Eight years into the twenty-first century, it seems our relationship with food has shifted—the experience of eating as a communal activity has given way to an eating scene that has largely prized performance and image over kinship and generosity.
Our grasp of technology has played a role in dramatically altering the way we perceive ourselves and the communities we live in. The Swiss architect and literary force Max Frisch once noted that technology is “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.” The international economic boom that began in the late 1980s and lasted almost fifteen years allowed our enthusiasm for realizing new technologies to be coupled by the means to fund such projects of discovery. The decade of the 1990’s birthed the World Wide Web, the iMac computer, and Dolly the sheep, but communication devices and cloned livestock were not the only things affected by this technology boom. The experience of eating—traditionally a communal event (whether out of necessity or custom)—also reflected the change. Restaurant chains like Planet Hollywood (financially backed by celebrities Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, and Arnold Schwarzenegger) found footing in an American dining culture that once prided itself on mom-and-pop establishments. And in cities like New York, dining out became an event centered around not food, but the need to be seen. At the height of the craze, and lingering still, a restaurant patron’s status was secured by his/her ability to get a table at an otherwise indefinitely booked-solid hotspot.
It is becoming evident that just as the traditional communal eating experience took back-stage for a time during the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s, the last years of this decade are invigorating a new need for community and a shared dining experience. “Underground restaurants” are beginning to pop up across the country, and are one example of how people are reaching out to each other. Many diners are also embracing the new economically friendly trend of restaurants offering family-style dishes for sharing, large dining tables for mingling, and prix-fixe menus for budgeting. The “underground restaurant” concept is catching on quick among hungry web-surfing folk nationwide, and more and more people are searching out information via the internet and other networking resources to start ones in their neighborhoods.
What is an underground restaurant, you may ask? The Ghetto Gourmet—an online networking site and self-proclaimed “pirate restaurant”—describes it as such: “When you get thousands of people from the internet to have dinner with each other on some stranger's living room floor, you get a lot of great stories.” Interested parties may locate one of these hush-hush supper clubs in their town through the web, and make a reservation along with a monetary “donation” to secure a spot. The price of the meal must be provided as a recommended donation so as not to imply an actual business transaction (which would be taxed), and the locations often change with each dinner because there is the risk of being identified as an operating restaurant, which would require owners to file permits and have inspections.
The Ghetto Gourmet opened in 2004 after Jeremy Townsend and his brother, Joe, decided to put a new spin on the dinner parties they held for their friends in Oakland, CA. they hoped to not only feed old pals, but to build a network of foodie friends by inviting perfect strangers to the table, as well. After an encounter with the Alameda County Health Inspector forced Townsend to stop hosting the dinners in his own home, his dinner club became a traveling show—making it more popular and oh-so cool in a mildly illegal sort of way.
Besides the sense of tight-rope walking the line between being on the right and wrong side of the law, what draws people to pay good money to eat in strangers’ homes with strangers? In a recent interview with Dave Weich, Chef Anthony Bourdain (author of “The Nasty Bits” and “Kitchen Confidential”) explained what attracts him to a restaurant: “I look for someplace that's the best at what they do … a place with a lot of locals stacked up waiting to get in.” Bourdain adds: “If you're talking about a place where I just walk in cold off the street, I like to have a sense that someone is talking to me.”
Dennis and Mary Kercher maintain the homemade quality and sense of identity in their underground restaurant, The Hidden Kitchen, that Bourdain prizes in high-quality restaurants. The Kerchers host multi-course dinners at their home in Sacramento, CA, and specialize in made-from-scratch dishes. In an interview with the Sacramento News and Review, Mary Kercher noted, “It’s a labor of love. You’d have to be nuts to do it [for the money], but if you get enjoyment out of it, it’s good.” With an email list of over 450 patrons, it appears that locals are stacking up to get into The Hidden Kitchen. Of dining at an underground supper club in Manhattan, one patron said, “I want a dog walking around while I eat … I want the fan to tip over. I don’t want that sterile white tablecloth. That’s why I’m not in a restaurant.”
Melena Ryzik, of The New York Times, attributes the budding success of these down-low dining clubs at least in part to the role the internet plays. She explains:
“Stringing together the farm-to-table movement and a bloggy kind of interactivity, they have gained a following among food lovers, mostly in their 20s and 30s, who have an opinion on local versus organic, prefer intimate and casual to grand and ceremonial, and are open to meeting people and building connections in new ways.”
The sense of unity and experiences that underground restaurants offer are traditional in the way they bring individuals of one community together at one table to share one meal. They are truly innovative, however, in the way modern technology is used as the networking device to ring the dinner bell. Dinner has shifted once again from being the context for attracting attention to oneself, to being the focal point of a shared goal. It seems that while we continue to redefine our relationship with technology and each other, one thing hasn’t changed – we need to eat, and eat well.
© Restaurant Agent Inc.