meant Thursday!” exclaims Piacentini – is milling around the living room, sidestepping the kiddies’ bicycles, wondering out loud about air conditioning possibilities, and introducing themselves to one another.

Having made sure the friends upstairs are fine and don’t find it strange that a dinner party is going on downstairs without them, Luigi, in the kitchen, and Idit, juggling bath and bedtime for the girls, eventually settle among the downstairs crew. But first, they too will introduce themselves – because, in true EatWith tradition, not only do the dinner guests not know each other but the Piacentinis don’t know them either.

The six downstairs guests have arrived here after “buying” a home-cooked dinner on the website that Michlin, together with his business partner Shemer Schwartz, founded after returning from Crete that summer.

The way it works is that EatWith’s hosts -- who range from semi-professional chefs offering $140 dollar per-person four-course gourmet meals to folks like the Piacentinis, who just love to cook (dinner at their place will set you back $45 dollars), to roommates inviting you to join them for a $10 dollar home cooked vegan supper -- establish calendars showing their availability, and set their own prices (EatWith takes an additional 15 percent off the top).

Guests, in turn, surf the site, look up the hosts and their food, make choices, book meals and show up. Michlin and his team try to vet each host personally, but guests are encouraged to do their own vetting—leaving comments and reviews on all aspects of the experience.

Among those who have shown up on this particular EatWith evening at the Piacentinis: An American tourist travelling through the Middle East before starting Wharton business school, an Israeli couple who just started dating and want to “try something different” for dinner, a young high-tech entrepreneur interested in the “concept” of the evening, and Michlin himself, checking up on the hosts.

EatWith, which launched in February in Israel and Spain with close to 200 hosts, has so far raised $1.2 million dollars and has, says Michlin, thousands of registered users. It clearly has a way to go before becoming the actual next Airbnb -- which has raised $120 million, operates in 30,000 cities around the world and has had more than one million bookings. But the Israeli startup is nonetheless making a splash, garnering media attention and loyal fans.

Last month, EatWith was one of 30 companies chosen out of more than 1,000 applications from around the world to present at TechCrunch’s Disrupt Battlefield competition, considered to be one of the most prestigious competitions in the Internet world today.  There, Michlin and Schwartz announced they are taking New York next.

 “Of course there are a lot of good restaurants in New York, just like there are in Spain and Israel – but we are not competing with them,” explains Michlin. “This is about getting to know a culture and a city through the food and its locals. It’s a whole new category of eating.”

Over at the Piacentinis, the guests, done with the beets, sardines, zucchini and onion starters, are putting out their plates as Luigi serves up Fettuccine puttanesca. The conversation, in English, meanders between the situation in Syria, what makes for good Italian food and where to find it in Israel, and the definition of “hipster.” One of the guests from upstairs, ostensibly downstairs looking for a cable for the problematic video, lingers for a bite and joins in the chat. Others peer down too, looking rather longingly at the focaccia.

 “This is my first time to Israel,” says Christina, the Wharton student-to-be, joining the chorus of those raising their hands for seconds and also begging for someone to switch on the air conditioner. “And this is great.” It’s a little surreal, she will allow, as another guest from upstairs wanders down and one of the girls wakes up and calls for her mom. "But that’s half the point.”

Luigi Piacentini hosts a dinner party for guests from EatWith.Credit: Courtesy

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