By: Ariana Speyer
Welcome to the era of the underground supper club, a kind of professional dinner party masterminded by a talented (and often amateur) chef bringing together a group of strangers, usually in a private home. Long common in Hong Kong and Cuba, a few started bubbling to the surface in the U.S. around 2001 and now they are sprouting up worldwide. These “culinary speakeasies,” which operate without licenses or inspections (partially explaining their aura of secrecy), turn out unique—and often transporting—dining experiences. For the food lover, they’re a welcome alternative to the overblown restaurant scene. For the traveler, they’re a way to explore a new city by breaking bread with the locals. We’ve culled a few impressive examples, both pioneers and up-and-comers, and will tell you how to get a seat at the table.
The Roving Party
For Hannah Calvert, it’s all about “being at a table with 30 people you’ve never met and connecting in lots of different ways.” After reading about supper club pioneer Michael Hebberoy (see Seattle), Calvert became inspired to start Supper Underground in 2006. Since then, she’s organized popular monthly dinners all over the Austin area, mostly at private homes, but she’s also been known to partner with local restaurants, such as the barbecue favorite, Lamberts.
Calvert and her crew have honed their four-course meals (they’ve offered everything from heirloom-tomato gazpacho to Earl Grey–infused chocolate mousse served in espresso cups) to a creative science, with a slant toward fish and away from gluten. Great food is clearly key, but it always comes back to the guests, according to Calvert: “It’s a totally different experience than eating at a local restaurant and looking at your fellow patrons, wondering what their lives in Austin are like. With Supper Underground, you get to meet those people and learn firsthand.”
The Lowdown: $60–$65; 1–2 times per month; appetizers and drinks before dinner; 4 courses with wine; supperunderground.com
The Americans in Paris
It takes gumption to set up culinary shop in a place like Paris, especially with no formal training, but that’s exactly what Braden Perkins and Laura Adrian did in June 2007. At first they thought they’d be serving simple American food to an ex-pat community, but they soon found that the diversity and quantity of their guests called for an elegant, 10-course tasting menu on Saturdays and Sundays. Depending on the season, you might find short ribs over mascarpone-enriched grits or New Orleans–style gumbo served with a crab cake. They’ve so impressed the locals that a Le Cordon Bleu student recently volunteered as an intern.
The Lowdown: $110; twice weekly; 10-course tasting menu with seven wine pairings, an aperitif, and espresso; hkmenus.com
Dinner in a Chef’s House
Unlike many underground restaurateurs, Diego Felix is a professional chef, but he says his aim isn’t to create “the best thing you’ve ever tasted, but things you’ve never tasted before.” At the home he shares with his girlfriend in the Chacarita district, Felix serves pescetarian dinners that draw on indigenous South American herbs and produce rarely used in Eurocentric Argentine cooking. “We’re trying to find unique flavors that are organic and sustainable,” he explains. He cites his time in the kitchen at the vegan restaurant Millennium in San Francisco and chef Alice Waters as inspirations for creating a distinctly local cuisine.
Three nights a week Felix welcomes 12 people for a five-course meal. His vegetable-rich dishes, such as grilled oyster mushrooms in a Bolivian lemon-and-burrito (an indigenous herb, not to be confused with the Mexican wrap) sauce, might be considered a tonic in this steak-crazed capital city. But it’s not just Felix’s guests who benefit: “I really enjoy the freedom of cooking in my house,” he explains. “Sometimes people even help me in the kitchen.”
The Lowdown: $32; Thurs–Sat; 5 courses with a welcome drink; bring your own wine or choose from Felix’s selection for an extra fee; diegofelix.com
The Hidden Kitchen
The Virtuoso Home Cooks
Dennis and Mary Kercher, who run The Hidden Kitchen out of their home (no relation to the Hidden Kitchen in Paris), got inspired after visiting the Ghetto Gourmet in Oakland. They served their first dinner in 2006 and, thanks to great word of mouth, have been trying to keep up with demand ever since.
Though not professionally trained, Dennis comes from a family of bakers and has long been a student of Italian cuisine. “Good food, where someone’s really putting their heart and soul into it, is what people are attracted to,” he says. He’s inspired by California’s bounty and seasons, evident through his Meyer lemon–themed recipes (like lemon pound cake with creamy lemon curd and strawberry jus) in the winter and all-grilled dinners (including peaches for dessert) in the summer.
The Lowdown: Approx. $60; monthly; 5 courses, bring your own wine; thehiddenkitchen.net
The Conceptual Artist
Michael Hebberoy is widely considered the founder of the U.S. supper club movement, having started Portland-based Family Supper in 2001. After a wildly successful run in the straight restaurant business—and an infamous crash and burn—he returned to his underground roots with One Pot, a spate of projects he organizes out of Seattle. The first dinner, in 2006, was a kind of modern-day symposium with Gore Vidal. These days, he curates series such as One Pot Goes International, on the politics of coffee production. “When I started,” Hebberoy explains, “I was looking around the food world and realized that, whether it’s a Chinese restaurant or a fancy place, it’s a simple exchange of feeding people and taking their money. I want to completely challenge that.”
