It’s hard making friends in San Francisco.
When I first moved here, I would have been surprised to hear myself make that statement. This city is chock-full of cool, intelligent people who share my interests. Obviously, I didn’t need to be friends with all of them, but in a city of 800,000, I couldn’t help but be friends with some of them, right? But I was quickly chastened by the realities of adult friendship in an urban area. Namely, the reality that I wasn’t making any. At first, I tried to rationalize my friendless life. There were some obvious contributing factors, like not having coworkers (I’m a freelancer and work from home). Regional bias was also an issue. I’m originally from the South, where two-hour conversations regularly commence when someone compliments someone else’s shoes. Though I know SF is still a city, I moved here hoping to recapture some of that hospitable vibe. After all, you don’t get mellower than San Francisco, right?
Maybe not. Sometimes I feel like a stranger in a strange land of FOMO-plagued iPhone junkies. I love my phone as much as the next person, but when people would rather check texts or play Draw Something than be bored for even a minute, conversations don’t happen. It’s almost impossible to have a chat with a stranger that lasts more than two sentences. Even at parties, I’ve had long, enjoyable talks that have ended with the person running for their phone. OkCupid has made it possible for me to find a handful of romantic connections (and a massive pile of romantic non-connections), but let’s face it: No one is there shopping for a new best bud.
When people would rather check texts or play Draw Something than be bored for even a minute, conversations don’t happen.
Before you start speculating about my odious personality, I can claim plenty of wonderful friends from my school years, including two best college pals who joined me in SF a couple of years down the road. I’ve made other friends through them (who all seem to be their high school or work friends, furthering my suspicions of SF friendship insularity). I’ve also befriended a handful of fellow freelance writers. But I still spend plenty of Saturday nights at home — and not by choice.
I blamed myself, of course. I wasn’t pretty enough, accomplished enough, likable enough. Maybe I was talking too much, maybe not enough. Maybe I was talking about the wrong things. Maybe my “vibe” just wasn’t right for SF. But considering the number of recent grads and other young strivers streaming solo into the city to make their fortunes, I can’t be the only one in this situation. In fact, I know I’m not the only one, because entrepreneurs around the Bay are striving to do for friendships what OkCupid has done for dating.
Having long ago struck out with classified ads for friends on Craigslist and lonely sitting-in-the-corner meetups, I decided to explore three start-ups that were on the cutting edge of kindling friendships. Maybe with the Internet as my wingman, I could finally hit it off with some cool new people.
My first stop on my friend-making tour was Grouper, a New York–based start-up that recently added SF to its service. The concept works like this: You sign up alongside two friends of the same gender, and using your Facebook profile and friend information, a “concierge” pairs you up with a compatible trio of the opposite gender. The site offers both groups a choice of dates and times, then selects a place for everyone to meet.
The three-girls-three-guys design seems to be more of a dating model than a friendship one, though Grouper claims that they’re out to help people make friends first. (If that’s actually the case, they may want to stop sending me follow-up emails promising a bevy of “cute guys.”)
But, since Grouper was slightly geared toward romance, I invited fellow single gal Erika, who I first met in a chair at a salon (she was wielding the scissors). Erika, in turn, invited her friend Jill, who I’d never met before.
Grouper assigned us to a crowded bar in the Tenderloin, where we were seated at a reserved table upon arrival. Our new friends for the evening were a trio of former coworkers. Though Grouper had touted the six-person party as ideal (big enough to prevent the awkwardness of a date or double date, small enough so everyone could chat in one big group), the noise level made it hard for us to hear each other. I ended up mostly chatting with the only two people within hearing range.
Sadly, this one was a wash. One of the guys in the group, James, provided me with all the guys’ email addresses the next morning, and while I shared everyone’s contact info with everyone else, as of this writing, no one has met up again.
Grouper claims that they’re out to help people make friends first. (If that’s actually the case, they may want to stop sending me follow-up emails promising a bevy of “cute guys.”)
