In college, it’s easy to get used to seeing your friends every day, sometimes at every meal. After four years of collegial dining with some of them, you may experience a kind of withdrawal when you graduate and realize you’re no longer going to see those faces across the table—a sense that something is lost that can never be retrieved. In Chicago, however, a group of Kalamazoo College alumni has figured out a way to turn back the clock. They started an informal Restaurant Club (RC), meeting at eateries in the Windy City, where finding good places to dine is as easy as finding friends to eat with in college. These first few Restaurant Club members told other K alumni about their get-togethers and the network of dining companions has grown over the years. Within the next year or so, RC will celebrate its 1,000th meeting.
The idea took root as late 1990s alumni launched careers in Chicago.
“By early 2000,” recalls paralegal Mathew Calvert ’97, “a lot of K ’96 to K ’99 people who were friends at K were living in Chicago. Matt Priest (’97) understood that maintaining those friendships would take effort. He came up with what we all called ‘Restaurant Club.’ Every week, one of us would pick a restaurant the group hadn’t been to before, and at least two of us would eat there on a Friday night.”
Soon, 15 or more alumni were regulars at the gatherings, and Chicago offered endless opportunities for culinary adventures, Calvert says.
“Chicago’s restaurant scene made finding a new place easy, and it introduced me, and I assume other people, to new cuisines,” he says. “Before Restaurant Club, I’d had little to no sushi, traditional ramen, Korean or Ethiopian food.”
Priest, a high-rise property manager, said learning more about food and culture was an original part of RC’s implicit mission.
“In the beginning,” he says, “we were mostly set on just exploring Chicago’s restaurant scene, various neighborhoods and cultures. Eventually, it became clear that Restaurant Club’s existence was serving an important social purpose as well: It was an easy way to catch up with friends. Then, as members invited their significant others and friends to tag along, it also became a good way to meet new people.”
Research chemist Lisa (Rohde) Knight ’97 says RC became an important part of her life.
“In my 20s, it was a great way of staying connected with my friends from K in the Chicago area,” Knight says. “If anyone had a K friend visiting, they would bring them to Restaurant Club. Not being a native Chicagoan, it was also a way to discover new neighborhoods and explore the city.
“In my early 30s, my husband was working very long hours. Restaurant Club gave me something to do every Friday night. I never had to worry about feeling like a third wheel since it was a group outing, a place to see friends’ babies and reconnect with friends who I don’t see as often anymore.”
Alexandra (Foley) Altman ’97, Kalamazoo College regional admission counselor for Chicago and former president of the Alumni Association Executive Board, concurs.
“Even when I haven’t been able to attend as often, there’s value in knowing there’s a dinner invitation every Friday night and the chance that you could see an old friend or make a new one,” she says.
The club also has helped Chicago newcomers acclimate.
“I hadn’t been especially close friends with the founding members of Restaurant Club,” says John Cunningham ’00, a manager at Encyclopedia Britannica. “So when I moved to Chicago after college, I was happy to be invited to join Restaurant Club, which was then only a few months old. For someone just setting out in the world after college, Restaurant Club provided an instant social life. Every Friday, if I wanted, I had something to do. I grew closer to the friends I already had, and I made a bunch of new friends, including K alums I hadn’t previously known.”
RC members also find they have an enduring connection with people who have moved on from Chicago.
“A few RC members have moved away,” says Altman’s husband Chris ’97, a sales engineer, “and once in a while, they’d come back into town. These gatherings typically have large turnouts, which gives a feeling of a mini-K Homecoming.”
To keep the whole process from becoming too routine and predictable, Priest at times has arranged it so that the get-togethers are a little more random. People would find themselves having pleasant dinners with K alumni and others they may never have met before.
“We used to do this thing called ‘trios,’ ”explains Knight. “Once a year, people would sign up and Matt would match three people together for dinner. He would tell you what restaurant to go to and you wouldn’t know who you were dining with until you arrived. I ended up having dinner with people who I otherwise probably wouldn’t have. My memories of Restaurant Club are filled with laughter.”
Calvert recalls that “while Restaurant Club was a way to keep in touch with K friends, we added a lot of people over the years, too: classmates, significant others, siblings, bandmates and so on. One of my favorite things about Restaurant Club was that you didn’t know who else had signed up that week until a roster was sent out, usually on Friday morning. So not only were you eating at a new restaurant, you were eating with a different group of people every time.”
He says it expanded his horizons.
“I had conversations with people and learned things I wouldn’t have if I’d only gone out with close friends,” he says. “This may be corny, but Restaurant Club and Kalamazoo College share two qualities that mean a lot to me: a small-community feel, but also a need to explore, to experience new things and to widen one’s horizon.”
And, of course, it also introduced members to new culinary experiences.
“Prior to Restaurant Club I was a terribly picky eater,” Priest says. “Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to much outside of American cuisine. I was that guy on your foreign study program who’d visit some amazing city and go looking for the nearest McDonald’s. But the club has completely changed the way I eat out. Now I’m constantly on the lookout for the next chance to expand my horizons. …The K experience tends to breed curious, adventurous, open-minded individuals, and it offers you the chance to forge potentially lifelong friendships.”
Restaurant Club membership is generated through word of mouth.
“So far,” says Priest, “everyone who has ever joined RC has been a friend of someone in the club and was invited to join by that person.”