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Underground restaurants- a flash in the pan?

19 June 2009 by
Underground restaurants- a flash in the pan?

They've been springing up at regular intervals over the past six months: semi-legal venues where people serve meals to the public from their home kitchen and front room. But are these underground restaurants part of a new Twitter and Facebook-influenced eating out scene, or just the latest recession story? Tom Vaughan reports.

There was Jennifer in Seattle, known as Bruscettina, who cooked seven-course meals in whatever space she could find - neon strip-lit conference rooms or cramped apartments - before a winsome Umbrian olive oil baron won her heart and whisked her off to Italy.

In Iowa there's Hal, who cooks 30-course meals on rooftops and warehouses and sends 20% of the proceeds to a local culinary school to help send students to Europe.

In Bay Area California there's the Ghetto Gourmet, a roving supper club of dubious legality that started off in a damp basement but has now sparked up chapters in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. The list goes on: dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of supper clubs - 21st-century speakeasies with foie gras instead of bootleg brandy.

The underground restaurant phenomenon has been around in the USA for a while, but the recession sparked the first UK equivalents earlier this year. Since then they have been springing up all over the country in a media-darling spotlight, describing themselves as numerous things, most notably the punk equivalent of restaurants.

Even restaurateurs have got on board, with former Bacchus chef Nuno Mendes opening his front room - aka the Loft - to a dozen customers two nights a week to help cover bills and try out new ideas while he waits for a new restaurant site to complete.

THE START OF THE CRAZE

But what's the driving force behind the craze? And are underground restaurants here to stay? Or will they fizzle out or even be shut down, as they aren't technically legal, and in 10 years' time be consigned to a section of history alongside speakeasies, acid house raves and gamecock get-togethers?

One of the obvious questions is why now? A glaring suggestion is that underground restaurants are children of the recession, as punters look for a cheaper alternative to eating out at conventional restaurants.

Some of the media have certainly trumpeted the move as a recession story. However, MsMarmiteLover, the identity-veiled patron of the Underground Restaurant, an English-style paladar, who has been serving three-course vegetarian meals for up to 30 diners each week in her Kilburn home, thinks the economic climate can't account for the craze entirely.

"There's a feeling [in the media] that this is just a recession story, but I think it's more about people craving intimacy," she says.

"You're on a mixed table, you meet new people and it's very sociable. It's not just about eating food; big cities like London can be very lonely and these help combat that."

THE SOCIAL MEDIA FACTOR

One major factor that has facilitated the rise is social media, says Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner, who in May reviewed underground restaurant the Saltoun Supper Club in Brixton, London.

"It's a combination of factors," he says. "There's the ease of [spreading information in] the blogosphere, combined with economic pressures. It's a cheap way to eat well and I would have expected to pay at least £10 more than what I paid if it was a restaurant in London."

It's worth noting that virtually every underground restaurant widely listed in the media has a blog, Facebook or Twitter presence, and often a combination of all three. Potential diners can inspect forthcoming menus, look at pictures of past events and dishes and generally buy into the DNA of the concept.

Since underground restaurant the Secret Ingredient in Hackney was launched by erstwhile musician Horton Jupiter in January - one of the first in the UK - countless have popped up across the country, with most centred in London. Jupiter says the inspiration behind the Secret Ingredient came from a book called This Diary Will Change Your Life; a list of silly and fun tasks aimed at illuminating repetitive days. One of the suggestions was to open a restaurant in your front room and Jupiter says he thought "why not?".

However, the inspiration really comes from the USA, where underground restaurants like the ones mentioned previously - taken from www.killtherestaurant.com, an anonymous author's collated stories of US supper clubs - have been in existence for the past five years at least.

Mendes says the inspiration behind the Loft came from working in New York eight years ago. Before that there were the infamous Cuban paladars, the once illegal and now heavily taxed tourist eateries, run by families in their homes. While the concept is mired in thoughts of left-wing altruism, the reality usually consists of sub-standard dishes of black beans geared for a high profit.

THE REAL MOVTIVE?

MsMarmiteLover says that a motive behind her underground eatery is the long-burning desire to have a restaurant of her own.

"I'd love to have my own site," she says. "But I have to live up to the reality that I would never get the finances."

We're getting closer to a truth here; that underground restaurants are a child of the foodie revolution of the last decade or so, where every better-than-average home cook thinks they could cut it as a restaurateur. Television has played a large part, particularly amateur cooking competitions, says Rayner. The increasing number of shows depicting amateur cooks triumphing in the eyes of the professionals - Masterchef, The Restaurant - have shown that the lay-chef can have his or her moment in the sun.

In a way underground restaurants represent the natural conclusion of the home cook. After serving food in your own house for strangers, the next natural step is turning professional and opening a restaurant proper, if the funds can be gathered.

THE WRONG SIDE OF THE LAW?

But what of their future? Technically, as they are unlicensed, underground restaurants could go the same way as the acid house raves of the early 1990s, and suffer from an authority clampdown. Graeme Cushion, a partner at Poppleston Allen, says that so long as no one complains about food poisoning, underground restaurants will escape the law.

"If they are not selling alcohol and not putting on entertainment beyond some background music, then there's not an awful lot the authorities can do," he says.

Certain licences are easy to obtain for the underground restaurant owner. A temporary events licence costs £23 and would let him or her put on the same event up to 12 times in one year, which they would say isn't enough for the ambitious home cook.

Registering as a private members' club, as Nuno Mendes has done with the Loft, allows for food to be sold, but is also advertising oneself to the environmental health authorities. They can inspect any premises serving food, and it's not just cleanliness they are seeking but proper lists of procedures. Any underground restaurant not bothering with the boring admin side of kitchen duties would fall short.

