Meet on the menu
Got friends? The Lunch Club, New York's anti-isolation brigade, has landed in Boston.
It's the inaugural event of the Lunch Club in Boston, and 28 people -- most utter strangers to one another -- are scattered among three tables at Joe's American Bar & Grill on Dartmouth Street.
The group was beckoned to this Sunday brunch by fliers and posts on message boards, including one on the Lunch Club's site at www.thelunchclub.com. Their goal: to make new friends.
The Lunch Club got its start in New York City in 2001. The website's tagline is ''Because eating alone is boring," and it was boredom that inspired the site's owner, Jared Nissim, then a technical writer who worked at home, to organize a lunch gathering for strangers at a local restaurant.
His first electronic entreaty drew two other people to the table. Today Nissim's site boasts 8,700 members, and he estimates that 20 to 30 people join daily.
Managing the Lunch Club is now Nissim's full-time job. This year he began expanding into D.C. and Boston.
Nissim, 32, can personally attest that he's made at least five ''super-close" friends through his organization.
''I also met my girlfriend through it," he says.
These days the Lunch Club doesn't stop with lunch. Nissim also organizes gatherings over dinner or cocktails. The Lunch Club has hosted scavenger hunts at the Museum of Natural History, gallery tours, and knitting groups to help people in their quest to find new friends (or at least pursue activities with people who share their interests). It even offers ''Speed Friending," a nonromantic form of speed dating.
''We're in an era now where people are looking to connect with the world around them," says Nissim, who also runs www.meettheneighbors.org, which puts people in contact with others in their building or neighborhood. ''Up until a certain point, getting together was about dating or finding love. A whole new realm is coming into existence."
Brighton resident Ayana Meade is the person leading locals into this new realm.
After the food orders are placed at Joe's, Meade takes a few minutes to give a short introduction to the organization. She directs the group to the stack of index cards on each table on which they can write their names, how they heard about the event, and the types of activities they'd like to do in the future.
''Any variety of things that you want to do," says Meade. ''Whatever your interests are, put them down."
Next to each place setting is a brown bag plastered with the Lunch Club logo. Each bag holds a flier with information about the next event -- an after-work cocktail ''mingler" tomorrow at Lir on Boylston Street -- along with fortune cookies, candy, and confetti.
The loud music blaring in the background isn't exactly conducive to conversation, but Meade chose the restaurant for other reasons.
''It was kind of middle of the road," she says. ''Not too high-end. Nice, but not snooty or upscale. I want to make everyone be comfortable."
When she's done with her hosting duties, Meade sits down at a table with a group of six -- yes, she's here to make friends as well. There's Jennifer Dimase, 26, of Brighton; David Lumpkins, 25, of Dorchester; Louisa Stephens, 26, of Cambridge; Eric Denouter, 37, of Newton; Wendy Schwartz, ''over 40," of Allston; and Nicole Jackson, 33, of Brookline. The group is a snapshot of the people who seek out the Lunch Club's services.
''People seem to be in their late 20s, early 30s," says Nissim. ''Also late 30s, early 40s, early 20s. A large percentage are single; a lot are not. They might be married looking to get out there, have a good experience, and meet new people."
The group at this table discovered the Lunch Club in a variety of ways.
Stephens came with a friend after they read about the event on craigslist.org. Lumpkins saw a flier hanging at the Boston University West MBTA stop. Schwartz is a co-worker of Meade's.
Meade started putting the event together three weeks ago. She decided to get the word out in both new and old-fashioned ways.
There were the fliers. ''I was plastering them all over the place," she says.
But she also contacted online message boards and even considered logging onto the popular site myspace.com to publicize the event. Thirty-five people ended up RSVPing at the Lunch Club's site; the people who showed up represented a diverse group of whites, blacks, Asians, and Latinos.
''I was really trying to make it work," Meade says. ''Really campaigning like I was running for president or something."
The conversations among the acquaintances sitting at Joe's proceed in fits and starts, interrupted by awkward pauses as people seek commonalities.
Dimase asks about finding a place to rollerblade; Jackson asks whether she wears a helmet.
Dimase says, ''You ask why?"
''I'm afraid of cracking my head open," Jackson answers.
Talk turns to the Academy Awards.
''I think it's very overrated," says Lumpkins, ''like the Olympics."
Dimase replies in wonder, ''You think the Olympics are overrated?"
What inspired this group to look to the Lunch Club as a vehicle to find friends?
For Schwartz it's a needed social outlet: ''I tend to be very work focused," she says.
Dimase, a 2001 graduate of MIT, left Boston for a few years but returned in August for a job. Unfortunately, most of her friends from school are scattered in other parts of the country.
''I wanted to meet friends," she says.
Schwartz finds the event comfortable because there's no doubt about the intentions of everyone sitting around these tables. The same can't be said of the club scene.
''I call it a safe alternative to bars and nightclubs," says Lumpkins.
Adds Dimase, ''The fact that we are meeting over a meal is easier."
Still, the environment inhibited the group from socializing with people at the other tables.
A frustrated Lumpkins looked around and says, ''I hope to get a chance to meet other people."
Meade had planned to direct the group over to a nearby bar, where they could mingle with anyone they failed to meet at the restaurant. But after a long brunch, most were too tired to make the effort.
Dimase also left after brunch, but she sounded pretty happy about the experience during a telephone conversation a few days later.
''I definitely look forward to meeting people again at the next event," she says.
Although the second event is scheduled, Nissim sounds ambivalent about the future of the Lunch Club in Boston.
''At this point in time," he says, ''I don't know honestly what's going to come of this. It's up to [Meade]. If she can make it happen and organize the events."
For her part, Meade seems intent on making it work.
''Boston," she says, ''has the right formula for a successful chapter: a lot of young people, a lot of single people."