V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer

Under-the-table dining

Published in The Globe and Mail, February, 2010.

Inside an exclusive secret held deep within the city's culinary underworld

They're an exclusive secret held deep within the city's culinary underworld. Gastronomic speakeasies, or underground restaurants, are deliciously clandestine affairs known only among foodie elites and local celebrity chefs.

For the uninvited, participation might mean rustling up a reference, or even writing a personal essay.

Vivian Song speaks to a few underground supper-club proprietors who offered tips on scoring invites and proper etiquette at these covert events. So if you ever do break bread with these precious few, just remember: Stick to the menu.

HOUSE OF COMMONS

The pitch

Intimate, farmhouse-style dining set around a large harvest table. Celebrity chefs prepare rib-sticking, gourmet meals using locally sourced ingredients. Starving-artist friendly.

Admission Policy

Unlike the other underground supper clubs, you won't find the H of C in a Google search all guests are referrals. To gain entry, diners may be instructed to whisper a secret password to a shadowy gatekeeper. To find this elusive spot, the anonymous H of C "hostess" suggests hitting up fellow foodies and chefs in the know.

Guest list

The Hostess describes her patrons as adventurous diners looking for new experiences and perhaps a bit of the avant-garde. They are mostly 25 and older, and include a lot of singles, artists and creative types, food bloggers, and "social media-lites."

Etiquette

Classically, underground restaurants are held in the host's private home, so resist the urge to open closed doors and stick to the designated dining areas. "Respect that it could be someone else's home," said The Hostess.

"Usually it's pretty obvious where you can and cannot go."

CHARLIE'S BURGERS

The pitch

Perhaps the most exclusive of the bunch, Charlie's Burgers is about decadent meals prepared by a rotating roster of Canada's top tier celebrity chefs for some of the city's elite.

Admission Policy

This one is the most elaborate. Diners must fill out an online questionnaire, outlining their profession, favourite restaurants, "last meal" and, for extra points, write a supplemental personal essay.

Guest list

Guests have run the gamut from judges, lawyers, professors and bankers to musicians, artists, chefs, celebrities and even health inspectors who've turned a blind eye. "Basically anyone who is passionate about food," "Charlie" says.

Etiquette

Guests should understand they're not in a restaurant and relinquish all culinary control to the chef du jour. At Charlie's Burgers, substitutions aren't entertained. "Needless to say, we don't substitute or change anything," Mr. Burger says.

HIDDEN LOUNGE

The pitch

An open-concept dinner party where guests are encouraged to wander into the kitchen and ask questions. Host and chef Durant Ellis creates his menu based on what's fresh that day.

Admission Policy

Online, and takes online reservations no referral or personal essay required.

Guest list

Many of the dinner guests at Hidden Lounge are local artists or those with ties to the arts community, and have included some of the on-air ladies from CITY-TV. "We aim to invite anyone who is open to trying something new," Mr. Ellis says.

Etiquette

Arrive early to mingle with guests and help the evening start smoothly. "Be on time, that's the biggest one," Mr. Ellis says. "When someone's late, it throws the flow of the whole evening off."

GUERRILLA GOURMET

The pitch

Herbalist and chef Maria Solakofski is perhaps the city's pioneer when it comes to underground supper clubs, as this marks her ninth year hosting a "speak-eatery." Her menus are vegetarian, organic and locally-sourced.

Admission Policy

Online, and takes online reservations no referral or personal essay required.

Guest list

Diners here range from teachers, students, media types, writers, retirees and environmentalists to athletes and power execs, or what Ms. Solakofski calls "high-speed people." "I used to be surprised when high-speed people would come to dinner, but makes sense. They want to slow down and enjoy their meal."

Etiquette

The only heady scents diners should be swooning over should come from their plates. Forgo the perfume or cologne and allow fellow diners to drink in the aroma of dinner instead.

"Fragrances are so disruptive for tastebuds," says Ms. Solakofski.

"Taste starts with scent."

The pitch

Guests watch as Cordon Bleu chefs prepare their meals right in front of them in an open catering kitchen.

Co-founder Karen Viva-Haynes uses locally grown, traditionally farmed meats, vegetables and artisanal cheeses.

Admission Policy

To dine at Ms. Viva-Haynes's table, you have to know her or be referred, hence the name 6°. "You have to know me or have met me through my business or through someone else," she says. "I need to get to know them, know what they're about, to make sure that everyone at the dinner will be compatible."

Guest list

The common bond among diners here is that all are foodies who also love breaking bread with other people. That includes local book and magazine publishers, bloggers, sommeliers including Jamie Drummond and local celebrity chefs such as Donna Dooher of Mildred's Temple Kitchen.

Etiquette

Like a good dinner guest, commit to your RSVP and don't cancel at the last minute. "We're not like a restaurant where we'll get a walk-in to fill the empty seat," says Ms. Viva-Haynes. "Usually those people don't get invited again."

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