Anita Michaud Is Bringing Strangers Together, One Dinner at a Time

Written by Danielle Calma
Photography by Tim Gibson

Most people would think twice about inviting a stranger into their homes for dinner, but this isn’t the case for Anita Michaud, who, on a recent Saturday afternoon, asked me over to her apartment in Brooklyn Heights, New York, to make and eat dumplings with eight total strangers. What might be an uncommon affair for the guests involved, myself included, is a typical day of the life for Michaud. She estimates that she’s had close to 40 such get-togethers with friendly strangers who sign up for Dinner With Friends, events thrown by Michaud and her co-hosts in which they invite “new and old friends” to gather over a shared meal. Her goal is simple: to create a safe space for togetherness in an increasingly isolated world.

I arrived to Michaud’s apartment early with another guest named Joan. I had met Joan—a bubbly Midwesterner with a blunt-red bob—in the hallway just minutes prior, where we quickly bonded over the question mark that lay ahead of us. For an event designed around strangers, Michaud greeted us with a warmth typically reserved for close friends or, at the very least, comfortable acquaintances. She was barefoot, hair in a claw clip, and wearing a printed sundress that belied the 20-degree weather outside. Even her living room felt like an open invitation to relax, filled with personal tchotchkes and dotted with places to sit.

Some of the other guests were running late, but this, Michaud noted, was expected. “Nobody wants to be the first to arrive,” she said, especially when walking into an unfamiliar space. Understandable, considering I had almost taken a walk around the block to kill time, rather than show up early and make paltry small talk with strangers (which, in my case, always involves some mention of the weather).

Michaud acknowledges that the entire concept of Dinner With Friends can seem a bit odd to anyone who associates the home dinner table with family and intimacy. And yet, that hasn’t stopped hundreds of people from “rolling the dice” on the experience, says Michaud, especially when it gives them a chance for connection. This growing desire for togetherness can be seen in the number of people currently on the waiting list to join a Dinner With Friends gathering—about 2,000 at time of publication, according to Michaud. The events (which Michaud runs alongside a full-time job in finance) have the buzz of a newly opened restaurant in New York City, with people willing to travel hours by train just for a seat at her kitchen table.

Snagging a spot at Michaud’s requires patience, perseverance, and luck. The reservation list is tiny, and guests are chosen through a lottery process similar to what you might expect from a luxury pop-up experience. But the system isn’t one of exclusivity or prestige (each event costs less than $100 to attend)—it’s one of necessity: Michaud can only accommodate nine people at a time in her one-bedroom apartment.

“You don’t have to be any type of person to come to Dinner With Friends; you can come as you are,” says Michaud, who describes the experience as “a gathering of pretty normal people” who want to come together, eat food, and mingle. Except, of course, there’s nothing “normal” about nine strangers sitting down for an intimate meal in another stranger’s home—which is exactly what makes Dinner With Friends feel so extraordinary in our current age of disconnection.

In its infancy, Dinner With Friends was simply a way for Michaud to connect with others after the pandemic had suspended all social gatherings. She, like many others living in the city, found themselves hungry for in-person togetherness, even if that included strangers. “Everything is online now, and I’m not convinced that real-life interactions can be substituted,” she says. Michaud is right: a Zoom call couldn’t replicate the surprising warmth and camaraderie I experienced in her apartment that afternoon.

When you sign up for Dinner With Friends, you sign up for the unknown, guaranteeing you an element of unpredictability. Along with Midwest Joan (an executive assistant and grade-A conversationalist), my dinner also included a third-grade teacher, a publishing agent, and a bearded Brooklynite who exuded an air of mystery. We were a mélange of characters whose paths would typically only cross in a subway station or a coffee shop, yet we had all been brought together by our desire—and, frankly, courage—to get a little vulnerable around the dinner table.

For guests, Dinner With Friends is a hand outstretched, a call for community.

After years of hybrid work schedules and limited social gatherings, I had forgotten the satisfaction and invigoration that can come from fostering new relationships outside of my immediate friend group. But as generations before us can attest, there’s value in interacting with our peripheral connections, even if the practice has become increasingly rare in today’s digital landscape. “There’s a huge benefit in being around people who are different from you,” says Michaud, who now has friends across social circles. “Getting to learn so much from other people through casual conversation has expanded my worldview and made me a better, more well-rounded person.”

