World's Best Secret Dining Clubs
“Look for the man learning How to Cook Everything. He will direct you to the location of the feast.” And so began a cloak-and-fork odyssey that ultimately led some 150 food lovers to a secret—and historic—culinary event in a vacated photographer’s loft in midtown Manhattan.
Put on by Undergrounds Unite, an umbrella moniker for five of the city’s most active private dining clubs, the happening was the first of its kind; never before had so many NYC clubs, or amateur chefs, come together for such an ambitious meal. More than 1,800 plates left the kitchen as part of an elaborate 12-course Thanksgiving-inspired dinner featuring dishes like turducken roulade with oyster-andouille stuffing. Curious food-geeks of all ages paid $125 for a seat at the table at the lively clandestine party, which lasted well past midnight. (The last course, a dark chocolate pistachio Linzer torte, arrived at 1:30 a.m.)
“I like having the chance to meet fun people who are passionate about food,” says Leah Moskowitz, a financial advisor in New York who attended the dinner. “The evening lived up to expectations.”
Whether it’s takeout fatigue or the allure of the illicit and new, food-obsessed diners around the world are seeking out these secret clubs, where strangers braise, sauté, and flambée for strangers, often illegally, for the sheer love of cooking. Some hobby chefs do it to test the restaurant waters before committing; others just like to entertain. Most club buzz happens by word of mouth, with access granted via secret passwords. Often, it’s trial by application. New York’s Studiofeast online membership form asks: “You’re about to die. What’s your last meal?”
Prices average $50 for a few courses, but can reach as high as $150 for more elaborate meals with wine pairings. While dinners are typically held in private homes, some are staged in galleries, garages, grocery stores, and fields, where makeshift kitchens with propane stovetops are as good as the cooking facilities get. Space, which is often tight, determines the size of the group and the chances of getting in.
“The reality is we don’t want to be exclusive, but we have to be because we only offer dinners a limited number of times per month to a limited number of guests,” says Becky (who prefers to go by her first name only), cofounder of the NYC-based club Homeslice West.
Jenn Garbee, whose book Secret Suppers was released in October, estimates that there are more than 100 such operations flying under the radar across the country—many in big cities, and a few in smaller urban centers like Austin, Charleston, and Portland, OR. Countless more have sprouted around the world—in suburban apartments in Vienna, Buenos Aires townhouses, and parking lots in Melbourne.
While today’s dining clubs take shape according to their founders’ vision and tastes, the basic phenomena is frequently compared to the experience of dining at paladares—small family-run restaurants (often in modest homes) across Cuba. Rarely advertised, they can be a challenge to find, lending to that underground feel. Back on American soil, Alice Waters is often credited with kick-starting the home dinner business. Before she opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971, Waters, using strictly local ingredients, fed fellow Free Speech activists dishes she’d learned how to make in France. “Alice’s Restaurant” evolved into the community-conscious, groundbreaking restaurant.
Cut from a similar (table) cloth, many club visionaries want to shake up their local food scene and support local farmers and purveyors while creating a new breed of dining alternatives. To this end, Travel + Leisure is dishing up a diverse selection of underground tables around the world. Efrain Cuevas, of Clandestino in Chicago, coordinates meals inspired by artists. In Italy, the Home Food network of “kitchen empresses” teach and cook regional dishes, like lasagna Bolognese in Emilia-Romagna, for small groups in their homes in hopes of sharing and preserving Italy’s culinary traditions.
The founders of Paris’s Hidden Kitchen had a less obvious motive when they accepted their first reservations: to meet people. The professional chefs from Seattle used their knife skills, and delicious market ingredients, to make new friends in a foreign city. Some 10,000 dinners later, their social circle could fill a small arrondissement.
After nearly a decade of sustained momentum, it appears dining clubs are more than a passing trend, which is good news for gastro-adventurers near and far. So, make a reservation today—if you know the password.
The Scene: Despite their demanding day jobs, Hannah Calvert and her business partner, Tasso, opened SUG in 2006 as a way to exorcise their deep desire to cook, entertain, and even matchmake. From their 1,500-person mailing list, they select 30 lucky diners to dine in a secret location—from flower-filled nurseries to stately private residences in Westlake Hills. “We get a huge amount of satisfaction out of welcoming a table full of often strangers and watching them mingle, become more comfortable with each other, and enjoy a great meal,” says Calvert.
Hot Plates: Butternut squash soup with spiced walnuts; grilled Niman Ranch New York strip steak with crispy polenta cake and blue cheese mushroom ragu; pear crisp with homemade cinnamon ice cream.
The Lowdown: $50–$70 for four-course dinner and cocktails; once a month; 30 guests.
The Scene: Supper club veteran and chef Efrain Cuevas (he did time with Ghetto Gourmet in Oakland) launched a new culinary club earlier this year; bimonthly Chicago-style locavore dinners are held in lofts and gardens within easy striking distance from the Loop. His favorite events, however, have a twist: collaborative meals with artists in their gallery or studio, like this fall’s Caribbean comfort food feast inspired by Puerto Rican painter Edra Soto.
Hot Plates: Deviled eggs with smoked mayonnaise; roast quail with carrot and plantain sofrito and yucca and turnip gratin; black walnut and apple tart with sweet potato ice cream.
The Lowdown: $50–$85; twice a month; 25–35 guests.