The Lowdown: Schedule, menu, price vary; onepot.org
After organizing something like 300 events and serving 7,000 guests around the country since he started in his Oakland basement in 2004, Jeremy Townsend has become an unlikely impresario and his Ghetto Gourmet a juggernaut of an operation. In 2006, Townsend started taking Ghetto Gourmet on tour to Florida, New York, and Southern California, among other places, producing dinners in volunteered homes with top-notch or promising local chefs. In addition to innovative menus, Ghetto Gourmet is also known for incorporating comedians and musicians into events, along with Townsend himself, a poet, who runs the show.
The Lowdown: Approx. $50; schedule varies; 4–5 courses, bring your own wine; theghet.com
Whisk & Ladle
Brooklyn Loft Bohemia
One wouldn’t imagine that four people living together in a big Brooklyn loft and hosting dinner parties for 25 guests would be a blueprint for roommate bliss, but it works for Mark, Danielle, Nick, and Nora (who prefer to remain slightly anonymous). Maybe that’s because they each have different specialties—from professional bartending to pastry-making and they all enjoy serving unusual ingredients, like bear and python. To these four, the concept of the underground supper club is itself a recipe for success. “It’s incredible, once you bring people together, how effortless it is to entertain them,” Mark says. “Social circles that would never normally meet cross each other here.”
Since the group started at their current location in 2006, an array of guests has enjoyed their adventurous five-course meals, including curious local chefs who want to see what these gifted amateurs are up to.
The Lowdown: Approx. $40–$50; twice monthly; pre-dinner cocktails; 3–4 courses with wine pairings; thewhiskandladle.com
How to Reserve
Each club has its own policies, but in most cases, you sign up to receive email notices of events; you email back if you want to attend; spots are given out on a first-come, first-serve basis, often along with address info. Alert a club in advance if you’re coming from out of town—most give special consideration to travelers.
Supper clubs occupy a gray legal area, usually operating as private dinner parties (not official, licensed businesses) that ask for “suggested donations.” These sometimes quixotic labors of love don’t have complaint departments (or sometimes, even matching silverware). As with any under-the-radar enterprise, do some Web research to gauge recent guest feedback, and determine the donation amount and payment method in advance.
The Freshman Girl Cocktail
Whisk & Ladle
2 oz. Strawberry-infused tequila
1 oz Frangelico
1 oz. Orange Juice
Pour all ingredients together in glass over ice and shake once to mix. Garnish with orange slice and strawberry slice.
For the Strawberry-Infused Tequila
Take two cups of sliced strawberries and let sit in white tequila for 24 hours. Strain out strawberries and seeds and add another two cup of sliced strawberries to the tequila. And let sit for another 24 hours. It's also a good idea to add another cup of tequila to the mix to replace any tequila lost in the infusion. Strain out strawberries and serve.
The Riverside Cocktail
Whisk & Ladle
1/2 tbsp. fresh lavender
1/2 cup honey
2 cups water
Heat the honey and water mixture on the stove at very low heat, add lavender, turn off stove and let sit one hour, pull lavender out of honey mixture and bottle mixture.
Shake the gin in shaker with ice, add honey mixture, reshake, pour, and garnish with a lemon rind.
Friend of a Friend Cocktail
Whisk & Ladle
1 liter Jameson Irish Whiskey
8 green apples, sliced
1/2 red onion, sliced
12 oz. apple cider
Pour the Jameson into a large mixing bowl. Soak slices of 4 apples in the Jameson for 8 hours; repeat with another 4 apples for 8 to 12 hours.
Strain out apples. Place a red onion at the bottom of each glass and add ice and remaining Jameson. Top with a splash of cider. Garnish with a fresh apple slice. Use soaked apples as highly intoxicating bar snacks. Serves 10.
Crema di Limoncello Digestif
The Hidden Kitchen
Limoncello is the quintessential Amalfi Coast digestivo. The Hidden Kitchen prepares it two ways, using the Meyer lemons that are prolific in their Land Park neighborhood. The Meyer lemon has a significantly thinner skin than its cousin, the Eureka lemon, and leaves a fragrant bouquet on the palette.
Prepare the Alcohol
Zest 15 lemons with a micro planer and let sit in a jar with a 750 ml bottle of Everclear Grain Alcohol for 3 weeks. Strain off through a cheese cloth. If you don’t have Meyer lemons Eureka works as well.
For Limoncello alla Meyer Limone:
Heat 3 1⁄2 cups of water with 2 1⁄2 cups of sugar until dissolved. Cool to room temperature. Mix in flavored alcohol. Bottle and store in the freezer until 15 minutes before serving. Best served ice cold.
For Crema di Limoncello:
Heat 2 quarts milk with 1,200 grams of sugar (you can also use 1⁄2 cup of vanilla sugar as part of the total) to 125 degrees, mixing well. Cool in refrigerator. Mix in flavored alcohol. Bottle and store in the freezer until 15 minutes before serving. Best served ice cold.