Another variant of third places, in this case the Salon (no, not the beauty one, though conversations of this sort in theory may take place there as well!). Going back millennia, the notion of blending great food with great discussion more often than not advances one’s range of perspectives, typically in the company of good friends, strangers or both. Here’s an update on how the concept is getting a reboot for the techno-age we live in today.

That said, I had a wonderful discussion earlier this morning over breakfast with three friends ranging in age from early 40’s to early 90’s, in a classic local town diner. The only time we brought out the technology was when we scheduled the next one (all using our smartphones, naturally …).

On a mild spring evening, ten people gathered for dinner in a converted brewery in east London to speak of serious things. The event was hosted by Norn, a hospitality company that describes itself as an “offline social network”. Members can stay for a month or more in its houses in London, San Francisco, Berlin and Barcelona, and take part in salons and meals which come with conversation menus that prescribe high-minded topics for each course.

At dinner were two other journalists, a few Norn employees and hangers-on, and two bonafide members. For starters, we were presented with a cracker laden with salmon roe and a doozy of a question: “Does the ephemerality of life and the transience of lived experiences scare you and make you sad, or inspire you?” No one said anything. From another room came the faint chords of anodyne electronic music. I thought I saw the tulips on the table open a fraction.

The marriage of sated appetites and adventurous conversation has a long history. In Ancient Greece, philosophical discourses were washed down with jugs of wine at banquets known as symposia. There was always a risk that some people would over-indulge. In the most famous description of a symposium, Plato describes how the guests, who included Socrates and Aristophanes, were expounding on the nature of love when they were interrupted by the arrival of a boozed-up general, Alcibiades. Table talk was considered an art to be mastered. Athenaeus, a Greek grammarian of the third century AD, wrote a 15-volume work entitled Deipnosophistae (“The Learned Banqueters”) about a series of dinners in which conversation ranged from philology to homosexuality. […]