Frank Flanagan is a freelance writer fresh from Rhode Island. This is part of a series of posts by Flanagan where he explores Orlando with a newcomer’s perspective.
By Frank Flanagan
Dana Roquemore has “always been drawn to things that bring people together” and comes from a long background in event planning. After a career change, and a little bit of world traveling, she started the Dinner Party Project here in Orlando, where she has spent most of her life. It takes a certain type of person to consistently host dinner parties for strangers, and Dana has all the right qualities – energetic, outgoing, and willing to start the conversation.
Dana often joins the guests for dinner, helping to facilitate the group’s chatter, and transition small talk into something more intimate. After making introductions, Dana prompts her guests with questions: what is your most embarrassing story? and, if you could have dinner with anyone past, present, or future, who would it be? The questions, often changed, are age-old and tried, but effective in establishing a conversation, and a familiarity among guests.
Dana is primarily concerned with her guests having a good time, and if some participants make deeper connections its an added bonus. “If people leave feeling a little more known, a little more connected and totally full, then I have accomplished my purpose,” Dana said.
The dinner I attended was at Dana’s home, just off of Orange Avenue in College Park. Any fans of Audrey Hepburn would be pleased with the décor the home had to offer, though not all dinners are hosted at Dana’s house. We began with Spiced Rum Daiquiri’s in the parlor, Dana handshaking each cocktail, and hugging each guest as they arrived. After the cocktail meet-and-greet we moved to the dining room, where we sat comfortably around Dana’s table. From there we moved through an expertly prepared 4-course meal, thanks to our guest chef, Misty.
The theme of our particular meal was comfort food. Misty had chosen the menu based on several days of rain leading up to the dinner. There were deviled egg hors d’oeuvres, followed by a ranch-topped wedge salad with homemade garlic croutons. The evening entrée, home-style meatloaf with mac-n-cheese and green beans, was pleasantly spaced out from the earlier courses with no sense of being rushed. Finally, for dessert, Misty served a traditional cheesecake with strawberries and fresh whipped cream. Throughout the meal Dana supplied us with our choice of red or white wine, and Barnie’s coffee with dessert.
Throughout the night the eight of us, including Dana, laughed and swapped stories. There was no need to be sophisticated, and the conversation occasionally jumped from PG-13 to R. Everyone at the table came from different backgrounds, professions, and generations, and almost everyone was new to the Dinner Party Project. Conversation was easy, and the food was delicious. There were no awkward moments, and seemingly no one was out of place, as one might expect at a gathering of strangers.
Even after dessert, after Dana had taken each one of her guest’s picture (as she does), us guests lingered. Standing in the kitchen, no longer strangers, we stayed to talk and help clear the table. By the time we all left it was hard to believe three hours had gone by.
The Dinner Party Project gives Orlandoan’s the rare opportunity to sit down over good food, and connect with people they normally would never meet. While there are plenty of places in Orlando to have a fine meal, the Dinner Party Project offers more. It is the perfect evening for the social type, and an even better opportunity for slightly introverted type to step outside their comfort zone. At the Dinner Party Project, everyone is welcome.
The Dinner Party Project celebrates its first birthday this August, after a successful year of hosting between 70 and 80 dinners. Over the past year Dana has learned more about interacting with people, and how much her guests crave interaction and a sense of community. Dana will be throwing a celebration for all of her guests at some point this month, a chance to reconnect with past attendees as well as meet other participants.