Underground “Guestaurants”

Underground “Guestaurants”

Although there are a plethora of restaurants these days, make room for yet another genre in dining out where cooking enthusiasts and chefs open up their homes or rent a space and cook for strangers. They mostly operate under the radar to avoid the scrutiny of local health officials. Sometimes referred to as underground restaurants, supper clubs, pop-up restaurants, long-table dining or “guestaurants,” these eating venues were popularized in Britain in the 1930s.

In Cuba they are called paladares and they first became popular in 1990s, providing many underemployed Cubans with a way to make money. Today the movement has expanded into Argentina, Europe, and more recently Canada and the United States.

Finding an underground supper club can be a challenge. Luckily, it has all been made easier by two former U.S. Department of Defense engineers, Dave Gunnoe and Matt Canterbury, who created a website called Soupnextdoor.com. They charge a commission for matching up chefs and diners, but they vet their chefs personally and make each dinner a social networking experience, using venues like Facebook to connect participants before and after an event. (Natural Health Magazine readers can get 10 percent off a meal for the next month with code NH10OFF until April 1, 2012. Sign up online at www.soupnextdoor.com.)

Guestaurant.com is a U.K. website with a broader mission. It lists and writes about social/foodie events and cooking classes, wine tastings, and culinary excursions in the U.K and Canada. According to Bronwen Vienna, Guestaurant’s director of community and new markets, their growing popularity is due to people looking for a better value for their hard earned cash and looking for ‘an evening’ or ‘an experience’ rather than just a meal.

I sampled two dinners recently. The first was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, prepared by a gourmet vegan/raw food chef, Matteo Silverman, who has been operating a home restaurant since 2003. Located at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, it is so ‘underground’ that it’s hard to locate. It took a flurry of phone calls and several wrong turns before I discovered the unmarked door of 4CourseVegan. The loft contains four community tables. When I arrived, Chef Silverman was prepping in a small but efficient kitchen. People were already seated and drinking their BYOB. Jars of water were set on tables. An amuse-bouche of raw turnip ravioli filled with a macadamia nut butter was followed by four courses including dessert for $40 per person. There were no substitutions. A printed sheet at each setting listed the evening repast. Organic dog treats and candies were offered for sale. The crowd seemed to be under 35 and divided somewhat evenly between couples and singles. Socializing in the space was challenging due to the poor acoustics. The evening was strangely lacking in conviviality and I was still somewhat hungry when I left. I noticed some people at my table were quietly given seconds compliments of the chef.

The following week I attended a dinner at Worth Kitchen in the fashionable Nolita neighborhood in Manhattan. The site was a former school which functions as a funky furniture showroom by day and a culinary salon called City Grit by night. The evening was hosted by Felipe and Tamy Donnelly, a charming Latin American couple who both work in advertising and hope to open a more traditional restaurant in the next few months. I was offered a glass of wine upon entering and guests mingled in small groups. Presently we were called into an adjoining room set up in similar fashion to the Williamsburg dinner, with closely packed community tables. Acoustics were poor. There were close to 50 diners, many from the advertising world, there to support the Donnellys and to enjoy a good time. Waiters were friendly and efficient and inquired about food allergies or diet preferences. There were vegetarian and omnivore choices. The food was bountiful, with five Latin courses made from local produce, grass-fed pulled beef, and naturally raised duck breast. Dessert was Mexican treats made by pastry chef Fany Gerson.

When I was in Los Angeles recently I had the opportunity to sample some spectacular food prepared by Craig Thornton of wolvesmouth.com. Chef Thornton is a sometimes caterer but mostly an underground supper club chef. He hosts dinners for no more than a handful of guests in his beautiful loft space furnished with expensive furniture and tableware. He has a reported mailing list of more than 1,000 subscribers and people clamor for an invite to one of his 10-course dinners that go on for hours. The dining table is a mere 5 feet from his open kitchen and he encourages people to talk to him while he prepares the repast. His take on this movement? It’s simply this: “People are not sitting at the table texting their friends—they come wanting to experience a social experience that every day we get further and further away from.”

If you are thinking of sampling one of these venues yourself, you might want to take Donnelly’s advice, “Always expect the unexpected, and the more open you are, the better time you will have.”

To your health!

Sites:
www.soupnextdoor.com (New York and soon Chicago)
www.citygritnyc.com (New York)
www.guestaurant.com (U.K. and Canada)
www.worthkitchen.com (New York)
www.grubwithus.com (Chicago)
thesocialfeed.com (Canada)
www.wolvesmouth.com (Los Angeles)