Underground dining

An illegal dining trend is on the rise in cities such as Boston, Seattle and Toronto. Underground dining establishments that avoid the overhead traditional restaurateurs carry are on the rise. Word of mouth promotion lures diners to private homes where they’re served chef-prepared meals. The movement is causing health inspectors anxiety and sort of annoying people like me who watch their spouses work hard to make a living in the restaurant business.

Perhaps my affiliation with the food service world limits my objectivity, but I see no reason to go to unregulated, uninspected private homes to pay $100 plus per person to eat a chef-prepared meal when there are so many fine restaurants that pay taxes, rent and legal wages offering great dining experiences in these same cities.

What do you think? Am I a square curmudgeon who’s out of touch with the times or would you also prefer to eat in place that has properly marked emergency exits?

8 Responses to Underground dining

  1. BitterSweet says:

    Hmm, I don’t know… As long as you trust the chef enough to eat their food, I don’t really see any problem with it, personally. I can understand the concern though.

  2. Christine says:

    I understand the concern. I think I would be okay with it if it was a friend hosting a dinner party, or someone who won an auctioned meal by a chef. I have a hard time inviting people to my house and expecting them to pay things. I also would miss the dining experience of a restaurant, the wine selection, the people watching etc. So I think you have every reason to be concerned!

    I have an award for you on my blog so check it out!

  3. danamccauley says:

    Christine you are very sweet and I send the love right back at you!

    You also raise a good point about friends having parties where people pitch in cash. To me that’s different and I get it. What I don’t like about Underground Dining is that it brings people to stranger’s homes where they don’t know what the heck is going on.

  4. There is always a sector of society that likes the thrill of breaking the rules. They are drawn to the danger / subversion / novelty of a situation. That the kitchen isn’t inspected or there are no fire exists is a draw to them, not a deterrent.

    They don’t care that they aren’t paying the taxes that go towards health care or pave the roads. They don’t care about workers’ benefits or decent wages. The don’t care about anything but the thrill. And at $100/person, they seem to have more money than sense.

    My guess this is just another passing culinary fad. A hot new underground trend will knock this one off the list soon enough. Let’s just hope its replacement isn’t do-it-yourself fugu.

  5. Cheryl says:

    In a country like Cuba this is one of the best ways to get a good meal. It is, or at least was a few years ago, standard practice. But that has more to do with archaic government rules and people hoping to make more dollars than their government mandated moola.

  6. Meatmeister says:

    Hi Dana –

    I appreciate your context about underground dining, but your aversion or fear around it seems (generally) unwarranted.

    Forgive the inability to be cogent about this, but it’s something I know a lot about and it sounds like some deep context for the unitiated would be beneficial to prevent false assumptions from continuing.

    I participated in the early underground ‘raw’ food movement in L.A., several years before it hit mainstream America as a dietary fad, and the energy and enthusiasm of the chefs, volunteers, and eaters was tremendous and uplifting. The events were word-of-mouth parties where you ate tremendous food (not found in restaurants, by the way); you learned about nutrition; you expanded your horizons; and often, you made new friends. They were held in lofts or music recording studios and, quite often, fantastic musicians would play.

    As a food writer focused on meat dishes (http://meatmeister.wordpress.com), I have participated in multi-course dinners in lofts and private homes in several cities. Again, the joy of the experience is not novelty or fad…to sustain any sort of ‘underground dining’ experience takes talent. The chef has to be good. Otherwise, he/she is done.

    Few restaurants, even in major cities, dole out multi-course meals with pairings beyond the quarterly chef or winemaker dinners, so underground dining offers that opportunity to indulge.
    Now let me allay your wild assumptions & fears:

    The risk of food contamination is not higher just because a local health inspector’s not invited to the party…it’s much likely lower due to economic necessity. If an underground chef gets someone sick, he/she is done. Party over; reputation tarnished.

    Restaurants have more leeway, actually, to harm people. How many restaurants do you know that have caused multiple cases of food poisoning in your city but are still around? I can name 8 in SF immediately, and another dozen in Los Angeles. Extra care is needed for subculture dining to succeed anywhere.

    Fire exits are the least concern in these events; I never went to one that’s overcrowded; not one. They’re generally in nice big spaces like lofts or industrial buildings, and sometimes out on farmland. Please don’t spread false rumors about fire hazards in underground dining; it’s entirely inaccurate from my experience.

    And these experiences are very different from a restaurant in some ways, so I don’t feel any argument of us vs. them is valid. There’s no either/or, no mutual exclusivity. The opposite is true, in fact. Most diners at underground restaurants are the most loyal and rabid foodies who support you, your husband and the industry.

    The ‘Bacon Heart Attack Dinner’ by San Francisco’s Dissident Chef (see my blog for pix and full report) was not only extraordinary in a culinary sense, but it’s given me a quintessential ‘unforgettable experience’ in life. When someone asks me about it, I can’t stop gushing over how fantastic it was…I think there’s room for that anywhere it happens. That sort of enthusiasm and excellence from an experience–let’s be honest–happens all too rarely in restaurants, or life in general.

    Take it where thou may.

    Please, please do actual research on something before you scare people with false rumors or toss off leading questions that lean negatively agsinst people doing great work to get people excited about food. It’s your core responsibility as a journalist.


  7. danamccauley says:

    Meatmeister, thanks for your long, detailed defense of underground dining. While your experience may have made you a believer, mine still makes me dubious. As a chef with almost 20 years experience, I know a lot about the food business, food safety and liability risks.

    Also, as the wife of a restaurateur who has been in business for almost 13 years, I can tell you that the ire I feel when I hear about people making tax free $$ selling food and wine is also rooted in years of experience paying property tax, worker’s compensation premiums, GST, PST and every other tax required.

    I see no reason why you couldn’t have had your “Bacon Heart Attack Dinner” in a legitimate foodservice outlet.

    So, thanks for your lesson in journalistic responsibility but there is no way I’m going to counsel my readers to pay money for a foodservice experience where it’s unlikely the staff are being paid vacation pay or protected by the other laws that govern bonafide businesses. It’s not fair to the others who play by the rules.

  8. Dan says:

    As a chef and owner of one of the places you castigate, and in a different city so you don’t have to worry about me cutting into your income, my only thought about that concern (setting aside licenses, etc., which, by the way, many of us in the “underground” biz obtain – we’re not all illegal, just operating out of a home rather than a storefront – plus I think MeatMeister addressed the other stuff well) is – what’s the difference to your family income whether a customer goes to one of us for dinner, or simply goes to another restaurant? (Not to mention that the majority of underground spots only have 10-15 seats, not exactly massive siphons.) You may as well object to anyone but your husband being allowed to open a restaurant.

    Your assumptions about how we operate are also not necessarily well founded. I know many owners who pay taxes, bring their homes “up to code”, get their licenses, etc., as we did (building and health dept inspections and all) – true, they probably cut some corners on things like workers’ comp and such – the biggest advantage for me, for example, is that after 35 years of working 6 and 7 day weeks, 12-14 hours a day, I simply didn’t want to work fulltime anymore and still wanted my own place – a 2-3 day a week “legit” restaurant as you put it, would have failed financially. Cutting out the extra overhead of a space separate from our home, and having just ourselves as staff (and we’re a partnership and simply split the profits among everyone who works here, after taxes), makes it viable.

    We had a get-together just last night where the owners of half a dozen local spots got together last night over dinner and spent most of the evening discussing the details of how to bring their homes up to code, to make sure that they weren’t missing out on any details. I think you’d find, if you did the research, that much of what gets tossed off as “sub-culture” and “subversive” is really just “non-traditional”.

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