secret-suppers

I was 8 years old when I hosted my first dinner party. I invited my best friend, Caryn, and her sister over for dinner (on a school night, even!), and my mom and I slaved away making chili and homemade brownies. In the end it was not so much about the food—we had to order in pizza because the chili turned out to be too spicy for our childish palates—but more about the thrill of having people over. I still love a rousing dinner party, and so I was intrigued to learn about a trend making the rounds from London to Lima: underground supper clubs. These clubs—some call them guerrilla restaurants—usually meet in people’s homes, where cooking enthusiasts prepare and serve dinner to strangers in exchange for a small monetary contribution toward the meal. In Cuba, these meals are called paladares and have been a cottage industry for decades. In the United States they’ve become popular over the past few years, with clubs like California’s Ghetto Gourmet—started by foodie Jeremy Townsend—spawning chapters in New York and Chicago after he took it on tour around the country. This summer the trend has taken off like viral wildfire across Europe; Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine recently dubbed these places “21st-century speakeasies with foie gras instead of bootleg brandy.”

I attended my first supper club—it was a brunch, actually—on a sunny Sunday a few weeks ago. My hosts, flatmates Maya and Gregg, who have dubbed their club Bruncheon, welcomed me to their East London flat with a Bloody Mary. I sat down with five other guests at a picnic table decorated with simple wildflowers and balloons, and blurted out, “This feels a bit weird.” We all laughed, and the conversation—like the cocktails—flowed from there. We dined on fresh berries followed by delectable eggs Benedict (with salmon instead of ham) and buttery, warm homemade croissants. The cost? A recommended donation of £12 for the ingredients. “Underground restaurants are a brilliant niche,” a fellow diner, food blogger Les Wong, commented over coffee afterward. “And there are some bloody good cooks out there.” The global recession may have hastened the trend; in London, at least, supper clubs tend to be run by foodies who love to cook or chefs who are between jobs or keen to try out new recipes. Nuno Mendes, who trained at Spain’s famed El Bulli, is one such chef; for £115, he welcomes diners to a rented space with kitchen facilities to sample 15 courses of experimental and daring dishes like lamb-belly confit with razor clams.

What’s the allure of dining on food, however cheap, often prepared by un-proven chefs in unknown settings with unfamiliar tablemates? Ellie Grace, who along with her friend Rosie French runs Salad Club out of her South London flat, thinks it has to do with people feeling they are in on a secret. “I also think that in a hostile, anonymous city, to be able to come into someone’s house—to see what they have on their bookshelves and to get a feel for what kind of person they are—helps build a relationship with people who are cooking your food,” she says. The Shy Chef, an Irish expat who, along with his partner, runs a guerrilla restaurant from their flat in Berlin four nights a week, says it forces diners to interact and makes the meal much more than just about the food. “In a restaurant you can sit two feet away from someone and never say a word,” he says. “At a supper club you have to be friends for an evening. It’s convivial and guaranteed to be a different conversation than you would normally have over dinner.” But the food is certainly the main draw. The Shy Chef, who has served such dishes as vodka-marinated salmon with herbs and warm goat cheese and chorizo salad coupled with a Spanish Rioja, says he recently hosted a famous American writer—he won’t divulge the name—who e-mailed afterward to say it was the best meal he had during his entire European vacation.

One reason eating clubs have spread so rapidly is that they attract foodies who then figure they can turn around and do the same thing. The Shy Chef decided to start his own supper club after friends took him to the Hidden Kitchen guerrilla restaurant in Paris on his birthday two years ago. “Being shy, I was really nervous and could not believe I was going to be eating a meal with strangers,” he recalls. “But it turned out to be one of the best nights I ever had because it was unexpected in every way.”

Supper clubs also owe their success to the rise of social networking. Fans promote their favorite spots or chefs on Twitter or Facebook, and most clubs advertise their menus or next sittings on the Web. Sites like theghet.com (run by the Ghetto Gourmet) and -marmitelover.blogspot.com are good resources to find guerrilla restaurants across the globe. Personally, I’m hooked: I dined recently on duck and pistachio terrine and sea bass in a mussel sauce at the Saltoun Supper Club in South London. The food was fantastic—host Arno Maasdorp has worked in the food industry for 20 years—and the conversation enlightening. Now I’m contemplating opening my own. But I promise there’ll be no chili on the menu.