“If you could have dinner with one person in the world, who would it be?” This icebreaker probably sounds familiar. Maybe you found yourself on the spot at a company happy hour or church picnic and named your favorite athlete or politician in a pinch. For Anthony Lacey, a 37-year-old self-deprecating Brit living in the District, the question isn’t hypothetical. The Inside Washington journalist by day runs a blog called Dining With Strangers that is celebrating 10 years this year.
Lacey has shared meals with 104 strangers, from Kurt Fuller of Wayne’s World and Ghostbusters II, Swiss Ambassador Martin Dahinden, and former U.S. Senator Larry Pressler, to everyday heroes like a single mother and a former Air Force officer.
He loves his day job reporting about the Environmental Protection Agency, but missed the storytelling he used to do as a general assignment reporter at his hometown newspaper, the Hull Daily Mail. So he made reporting his hobby, too.
“How do you approach someone and say, ‘I want to interview you, but I’m not with a publication,’” he wondered before founding Dining With Strangers. Then it clicked. “At least a restaurant is a familiar surrounding, and if the interview turns out to be a dud, there’s the food to write about.” Restaurants have been the neutral meeting ground for blind dates for a reason. New acquaintances can easily navigate the familiar dance of dining out.
“Jerry Seinfeld stole my idea with Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” he jokes. “It’s kind of like that, but I’m not a millionaire and I’m not very funny. It’s the same idea because it’s a comfortable surrounding.”
Some of Lacey’s subjects come to him through the “book a dinner” button on the blog’s landing page. Others he reaches out to, hoping to get a response. He’s still waiting to hear back from José Andrés and Tom Sietsema. Most of the interviews occur in D.C., where Lacey lives and works, but he also interviews subjects during his travels to cities like Hollywood and New Orleans. The assumption is that he will cover the cost of dinner, though sometimes his interviewees like to go Dutch. He also prefers when they pick the restaurant, but he’s careful to never repeat locales.
“I don’t want to go to Eleven Madison Park or Le Bernardin,” he says. “Even Rasika was pushing it.” That’s where he dined with portrait artist Jonathan Blum. “It was Christmas, so I threw caution to the wind. It was great and we had a nice meal, but I try to keep things to a reasonable budget.” He doesn’t make any money off his blog, nor does he reach out to restaurants before dining to request a complimentary meal.
Lacey says he’s fortunate most strangers have steered away from small plates restaurants. If you’ve ever dined with someone for the first time at one of the global tapas restaurants that have swept the city, you know it can be awkward to agree on what to share and then bump forks on the little plates as you fight for bites. “I’m ready for that trend to end,” he says.
I’m dining with Lacey at Hazel, and on cue, a plate of steak tartare arrives. Chef Rob Rubba instructs us to mix everything together—the house-made tater tots, raw steak mixed with Korean chili paste, French onion dip, and a sous vide egg. “We’ve e-mailed enough before that I feel comfortable mashing your food for you,” he tells me.
Over the ten years Lacey has been keeping his blog, he has noticed some changes in the D.C. dining scene. He bemoans the loss of small, independent places that offer affordable food. In Adams Morgan alone, he points to La Fourchette, Pasta Mia, Bardia’s New Orleans Cafe, and a few Ethiopian restaurants, like Meskerem.
“Those kinds of businesses are getting pushed out and higher-end, $20-a-plate places are coming in,” Lacey says. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t have a fancy budget. I can’t eat at a place like this every night. People from out of town are moving in and bringing with them more expensive, higher-end restaurants. A little more diversity would be great.”
Of the 104 interviews he’s published, Lacey has kept in touch with 46 people. “I don’t mean texting and emailing daily, but we’re Facebook friends and check in every couple of months,” he says. He has truly befriended a few, including Dr. Brobson Lutz in New Orleans. They had a memorable dinner, and Lacey now stays in touch with him via annual or bi-annual trips down to the Big Easy. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Lutz refused to evacuate and instead stayed to help with autopsies and treat patients. He’s featured in Josh Neufeld’s graphic novel, “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge.”
“I Googled him and emailed his private practice office,” Lacey says. “He was totally down for it.” The pair dined at famous Bourbon Street restaurant Galatoire’s. “That’s someone who has become a genuine close friend.”
Dining with Strangers, diningwithstrangers.com