I met five strangers for dinner - now they’re my friends

Left, a slow cooked lamb noodle soup in a bowl. Right, the exterior of a restaurant called 'Murger Han', with bright orange lettering outside.
I met five strangers for dinner - now they’re friends of mine
Liam O'Dell

The details appear on my phone on Wednesday morning. I am to meet a number of strangers for dinner at a restaurant in Elephant and Castle that evening at 7pm. Staff know I’m coming, and I am to ask for Table 2 in particular.

This description alone may read as ominous, like a deleted scene from a low budget ITV spy thriller. It’s actually Timeleft, an app which encourages new connections every Wednesday by getting a group of strangers chatting over dinner.

Think Bumble BFF, but with a side order of chicken katsu curry.

18 countries are listed as locations on its website, and in the UK, dinners are held in Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London and Manchester – London town was my preference.

Weeks prior, I had answered a number of multiple-choice questions to give the algorithm an idea of my personality, along with the price range and type of food I was after (worry not, vegans, vegetarians and those after gluten-free meals, you’re quite literally catered for in more ways than one).

Are my opinions usually guided by logic and facts or emotions and feelings? The former.

Do you consider yourself more of a smart or funny person? Smart.

On a scale of 1 (never) to 10 (every day), how often do you feel lonely? Ouch.

Then came the demographic questions which would shape the make-up of the small group. Star signs, religion, gender, occupation and so forth. This would lead to an interesting statistic about my table on Tuesday night which said 14 per cent were English, while another 14 per cent gave their nationality as the United Kingdom.

No Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish people were contained in our group of six, so I can only assume someone on my table was low-key having an identity crisis.

I was amazed by the diversity and rich cultures represented on my table. Kazakhstan, India, Italy, Portugal and the Philippines were all listed in my app as nationalities for my fellow Timeleft diners, to the extent I couldn't help but feel a tad embarrassed at being the underwhelming Brit of the table.

The technology and social media industries each made up 29 per cent of the group, with retail and business owners each garnering 14 per cent of the pie, so to speak.

On the topic of food, the restaurant was confirmed as being Murger Han, a chain specialising in Xi’an Chinese cuisine, with its Elephant and Castle site tucked away in Castle Square, a short walk from Elephant and Castle tube station – a relief for me, as train delays meant I was running half an hour late (a nifty button on the app meant I could make my fellow diners aware).

A murger, if you were wondering, is a miniature ‘burger’ of sorts comprising flatbread and pork, remarkably affordable at a price ranging from £6.20 to £7.20 if you fancy spicy beef or roast duck instead of pork. It was tempting to try the restaurants’ namesake, but I was right to try the slow-cooked lamb with noodle and spring onion in lamb soup (£12.90). If Timeleft was about meeting for lunch, then I’d be minded to give the murger a try.

The lamb was divine, brought out steaming hot and aromatic with a fork and spoon provided for those yet to master the humble chopstick (*ahem*). Tasty and flavoursome with a delicious soup to finish, it’s a lovely find in the capital with a cosy atmosphere to boot. Hats off to the staff, too, who were clearly familiar with the idea of Timeleft and did a good job of balancing leaving us to chat away (seeing as that’s the point of it all) with needing to get our orders in relatively soon-ish.

Table 2 implied the existence of Table 1, and after walking into the restaurant, hair windswept from the tube, I discovered the two tables had merged into one big group. I was greeted with the opportunity of making not just five new friends, but 11.

I’d walked in just as we were working through introductions. I struggled to swallow down a kind of nervous excitement within me, keen to keep the conversation lively to avoid awkward silences. We were supposed to use the in-app ‘game’ some 15 minutes or so after the dinner got underway, but we spent a good time learning about the range of individuals around us with everyone was genuinely interested about what people had to bring to the table. I was quite surprised that 11 people had taken a significant interest in my ramblings about journalism, disability and writing in shorthand – many of my fellow university coursemates certainly didn’t.

We had civil engineers, those from the fashion industry, and people studying for their Masters all on one giant table. Jokes came easily as we riffed off the natural nervousness that comes with a new experience. When we finished pondering an app question around how we all spend our days off, we moved on to far more philosophical and in-depth discussions – the range of perspectives and experiences people were sharing with each other were truly enlightening and mind-blowing.

And I was fully expecting to just scoff some noodles and chat about the weather or something.

The conversations wrapped up at around 10pm, when tables were being pushed up against one corner of the restaurant and the robotic levitating chopsticks towering over a noodle bowl ornament were brought inside. The ‘afterparty’ drinks, if we so wanted them, were located on the other side of London.

I can understand why that might have been done – a lengthy tube journey is plenty of time to get to know your fellow diners a bit more as you try to hear them over the deafening screeches of the Victoria line – but we ended up opting for a bar just a short walk away from Murger Han. We shared a drink there for another hour or so before we made our journeys home.

Writing this the next day, a WhatsApp group collating diners from both ‘tables’ has been set up, I’ve already reached out to a number of them individually, and I suspect the chat will be alive and kicking some more at the end of the working day, and when they realise the excitable writer at the end of the table has written an article about his experience.

Timeleft doesn’t market itself as a dating app – indeed there’s nothing within the application process for a dinner which asks you exactly why you like the idea of going for dinner at a random restaurant with five random people – rather the whole idea is to form new connections, whatever those may be.

And when so many meet-up apps seem reliant on offering up a picture of you and your pet chihuahua or evidence of a social life to win a popularity contest, Timeleft captures the buzz and excitement of human connection in the moment. The ice is yet to be broken, rather than already defrosted like the peas in the back of the freezer in your university accommodation.

I’m already eyeing up a potential second trip, not least because it's something to look forward to in the middle of the week. When dinner with strangers is quite literally on the table, Wednesday is no longer Hump Day.

Timeleft is available for free on the App Store and Google Play Store. A single ticket to a dinner is £12.99 (the meal is not included), while one-month, three-month and six-month subscriptions for all dinners are priced at £19.99, £49.99 and £69.99 respectively.

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