Four years ago this month, I sent an email to an acquaintance of mine at Rutgers–Camden bemoaning the Latin American Economic Development Association’s Dine Around which takes people from downtown offices and education institutions to lunch spots in the city’s neighborhoods. To be clear, I thought it was a fantastic idea. My problem was that it was only available during lunch, and working in Center City, it was impossible for me to participate. As someone who wanted to explore more of Camden, that bummed me out. Thankfully, my friend had a simple suggestion: let’s get some people together for dinner instead. And later that month, in January 2014, with eight people around a table at Corinne’s Place in the Parkside neighborhood, the Camden Supper Club was born. As we start our fourth year of bringing people to dinner at restaurants all over the city, I sit here amazed that it’s become more popular than I could have ever imagined.
A lot of people would probably hear that there’s a dinner club in Camden, New Jersey, and wonder “why in the world would I want to have dinner in a city that’s been called the most dangerous in America?”, and that’s a fair question. Though the city’s murder rate in 2017 was the lowest in decades, it’s still a city with an above average amount of crime borne out of its seemingly intractable poverty. The answer from regional power brokers has been to incentivize private companies to relocate their headquarters in the city, bringing their employees and perhaps employing city residents in the process. You can see the grand plans for the waterfront coming to life right now, and other companies have received tax breaks to move in as well. But while these plans represent a huge transformation to the city, the benefit is abstract and long-term at best, if it materializes at all. After all, the city has bet on waterfront development in the past to little actual effect.
Exciting though it may be to dream about a gleaming future Camden, I’m more interested in looked for ways to support the city in my daily life as someone who lives close by and who believes a thriving Camden helps all of South Jersey. So when I thought about the idea of putting together a monthly event that combined my interest in exploring the city’s neighborhoods, my desire to eat at their varied restaurants, and to support their small businesses, it seemed like a perfect fit. Nothing brings people together like sharing a meal, especially if experiencing food you can’t get many other places is one of the main draws. It’s also great way to support local business in Camden today, and it leads to seeing the city as a real place with real people in it and not some grotesque caricature drawn up for suburbanite audiences in newspaper headlines.
To my admitted surprise and great delight, the dinners have been popular and generally well-attended. We mostly see crowds of between 15 and 25 people per event, with more people coming out for the more popular places (like Corinne’s Place for soul food or San Lucas for amazing Mexican food). The mostly-monthly events have been attended by a wide array of people, from those who work or study in the city to those who grew up there and want to see what it’s like today, or those who have an interest in Camden or who are just interested in having great food that isn’t quite like what you can get in the suburbs.
We’re still going strong in our fourth year, and with more restaurants planned for the city in the coming years, we’re hoping to have many dinner events in the future. If you’re interested in keeping up with the club and coming out to dinner with us, you can sign up at camdensupper.org and keep up with events on Facebook at facebook.com/camdensupper.