Dinner With Friends underscores the importance of tending to relationships that live on the periphery of our tight-knit circles—a concept that’s been proven to benefit our overall well-being. According to research, interacting with fringe connections not only introduces us to new ideas1, new opportunities2, and new people3, but also increases our happiness and general wellness4. In this sense, Michaud acts as a bridge between strangers, and in a time of pervasive loneliness—when more than a quarter of the world is lonely—these connections are more vital than ever. For guests, Dinner With Friends is a hand outstretched; a call for community. And whether you’re here for the food, connection, or novelty—or all three—the sum of its parts lends to its appeal.

I have always found a lot of joy and pleasure in bringing different people together, even if we don’t necessarily have much in common in the first place.”

Though supper clubs have existed long before Dinner With Friends, it’s the care that Michaud brings to her table that makes the experience unique unto its own. Throughout the night, I watched Michaud in her element: ricocheting between conversations and instigating easy chatter between guests. She is the quintessential host, both engaged and engaging, with a sixth sense for knowing when to step in—and when to step out. “I have always found a lot of joy and pleasure in bringing different people together, even if we don’t necessarily have much in common in the first place,” Michaud tells me, recalling the night she wrangled an eclectic mix of friends and strangers from the Bumble BFF app into what would later be known as her first-ever Dinner With Friends.

Two years later, I would find myself part of my own eclectic mix crowded around Michaud’s table. As we hand-rolled the dough Michaud had pre-prepared, we debated the best Chinese restaurants in the city and discussed the unspoken subway rules you only learn when living in New York (see: Never enter the empty subway car). I happily discovered I shared a birthday with the 20-something college admissions officer pleating dumplings across from me. By the time we finished eating, everyone had exchanged phone numbers and star signs, and my new friend, Midwest Joan, invited us all to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Any initial apprehensions had long been put to rest by the time we said our goodbyes. A genuine camaraderie had blossomed over the several hours we spent making and eating dumplings—in large part due to Michaud’s deftness. She treats hosting like an art, creating and distributing a “little host handbook,” a private online document, to all her co-hosts. “It’s my manifesto on what makes a great host,” she tells me. There are a few rules, including: 1. Anticipate the needs of your guests (“I want people to have a sense of immediate relief that they’ve made the right decision by coming here”); 2. Offer nervous guests a play-by-play of the event ahead of time (“It helps with the awkwardness of not knowing what to do”); and, of course, 3. Serve food—which, in itself, makes for an excellent icebreaker.

As the group dispersed and headed off in our separate directions, I realized just how much I had missed having the kind of serendipitous conversations that only arise when talking to strangers. Technological advancements have almost eradicated the ability—let alone the need—to rub elbows with other lives. Even services like self-checkout and contactless delivery have hijacked opportunities for human interaction. But in Michaud’s apartment, Dinner With Friends could exist in its own microcosm, one where “friends” and “strangers” needn’t be mutually exclusive; both could be lifelines for connection.

Michaud’s efforts to cultivate a welcoming community haven’t gone unnoticed: Dinner With Friends has since been featured on TV shows and media publications, and it maintains a steady wait list of hopeful guests. But Michaud’s impact is most clearly seen in the faces of the strangers around her table, and in the guest book she asks her attendees to sign at the end of every event.

One message in particular sticks out as I thumb through the pages. It’s from Johnny, a past guest who, according to Michaud, had been a quiet bundle of nerves all night. “I don’t think I’m social by nature,” he wrote. “I like making friends, but I’m not naturally outgoing. But things like this and people like you make me earnestly want to change that. So thank you for creating Dinner With Friends, so I can come experience, reflect, and maybe even change.” It’s a message that Michaud says, in a nutshell, is what Dinner With Friends is all about.

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  1. Atir, Stav et al. “Talking with strangers is surprisingly informative.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 119,34 (2022): e2206992119. doi:10.1073/pnas.2206992119
  2. Rajkumar, Karthik et al. “A causal test of the strength of weak ties.” Science (New York, N.Y.) vol. 377,6612 (2022): 1304-1310. doi:10.1126/science.abl4476
  3. Huxhold, Oliver et al. “The Strength of Weaker Ties: An Underexplored Resource for Maintaining Emotional Well-Being in Later Life.” The journals of gerontology. Series B, Psychological sciences and social sciences vol. 75,7 (2020): 1433-1442. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbaa019
  4. Sandstrom, Gillian M, and Elizabeth W Dunn. “Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties.” Personality & social psychology bulletin vol. 40,7 (2014): 910-922. doi:10.1177/0146167214529799