Last week, I received half a dozen emails from various supper clubs I’d signed up for the mailing lists of. Each dinner sounded more delectable than the one before: roasted local grass-fed goat loin chops with farro-spinach salad and sweet onion soubise, kombu cured fluke with yuzu, brown butter, wakame and preserved nori, a dinner with a puppetry theatre accompaniment, an Argentinian asado of grilled offal, a backyard barbecue of grilled flank steak with chimicurri and chorizo. And the list goes on.
You see, every supper club, in New York City at least, has their own flavor. Or every dinner they hold — and this is key, that they’re so occasional — has their very own pomp and circumstance. What in the world is a supper club? you might be asking. Well, it can be as formal as the ones I receive bi-weekly dinner announcements from. A team of well-organized chefs and servers who host dinner parties out of someone’s home kitchen. But really, if you don’t want to run a committed club, all it takes is a home chef with wiles to spare.
I’m going to strip the veneer off of “underground supperclubs” for a moment to bring it back to a more earthy level. Who hasn’t attended or thrown an all-too elaborate dinner party in one of their friends’ homes? With a resident playing chef de cuisine for the evening, and a room full of guests, some already friendly, some separated by a few degrees, and some total strangers? I have a hunch that that’s exactly how most of today’s supper clubs began. Often, the Brooklyn bunch that I speak are held in loft apartments with big, open-kitchen spaces. The kind of space that makes one wonder, why am I paying $7 for a drink and $20 for dinner to be squashed in between multiple chairs at the trendy restaurant down the street?
Loft living situations may have revolutionized domestic culture some, or for a certain set of spendthrifty, yet socialable young people. And supper clubs are an offshoot of that communal living spirit to some extent. But even if you don’t own a very large kitchen, or living space, a frequent dinner party host at heart is sure to happen in one of every, oh, eight of us. I certainly had a fun run of holding a few monthly dinners at a friend’s home over the winter, in which we each chose two or three friends to invite over who hadn’t met each other before, and let everyone mingle over our food. I don’t know if I would call it a supper club or an unqualified ego trip over our cooking capabilities, but I sure enjoyed it when others stepped up to the stove to participate in the cooking process (which I often winged from a few random thoughts during the day).
Supper clubs, at-home speakeasies, underground restaurants or whatever you want to call them, have always had an aura of mystery surrounding them. Okay, it’s illegal to charge people for food that you’re cooking out of your home, unless it’s been inspected by the city/gotten its proper permits. That’s why most supper clubs call their dinner prices “contributions,” and operate on a somewhat hush-hush level (email dinner announcements only, dinners only when announced). For me, that mystery has long since worn off. Not that I don’t fully enjoy getting worked up in finding out the location of the dinner a day before it takes place, but the bare fact is that there are so many people doing it, and doing it well, that it’s almost like going out to a restaurant to eat. For me.
In the past two years of not eating out — strictly speaking — I avidly sought out these supper clubs. As luck would have it, more kept cropping up as my journey went on. In total, I’ve dined at or cooked with or hung out with the renegade cooks at A Razor, A Shiny Knife, Whisk & Ladle, Ted & Amy’s, Peerless Platters, Studiofeast, Gastronauts, SocialEats, One Big Table, Underground Food Collective, and Humunculus Eat-Easy; and soon plan on sitting at the tables of Sunday Night Dinner, and Brooklyn Edible Social Club. Are those the only ones I’m missing? I highly doubt it.
More and more supper clubs seem to be cropping up these days than ever. I’m not going to blame solely the recession, which has gotten many folks back into their kitchens (or their friends’), or to their gardens more frequently. Some of these supper clubs run comparable prices to that of a prix-fixe restaurant dinner. But what they have in social prowess is second to none: at a restaurant, you’re not supposed to talk to the other people in the room, unless you want to be that crazy yet typical New Yorker who also sings opera on the bus. At a supper club dinner, you’re automatically geared to chat with your fellow guests, who are, too, even though they may have zero ties to the host or hostess, or to you (as at a regular home dinner party).
For anyone uninitiated to this unique bridge between restaurant and home dining (which I’ll call home, still, since that’s where they’re held, and the chefs for the most part are untrained enthusiasts — like me!), I wonder if you aren’t tickled to give them a chance. For a first-timer perspective, Katherine Goldstein (who I might add I sat across from at the latest One Big Table dinner) wrote a lovely recap of her first underground dinner for The Huffington Post.
Then, if you want to check out what’s going on behind the scenes, and before the dinner, Food2 recently launched the first few episodes from their series on a certain Brooklyn supper club, called Kitchen Confidential. It’s starring some very familiar, good-looking faces, and I’m so proud of the project and their keeping it real by still holding dinners over the four or so years they’ve been operating (okay, it’s Whisk & Ladle supper club!) on a pretty regular basis, despite the show.
I’m sure there’s plenty more to be said about supper clubs, and as more surface, plenty more innovations to be had in that realm. In the meantime, I wonder if someone won’t snatch up the idea of creating a site sort of like MenuPages to navigate through them all. Would make my life much easier!