Here’s a little experiment. Next time you’re due to meet a friend, spend time really thinking about them. Ponder their hopes, their fears. Picture their face, smiling.

In a way, that’s what Sophie McIntyre does for a living. Since March 2021 she’s run Club Sup, a bringing together of people over dinner – first in Melbourne, now also in Sydney – and a successful event is all about understanding the guests.

Club Sup takes the idea of orphans’ Christmas and runs with it all year round at cosy restaurants such as Cam’s Kiosk in Abbotsford and Brunswick East’s Old Palm Liquor, where staff play their favourite vinyl. McIntyre long ago passed 300 events and stopped counting.

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There’s been an increase in initiatives aimed at bringing people in: cafes printing conversation starters on their menus; festivals like OK Motels hiring the crew from Tell Your Friends You Love Them to host friend-making games; and other dinner events, such as Sydney’s Arlo Communal, aimed at fostering authentic connections. Call it a sign of the times.

“When I started, it was such a foreign concept that everyone was like, ‘What do you mean people don’t have friends?’” McIntyre says. “Now it feels like every week I see something new. I honestly think last August, a switch just flipped. Something happened in this world and everyone was like, ‘Oh my god, I understand this concept now.’”

With 2023 being the year of the AI boom, it’s perhaps a natural backlash. It’s a fair bet that many of the social media posts, emails and dating profiles we read have been assisted by Chat GPT, and the doctoring of photos has reached new frontiers.

“I keep reading about how we’ve hit peak social media,” McIntyre says. “I think that’s what’s adding to this increase in wanting to sit around the table with real conversations. I’m always saying, ‘If someone’s taking photos [at our events] can you send them to me?’ And I’ll find that no one’s picked up their phone to take a single picture.”

There’s no ban on phones at Club Sup – there are no rules at all – but guests are instinctively picking up what McIntyre is putting down, getting into the spirit of connection. By the end of the night, guests will often start Whatsapp groups to keep meeting of their own accord.

“When they come in, I say ‘All you have to do is take this drink, say hello to one person, and then the next hardest thing you’re going to do is eat dinner,’” she says. “These are people who love food and wine. But also they’re self-aware and proactive in building fun things into their life.”

The genesis of Club Sup happened in lockdowns, when McIntyre found herself in a share house in Fitzroy with three strangers. Having studied fashion at RMIT, she was working as a planner at Uniqlo. “It was spreadsheets all day, every day, so it really sucked my creative juices dry,” she says.

McIntyre started hosting house dinners, which turned into larger gatherings in studio spaces between lockdowns, before moving to restaurants in 2022. Things took off so fast that it was a relief to let someone else take over the cooking while helping to revive the local restaurant scene.

The early events were off-the-leash. People brought an end-times vibe and a lot of kick-on Negronis were drunk on school nights.

“Then, in 2023, people started to slow down and think about their mental health. This year, people aren’t as triggered by the pandemic anymore … they process it now.”

A $120, two-course dinner for 12 or 16, with generously flowing wine, often sells out months in advance. There are spin-offs with their own headcounts and prices: 50+ Supper, Lunch Club, Art Club, Breakfast Club, Cook Book Club, Pilates Mingle, Money Talks and Book Swap. For the latter, the 35 guests bring a copy of their favourite book, which is then wrapped with their handwritten thoughts on the book, and gifted to someone else.

“The thing about a book is if you’re nervous it’s a really rich thing to talk about,” McIntyre says.

Social anxiety has become the focus of McIntyre’s business but also her thoughts. She uses Instagram and her podcast, Words with Friends, to explore the theme.

“I would love to find a way to bring out more conversations about loneliness and friendship,” she says. “There are a million articles on how to have a fight with your boyfriend, but nothing about how to have conflict resolution with your friends. These are really vital relationships.”

With Club Sup now a full-time endeavour, with assistance from McIntyre’s sister in Sydney, there’s Brisbane and beyond on the horizon.

“I’m very lucky that I get to have a business that’s not a product,” McIntyre says. “It’s not harming the world and it’s not landfill and it’s making a marked impact on people’s lives. It constantly renews my faith in the world and makes me feel that everything’s all right.”

McIntyre’s Pro Tips for Hosting at Home

Planning

By all means have a theme – like bring a book, record or bottle for discussion – but McIntyre recommends not going overboard. “Anytime that I’ve made it too structured – where I’ve said, ‘Okay, we’ll be doing this and then doing that’ – everyone disengages with it immediately and it’s not fun,” she warns. “Don’t overthink it.”

Arrivals

Have that welcome drink ready – and McIntyre also suggests asking people not to sit next to the person they came with. “If I [went] somewhere with my boyfriend … we’d have the exact same experience if we hung out all night,” she points out.

Conversations

“If you’re trying to connect your circles, my favourite thing is to know two things about people so you can say, ‘Oh my god, did you know this about X?’ Then when they start chatting you back off: ‘Okay, I’m gonna go check the potatoes.’”

Booze

Don’t assume constantly topping up people’s glasses is the best way to lube conversation – there’s definitely a sweet spot. “Three glasses of wine is as far as it should go,” McIntyre says.

Food

Again, don’t be too ambitious. “Make something that you can have in the oven before everyone gets there,” McIntyre advises. “That might be a roast chicken, a lasagne, a curry or a gorgeous tray-bake of fish and veggies.” She also recommends having plenty of “hot commodity items” – such as roast potatoes – that people have to pass up and down the table.

Farewells

Plan ahead and choose a nearby bar for “kick-on cocktails”, particularly if you can boast that they do a nice digestif. This gets guests happily exiting the house (and you can return home to the dishes at leisure).

clubsup.com.au
@clubsup_

This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.