Home Food Italy
Home Food Italy
Bologna, plus 20 more cities and regions across Italy
The Scene: Home-cooked meals in Italy are a holy grail for any food-obsessed traveler, and thanks to Egeria Di Nallo, a sociology professor from Bologna, that elusive culinary quest is within reach. Since 2004, she’s anointed and galvanized an army of 100-plus cesarine, or “empresses of the kitchen,” to educate and cook for strangers in their homes—as well as at museums, castles, and delightfully decrepit farms—from Veneto to Sicily. The hands-on cultural organization prides itself on preserving traditions, so it’s not unusual for guests in, say, Piedmont to get a history lesson about the region’s white truffles, while their hostess perfumes the air with gossamer shavings.
Hot Plates: Nettle tagliatelle with ragu; roasted veal; flanlike “latte imperiale.” The Lowdown: $60 average, $5 membership fee; frequency varies depending on the cesarine; 6–8 guests.
Plate & Pitchfork
The Scene: During peak summer months since 2003, founders Erika Polmar and Emily Berreth have held a series of dinners at working farms within striking distance of Portland. Chefs, many of whom hail from Portland’s top restaurants, set up makeshift kitchens amid the crops. After a tour and tasting with a local Willamette Valley winemaker (think spicy Pinot Noirs from Argyle), guests sit down to long banquet tables adorned with meadow flowers for a parade of family-style dishes made from the freshest ingredients, like zesty salads featuring just-picked tomatoes from surrounding vines.
Hot Plates: Peach-tarragon soup; grilled lamb with a tomato-cinnamon sauce; warm Gravenstein apple crisp with crème fraîche.
The Lowdown: $90–$150; three dinners per week, July and August only; 100 guests.
The Scene: One of the early dining clubs on the NYC scene, this five-year-old self-proclaimed “culinary speakeasy” is still smoking—thanks in large part to its warm and talented hosts: southerners Becky (from Florida) and Hayden (from North Carolina). The duo churn out unabashedly rich dishes from Kentucky to Louisiana for diverse crowds that are anything but calorie-phobic. One of their roving underground dinners was even held in a five-story Chinatown walk-up, with no buzzer. Considering their crowd-pleasers, like mac and cheese, a few extra steps are probably a good thing.
Hot Plates: Buttermilk biscuits; Carolina crab cakes with sweet corn orzo; chocolate bourbon cake with honey pecan sauce.
The Lowdown: $40–$50; once a month; 20–30 guests.
Aronia de Takazawa
The Scene: In Tokyo’s Akasaka district behind an unmarked door, whose only “sign” is engraved on the door handle, is one of the world’s smallest fine restaurants—with only two tables. From his post in his open pop-up-size stainless-steel kitchen, master chef-owner Yoshiaki Takazawa, with the help of his wife, Akiko, choreographs near-private sensorial feasts that are part Japanese tea ceremony, part edible art experiment. Unrelenting tenacity and patience are required in pursuit of a reservation. If you don’t succeed, try again—and then be prepared to wait six months for dinner.
Hot Plates: Foie gras crème brûlée with mango; smoked Ezo venison; curry ice cream.
The Lowdown: $220 for 10-course meal; serves approximately 20 dinners a month; 2–6 guests per sitting.
Cook Here and Now
The Scene: This two-year-old culinary experiment in communal dining brings hungry like-minded diners together, leaving a feel-good glow in each dinner’s wake. Founder and Rome native Marco Flavio Marinucci announces upcoming meals (and their sustainable themes) on his blog, inviting friends and strangers to cook using local ingredients, eat, and clean up together. “The most important part of the experience is the interaction we have with others, not the food,” says Flavio.
Hot Plates: Wood-fired pizza with Anjou pears, Gorgonzola, and thyme; sushi made with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch List in mind; dishes featuring ultraseasonal farmers’ market finds, like kabocha squash.
The Lowdown: Free; once a month; up to 45 guests.
The Scene: In steak-mad B.A., a fish- and veggie-focused supper club is a welcome dining option—even better that it’s in the cozy Chacarita neighborhood home of a 33-year-old vegan-leaning chef, Diego Felix, who enchants visitors with indigenous South American ingredients. He and his American girlfriend, Sanra, cook together, sometimes even inviting guests to pitch in. This is a convivial spot to sample new flavors—traditional dishes, Argentine wines, and especially local herbs, like minty peperina, which Felix grows in his own garden.
Hot Plates: Halibut ceviche, traditional Paraguayan corn cakes; avocado and lime pie.
The Lowdown: $35 for five-course meal; weekend nights; 12 guests.
The Scene: Opened in 2007 in a residential Vienna neighborhood near Schönbrunn Castle, this hidden private home restaurant is a dream realized for self-trained chef Angelika Apfelthaler. As with so many dining clubs, her kitchen is open, and conversation over steaming pots is encouraged. While Austrian flavors make guest appearances, Apfelthaler’s menus, which gallivant from Tuscany to Morocco, are mostly Mediterranean. Guests are bound to feel like one of the family in this warm Austrian home—especially when Gino, the resident golden retriever, steals your dinner roll.
Hot Plates: Goat cheese tart with caramelized figs and lavender salt; sea bass filet en papillote with saffron-sherry glace; almond-rosewater pie.
The Lowdown: $60 for five courses; call or e-mail for schedule; 12 guests.