Grapevine’s model is almost identical to that of Grouper, with one exception: your group still has to be of the same gender as you, but you can meet a crew of either the same or the opposite gender. To mix things up a little (and take romance out of the equation), I recruited my friend Jessica to meet another group of three girls. I first met Jessica and her boyfriend Mitch at a party during Cocktail Week, when we struck up a conversation over an unusual-looking lamp, and we’ve since become close — a rare moment of connection that’s given me renewed hope for the friendship style of my Southern-fried origins. To round out the group, Jessica brought along her pal Liz. After five minutes with Liz, it was friend-love at first sight. She was whip-smart, funny, and creative. I could instantly tell that we were going to hit it off.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same for the group of three girls we met at a wine lounge in the Marina. Though the atmosphere was blessedly quiet enough to allow all six of us to talk together, once the usual topics had been exhausted, we didn’t have much to say to each other. Soon, we were mostly just talking to the friends we’d come with. The other group had already spent some time together before our arrival, and decided to pack it in not long after we ordered our second round of wine. The connection just wasn’t there.
Once they’d left, though, I realized that I had a fresh flute of champagne, a dear friend on one side of the couch, and a new one on the other. We had a lovely evening together, and I’ve hung out with Liz a couple of times since. Success!
After five minutes with Liz, it was friend-love at first sight. She was whip-smart, funny, and creative. I could instantly tell that we were going to hit it off.
Of the three events I’d scheduled, my Grubwithus dinner was making me the most nervous. Not only was it a party of seven strangers, but there were no built-in friendships to guide the way. Grubwithus allows strangers to meet up over preplanned meals at restaurants, with events organized around themes (tech and start-ups have a particularly sizable following). I had planned to insinuate myself into an existing dinner, but none were offered the week I wanted to go out. That meant I had to create my own, trading on the name of the fine publication you’re reading to entice a group of strangers to come eat with me.
The service assigned us to a restaurant two blocks from AT&T Park right before the start of a Giants home game, so I arrived to an incredibly crowded space — where I wasn’t sure exactly who among the throngs had come to be part of my experiment. Luckily, I was able to suss out my first guest, Charlie, a friendly recent college grad. We were soon joined by Mitchy (short for Michelle), who’d embraced the Giants-centric crowd and grabbed a tallboy of Stella. Before long, the rest of the group had arrived, and after 20 minutes, we were finally seated. (We did have one no-show, which was odd, considering he’d dropped $30 to have dinner with us. On the upside, more fried avocado wedges for everyone else.)
Over pitchers of beer, I did my best to chat with all of my guests, but the size of the group and the din of the Giants fans meant that I missed out on more lengthy conversations with most of them. I ended up having a nice experience with Charlie and Mitchy, though, and at the end of the night, Charlie invited us both to a 3-D and laser-themed party at his house that Saturday.
Walking into Charlie’s party, I felt a bit hesitant, but his friends welcomed me warmly, handing me a glass of punch and some 3-D specs. When Mitchy rolled in with her girlfriend, we greeted her like a long-lost comrade, and our conversation picked right up from where it left off at the restaurant. Later, I met Kate, a fellow writer whose work I’d enjoyed, and struck up a conversation with her as well. By the end of a great Saturday night, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the wisdom of My Little Pony. Friendship is magic.
When I told other people about my experiment in friendship, I assumed I’d be met with bewilderment. Instead, people responded to my quest with genuine enthusiasm, and even stories of their own frustrations in finding friends in SF. Several of them even asked for the names of the services so they could try it out themselves.
Clearly, there’s a need for people to make friends in San Francisco, and it goes far beyond what a few start-ups can provide.
Over pitchers of beer, I did my best to chat with all of my guests, but the size of the group and the din of the Giants fans meant that I missed out on more lengthy conversations with most of them.
Grouper and Grapevine operate as private clubs. You apply using Facebook Connect. Both services charge about $30 per person for their matchmaking efforts, which includes a round of drinks. They’ll let you know where you’re headed a few days ahead of time –at the moment, the choice of venue is entirely up to them.
Grubwithus allows you to either join an existing meal or create your own dinner. Though I wasn’t able to pick my own restaurant at the time I used the service, they’ve since added that option. Meals typically range from $20–30 per person, not including drinks and tip.
Illustrations by Jon Stich.