Underground Restaurants & Dining Places started by Underground Chefs

CulinaryEd Columnist
May 19, 2011

The world has become fascinated with today's celebrity chefs who boast top culinary educations and own mega-popular restaurants. Two quieter culinary trends, however, are focusing on just the opposite. A growing number of "underground restaurants" and "wandering supperclubs," held anywhere from crowded living rooms or two-car garages, to public spaces like bars and art galleries, are popping up in urban centers across America. These fringe eateries allow budding chefs and would-be restaurateurs to gain notoriety and to jumpstart their culinary careers.

Underground restaurants often are started by cooking school graduates who are dissatisfied with the modern restaurant scene or who can't afford to start up a licensed restaurant. Some chefs who spent their culinary careers in restaurants cite dissatisfaction with the impersonality of cooking in corporate kitchens. They say they'd rather know and interact with the people who eat their food. Other organizers love the artistic quality of staging a meal in unconventional settings.

The restaurants usually begin with the chef inviting friends and cooking school classmates or restaurant colleagues to his or her house for a gourmet dinner. The food is excellent, as the chef usually has a traditional culinary education and sometimes years of restaurant experience. Typically the guests are so impressed that they tell their friends, and invite them to come along to the next dinner. Chefs begin e-mail lists, which in some cases grow to thousands of members in a matter of months.

Hard to Pin Down

Since chefs use these underground restaurants to explore ideas beyond the traditional culinary school degree, you can never know what to expect next. Some restaurants open at the whim of the chefs, who stage a meal when inspiration strikes. "Wandering supperclubs," one type of underground restaurant, move around frequently to avoid detection by overzealous code enforcement officials. Most underground restaurant invitations happen by e-mail, on short notice.

The Premium Casual Dining Experience

The food and atmospheres of underground restaurants are much different than what you'd find at a traditional eatery. "Foodies" that crave personal attention from a celebrity chef with a celebrated culinary career might not feel so comfortable noshing with a few dozen fellow diners on the floor of a museum or on a farm pasture. Underground restaurant organizers, like Ghetto Gourmet in California, advise potential guests to expect a casual, fun, artistic event--not a four-star, white tablecloth experience.

At a recent Ghetto Gourmet dinner, 40 guests sat on floor cushions on either side of two long tables inside San Francisco's Varnish Fine Art Bar. The founder and host of the evening, Jeremy Townsend, cracked jokes and announced the evening's entertainment -- a comedian and two solo musicians -- while a volunteer staff served plates of cold soba noodles with sage and honeydew. Four hours and three courses later the guests said goodnight to their new friends, chose to sign or not sign the entertainers' email lists, and headed home. To some first timers it was "fantastic," to others "interesting," and to others still "a good concept, but not without flaws." All guests agreed that it was a unique way to spend an evening.

Underground restaurants allow cooks who've spent years earning a culinary school degree and cooking at restaurants to suddenly cook whatever they want. Some chefs change the menu every time the moveable bistro roves to a new location. Guests enjoy the secrecy of underground dining and an atmosphere that's different from typical restaurants. One underground restaurant in California drew 95 people to a dinner served in a field one night, so the owners began serving by reservation only.


Shrouded in Secrecy

The proprietors of most underground restaurants gained experience from culinary careers, so they know what they're doing is illegal. Cities require restaurants to have permits and undergo sanitation inspections. Some cooking school textbooks report that compliance can cost several hundred thousand dollars. Without the profits to afford those costs, the restaurant goes underground. Even without permits, chefs use their culinary education to ensure food safety which causes diners to trust them enough to brave unusual conditions. Despite the legal risk, some chefs say that operating these rogue restaurants is the most satisfying experiences of their culinary careers.

Always an Unexpected Treat, Although Sometimes at a Cost

Most underground restaurants are cash only, as owners need to fly under the radar. Calling the cost a "donation" is one way to avoid potential legal implications. Most chefs charge (or "suggest an appropriate donation") of between $20 and $55 for the meal. Drinks are not usually included, and guests are typically advised to either BYOB, make additional donations, or, as was the case at Varnish Art Bar, to purchase drinks from the venue.

Because underground restaurants can't legally charge for meals, much like experimental restaurants at cooking schools, donations are important to their survival and growth. In many states, serving food in exchange for money at an unlicensed restaurant is a crime that can damage a chef's culinary career. Instead, organizers carefully stage underground restaurants as artistic events at which food happens to be served for invited guests.

How to Get Invited

Here are some ways to find and get an invite to an underground restaurant:

  • Ask a chef or restaurant worker if he or she knows of any underground supper clubs.
  • Ask fellow foodies if they know the inside scoop.
  • Check Web logs (blogs) of students at local culinary schools.
  • Ask a taxi driver about underground restaurants in a city.

As more Americans look for transcendent, unique experiences, expect to see more underground restaurants popping up across the country, especially in cities that boast active culinary schools. As long as diners want to explore new tastes in unusual locations, cooking school graduates and entrepreneurs will be happy to oblige.

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