Trying to break into the local scene is fairly difficult as a traveler. Where do you start? How do you meet locals if you don’t speak the same language? Can you be safe and adventurous at the same time? It’s even more difficult if you’re a traveler who doesn’t drink. The ease of approaching someone with a cocktail in hand at a bar is a universal ice breaker, often met with a friendly reply. Approaching someone at a coffee bar or in a grocery store is a little more intimidating and can be met with a surprised look and awkward silence. Luckily for us, there are now websites and apps that allow locals to become tour guides, photography teachers, chefs, and even language coaches. It’s a great first step in learning new cultures and being accepted directly by residents.
I discovered a new app while researching local dining experiences for friends traveling through Buenos Aires. The Argentine Experience is one website I had heard about which teaches you how to close your own empanadas, participate in an empanada competition, make your own alfajores (a delightful Argentinian dessert), and prepare your own mate (a highly caffeinated ritualistic herbal drink which I’ve grown to love- they will tell you it’s not tea, but it’s a lot like green tea). The meal is shared with other guests and you have the option of adding a wine class to the night. The cost is $140, which may not sound terrible coming from the US, but when the average dinner here is $30 or less, it seems a bit over-priced. I kept looking.
Vayable is another site I discovered in a number of cities which features locals in a wide variety of hospitality roles (mainly as tour guides). Their tagline is ‘independent people who create unique experiences to share with others’. Heralded by the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and CNN, it’s a well-praised site which should be added to your list of resources when traveling.
I found the dinner I was looking for, however, with CookApp. Cookapp is a popular site among locals, enabling chefs to host groups in creative spaces for dinner and (often) entertainment. Some of the Cookapp options I’ve viewed in Bueneos Aires include 4 course dinners, a film, and live chamber music in an artistic loft space; total: $35/per person. Another is a 5 course Patagonian dinner for $28/pp. Most of them include a welcome drink, but like the one I had last night, it was casual and they threw in a bottle of wine entirely.
The meals have been nothing but extraordinary, but the best part can be the chef’s home or the performances during and after the meals. It’s the entire experience that makes it so special.
I went to an Italian tasting last night ($26/pp), which came with piping hot homemade bread and whipped herb butter upon entering, a bottle of Argentinian Malbec (mainly for my friends who were with me, but I had a few sips), an incredible mushroom soup, homemade tagliatelle in cream sauce, prosciutto, parmesan, and a touch of basil puree on the side. All of this was followed by Brazilian coffee (some of the best coffee I’ve had to date) served with a delectable cheesecake drizzled with chocolate and raspberry sauce. The highlights, aside from the heavenly meal, were our conversations with the 27-year old Slovakian chef and his fiancé, and serenades (by the chef himself), performed from a Karaoke set in the dining room. Frank Sinatra, Czech ballads, and speeches were performed with each course. It was like being in an off-off Broadway show! (There were just the 3 of us and our 2 hosts; it was about as private a performance as you can get.) He may not have been the best singer (in fact, it was a touch painful on some octaves), but he exuberated such confidence and child-like charm, we all cheered him on with tears in our eyes.
Finding the local scene is what traveling is all about. You can travel to 5 star hotels, board and exit tour buses, and hit the top 10 on Trip Advisor’s lists with the rest of the tourists visiting that day. But breaking bread with a local while being welcomed into a home are the moments I will always cherish from my time abroad.