The likelihood, says Cushion, is that underground restaurants will continue to slip under the radar until a formal complaint is lodged, at which point the health authorities could come down hard on the organiser for purposely staying underground, with individual fines ranging up to £20,000. Essentially they are treading a tightrope of customer goodwill.

JUST LIKE THE REAL THING

Running an underground restaurant has plenty in common with running a normal one, even though the occasion of feeding may be only once a week.

"It's literally like playing restaurant. You can create the event, and then it's over," said one US supper club organiser.

"When you have a business, you create the event over and over, day in and day out - and you have to."

However, the hard work involved running a restaurant is becoming more apparent to some, even if it is for only one night a week.

"There's nothing like [running an underground restaurant] to see if you are up to running a real one," says MsMarmiteLover.

"After doing this I have so much more respect for restaurant owners. It's hard work and lots of responsibility. It's tough to run and tough to make money."

It's also a consideration, forwarded by MsMarmiteLover - who herself professes a desire to get into cookbook writing, food writing and broadcasting in a professional sense - that many new underground restaurant organisers are doing it for the wrong reasons.

"When I started this I didn't know how much media attention there would be," she explains. "I think a lot of people are doing it for coverage and fame. The first thing they seem to do is contact the media to let them know they are open."

When the media spotlight fades, the customers potentially ease up as a result, and the novelty of running a restaurant for not much money wears off, will the scene fizzle out?

"My suspicion is that there will never be a vast number of these places," Rayner says.

"What we've got is a bunch of amateur cooks who love cooking, but I think they will come and go. It will never go beyond small numbers because it requires a lot of balls and a lot of gumption. I suspect many will open but not all for an enormous amount of time."

FOR THE GOOD OF THE INDUSTRY?

Whatever happens, Rayner, MsMarmiteLover and Jupiter all agree that underground restaurants feed into the burgeoning food culture in the UK. But are they for the good of the industry or will they ultimately damage the business of more legitimate outfits?

"Any restaurateur who is concerned about private supper clubs is in serious trouble if they are worried about 30 people going to a front room in Kilburn once a week," Rayner says.

"Their job is to find 50 or so people in a city of seven million. If they can't, and have to blame other places, they won't be around for long."

Mainstream operators should look at how well underground restaurants market themselves, however. Aside from accruing column inches through the originality of the underground concept, they communicate regularly through social media with their clientele, give a sense of occasion and also an opportunity to meet like-minded people.

There's no reason why a restaurant that puts on regular special events, with a good value limited choice menu for a group table of assorted foodies, and communicates it well through social media couldn't take some of the clientele from the underground restaurant.

A blueprint for this is the blog and Facebook site of Dos Hermanos - two foodie brothers who run a blog and are admired by Rayner. They are gathering a growing number of fans for their London foodie get-togethers in reputable restaurants.

Are underground restaurants a flash in the pan or here for the long run? Only time will tell, but either way they will surely have a legacy. Consider punk: even Cliff Richard referenced the aggressive genre in his Language of Love single. Often the most underground of concepts end up influencing the mainstream.

WHAT THE CRITICS THOUGHT

Jay Rayner on the Saltoun Supper Club, London SW2

"The times may be shrinking, but too many restaurants seem still to be engineered for boom and glitter, for a world of canapés that are pretty on the eye but Mogadon in the mouth.

"By contrast, a supper club is relaxed and unburdened. No great corporation is involved. No one will lose their shirt, let alone their house, if it doesn't work. It's a lark, albeit a self-conscious one. But if an event like this failed on the one thing that mattered it would swiftly shade over into the latter. It doesn't. The food is good, in places great."

Zoe Williams on the Secret Ingredient

"The Secret Ingredient is cheap, and where cheap, cool things coincide, so do young, attractive people.

"It's cheaper than a take-out, with a phenomenal sense of occasion and someone else's iPod. There is idiosyncrasy and sparkle created by someone else's music; in restaurants it is always too stupid or too unobtrusive.

"And once you see it all done for that amount, you can think of loads of ways to do it even cheaper. I reckon you could go Moroccan and bring it all home for a tenner a head, though only if everyone liked chickpeas.

"But our meal was more endearing than a great big stew or a curry; the sheer labour implied love. All that chopping and rolling and making fancy - and they were doing a second sitting as well."

OUR FAVOURITE FIVE UNDERGROUND RESTAURANTS

The Secret Ingredient, London N16

London's - possibly the UK's - first underground restaurant. Run by musician Horton Jupiter, it operates on Wednesday nights and charges £15-£20 for six courses and two drinks. Find The Secret Ingredient on Facebook.

The Underground Restaurant, London NW2

Food blogger MsMarmiteLover's The Underground Restaurant followed shortly after The Secret Ingredient. Events run every Saturday evening. A three-course vegetarian dinner costs £25, with space for up to 30 people.
marmitelover.blogspot.com

Saltoun Supper Club, London SW2

Stylist Arno Maasdorp's Brixton restaurant was recently reviewed by Jay Rayner (see opposite). It runs on Wednesday and Thursday nights, and costs £25 for four courses.
www.eatwithyoureyes.net

The Loft, London E8

Ex-Bacchus chef Nuno Mendes, who has a stint at El Bulli on his CV, has wowed customers with his 12-course dinners in his front room, priced at £100 per person, while he finalises his next restaurant site.
www.nunomendes.co.uk

The Moveable Restaurant, various locations

Does exactly what it says on the tin; moves around various sites, throwing themed parties such as a Roman dinner and a celebration of cookery writer Elizabeth David. Prices vary from £25 to £55.
themoveablerestaurant.squarespace.com

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