Underground Dining is a trend that is likely to be with us for a while. It comes in many flavors and is not subterranean. It can however, take place out in a field or on a farm. What is it exactly? What are some examples of how it's taking form? How to find out more?
Underground Supper Clubs
These began several years ago in or near major metropolitan cities. Sometimes a chef in between restaurants would get together and host a meal in a loft or a warehouse. Invites would be by some secret websites or phone numbers. Often there are passwords or scavenger hunts or similar mechanisms to throw authorities off and to provide some screen. Sometimes one has to be invited by a member. Often it gives chefs who don't own their own restaurant a chance to show what they might do if the menu were under their control. Maybe they want to experiment with farm to table sourcing or whole pig roasts. Maybe they really want to show off their Vietnamese culinary prowess but they're stuck working in an Italian restaurant.
What are the drawbacks?
Some offer their concerns that there are not proper health and safety inspections. As if this system really works? Remember the mouse eating a pizza ON THE TABLE at a Beacon Hill joint? Others protest that these off-the-grid dinners will put restaurant chefs out of business. I think their angst is misdirected.
Restaurants are suffering for a host of reasons but it's a stretch to say they're losing business because of underground dining. Maybe it's, um, the economy? Unemployment? These things tend to make it hard for people to spend hundreds of dollars on one night out. Even Mistral and Oringer's KO Prime are getting creative with small plates and freebies to get people into their restaurants - and they were two cited in the Boston Globe exposé on the health code violations and the lack of reliable inspection services.
When the so called underground dining events popped up, it was actually during a more robust economy, and yes, people raised the concerns over lack of inspectional services. That was years ago and they are still thriving. Today, it's more about value (these dinners typically run about half the cost of typical restaurant meals by many estimates) and it's also about finding new and creative chefs, sourcing local ingredients and creating a dining out experience that's more warm and communal than a white table cloth restaurant.
Quite often the wine is BYO with a corkage fee. Sometimes the wine or cocktails are offered with the menu.
It can be a new way to meet people who share your interest in food. Usually tables are communal and some common friend or acquaintance enabled the introduction.
Creative chefs doing their own thing - outside of standard brick and mortar restaurants
JJ Gonson is a Best of Boston winner, a personal chef and and a chef instructor around town and on the web. She's also a semi-famous photographer.
She also hosts occasional dinners that are an example of the flexibility that such arrangements offer. She calls them "O.N.C.E." One Night Culinary Events.
1st seating is for families 5-6 PM. Family buffet for a quick, post playdate, Sunday evening dinner planned for a school night.
All ages are are welcome, adults eat for $20 each. Kids eat for free, and the food will be ready when you get there.
- Cuisine en Locale macaroni and cheese- one of our signature family dishes, made from scratch with local cheddar and other cheeses
- The vegetable you have to eat at least four bites of, which is pretty hardcore right now, and might very well be kale, sorry, but it's good for you, so eat it, please.
- A yellow vegetable. Sweet potatoes whipped with local creme fraîche and Vermont maple syrup. Now that's not so bad.
- Gruffalo crumble- our seasonal crumble is made with apples, cranberries and seasonally frozen rhubarb at this time of year. As ever it is spiced with candied ginger and cardamom. Right now we are serving it with our favorite local ice cream: Shaw's Dairy Vanilla. Perfection!
Reservations are a must, please consider coming with a group of friends, we will make enough to go around.
2nd seating is at 7-10 pm (and beyond). Described as a "slow rollout of many courses," it includes seasonal food and mostly local food. Charcuterie, lobster ravioli, rack of lamb. Looks like a wonderful menu. $50 per person.
- Homemade and local charcuterie. Pâtés she's been making inspired by her trip to France.
- Meat pies - think London Pub in the '70s, "Shandy optional."
- Lobster raviolis with vanilla butternut puree.
- Fresh local microgreen salad.
- Rack of Lamb crusted with pistachios and Dijon. Served with sumac roasted Jerusalem artichokes.
- Local Vermont cheeses.
- Homemade ice cream, pastries.
Ever the thoughtful host, she'll even ensure that food is packed to go for those who are not into lingering. For those who are, well, maybe you should bring an extra bottle of wine?
Go to Gonson's site to rsvp and pay (via PayPal or check.)
Cleetus Friedman - Outstanding in the Field, or at the Farm
From the type of suburb in Baltimore where good Jewish boys all grew up to be doctors or lawyers, Friedman cut his own path. When his parents split, he spent more time with his grandmother and both she and his mother were consummate home cooks and entertainers. He discovered hip hop and found his calling. But it was not to be. Touring with an Improv Group and performing in one man shows like "White Like Me" and "Cracker" (see, Crackers Three for my spin) Friedman was making ends meet as so many artists do, by waiting tables. But he'd also been introduced to the kitchen and soon he was working banquets, he was learning front of the house, training employees, developing a catering business for another restaurant. All the while he was coming to the realization that he did not love the life of a starving artist, but he did love working in the culinary world.
His love of organics and clean, simple, local food was growing as was his restlessness to figure out his next step. At a catering event a local farmer gave him samples of her beef and it became a catalyst that clarified his emerging vision. City Provisions was born shortly after that meeting and his relationships with local farmers has grown through introductions and hard work. He understands the components that make an event successful and a catering business successful. It's telling that nearly all of his employees have been with him from the very beginning. They must share his enthusiasm and passion for giving the customer a great experience and for the organic, local vision of the company.
From recycling of fryer oil to sending organic food scraps directly to his pig farmer, he tries to "green" City Provisions at every turn. I discovered his unique catering company while researching sustainable and organic cocktail options (see, Sustainability and the Cocktail Hour.) Friedman shared his Sustainable Vodka Mac and Cheese recipe as well as the story of how he discovered Death's Door spirits. Seems it was through the grapevine at the green market. Relationships can grow organically, too.
Related alternative dining articles:
- Montreal's O.Noir Restaurant a leader in Dark Dining. They say we eat first with the eyes, but what if we were blind, or blind folded?
- Head to Tail Eating - dinner with a leader in the movement to utilize the whole animal. A revelation.