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Dinner Lab



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Photography Courtesy of Dinner Lab

The concept of the underground dinner party has been gaining traction with Americans in recent years, as more and more diners are attracted to speakeasy-style, sit-and-sup gatherings. Often competitive or pricy (or both), admission to these clandestine clubs offers guests a chance to taste new flavors and meet new people. The secrecy is exciting, too—you might not know where you’re heading for dinner until the day of.

But the idea of a more intimate eating experience has existed outside of the States for a long time. Some say that Hong Kong’s si fang cai, or private home restaurants, serve better food than customary restaurants; tourists in Cuba seek out paladares, meals at locals’ houses, for a more authentic dinner experience. The word paladar is Spanish or Portuguese for “palate,” and the focus is not on dish consistency or pleasing all diners—it’s on taste.

In the same tradition, many contemporary dinner gatherings in the U.S. offer access to incredible cuisine. Take Wolvesmouth, a raved-about dinner created by chef Craig Thornton in Los Angeles. Underscoring the importance of a holistic social dining experience, the wolvesmouth website describes each dinner as “the intersection between food, music and art.” Thornton, who’s been profiled by Forbes, The New Yorker, and other outlets since Wolvesmouth started to gain traction, once cooked a forty-course meal to celebrate a regular diner’s fortieth birthday; his carelessly artful plate composition would be at home on the walls of a modern gallery.

While food is, naturally, what first brings people to the table at underground dinner parties, social interaction is a close second. Dinner Lab, founded in New Orleans in 2011 by a group of friends, hosts twice-weekly five-course dinners in various eccentric locations—think deconsecrated churches and parking garages. CEO Brian Bordainick explains, “We operate on a twice-a-week calendar, which is a little bit more volume than most supper clubs choose to do, and we revolve the space and chef each time we do an event.” Just as Thornton is famous for never making a dish the same way twice, Dinner Lab strives to make each of its events a unique experience.

With an open bar present at many secret supper clubs, often offering cocktails to complement the night’s menu, even shy diners can loosen up a little. At a Dinner Lab event in June 2013, the evening began with formal introductions and stilted conversation, and ended with cell phone numbers being exchanged and new friends leaving in groups.

Dinner Lab launched its second society in Austin, Texas, last year, and brought its concept to Nashville, Tennessee this past summer. Asked what city is next on the list, Bordainick said the company isn’t sure, but “I like to think I hear the Northeast calling our name.”

Another take on the underground dinner concept is Hush Supper Club, a gathering hosted by semi-anonymous founder and cook Geeta in Washington, D.C. Hush, an Indian vegetarian feast that mostly follows the dietary principles of Jainism, combines dinner with storytelling. Geeta wants her guests to appreciate the origins of the food they’re eating, so she opens up her spice box and discusses recipes at each meal. A historian and public speaker, she also offers four signature talks centering on culinary, religious, and historical topics.

So what happens when, as with any great “underground” experience, chefs and dinner hosts encounter the problem of popularity? In the case of Wolvesmouth and Dinner Lab, email lists grow…and grow. Aspiring guests have waited years to attend a Wolvesmouth dinner.

Dinner Lab counters this issue by offering waitlist dinners once a month to those who have not yet received an invitation to join. CEO Bordainick explains that in addition to making sure the organization can effectively serve its existing members, restricting dinner lab membership also allows prospective diners to try out an event before they commit to a year-long membership. Wolvesmouth and Hush, which seat only 16 for each dinner and operate on a “donation” basis, also understand the importance of keeping events intimate.

Though most marketing for underground dinner clubs is guerilla-style—i.e. via word of mouth or friends on social media networks—a few new websites are aiming to change that. Feastly.com, a site founded by Danny Harris and Noah Karesh, connects chefs who want to host meals with diners interested in culinary adventures. The site plans to “democratize dining,” and currently serves nine U.S. cities.

If you’re dining internationally, try searching cities on gusta.com. This hub of “unique food events,” started by Airbnb alums Chris Collins and Carly Chamberlain, allows hosts to create and post anything from cooking classes and wine tastings to pop- up restaurants and local food tours. Chefs can set their own menu prices, and gusta takes a percentage.

Those who live in or around a metropolis are more likely to discover a supper club or secret restaurant, but don’t rule out small towns: because underground dinner clubs often work around local zoning and health codes, they can pop up anywhere, anytime. You never know where the next great meal will surface—unless, of course, you’re on the waitlist.

 

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