Thursday, September 29, 2011 / 12:00 PM
Q: I keep hearing about underground restaurants. What are they and how do I find out about them? I think I want to go to one. —Lauren M., St. Louis
When I attended what I'm fairly certain was the first underground restaurant (UR) dinner in St. Louis back in August 2008 and began writing about them, there was very little information on the subject. Besides a few cities on the coasts, St. Louis appeared to be one of the first U.S. cities to host such dinners—trending, instead of following the trend.
Apparently, the phenomenon first appeared in either Australia or Latin America, but the parameters were the same: to enjoy a gourmet meal inexpensively—ideally, at cost. It was the culinary equivalent of “why pay retail?” UR dinners were originally held in unusual locations (cliffs, bridges, in a farmer’s field), which presented a challenge to the chef, who was expected to crank out a superior meal from what often amounted to camp stoves and Coleman coolers.
It's that same mystery and unpredictability that appeals to the diner: The general area of the event will get announced to the attendees, but the exact location is not doled out until several hours before service. The menu could be announced in advance, or not. Guests are usually seated at one large table, as the "communality of dining" is as important to the movement as what is being served.
Officially, UR's are neither regulated, nor taxed, nor inspected, hence the name. They are viewed by organizers as just another form of dinner party, where guests are asked for a "donation" to help defray costs. Sometimes they donate their services—as server, sommelier, musician, sous chef—in exchange for a ticket to a future dinner.
The suggested "donation" ranges from $35 to $100 per person, depending on one's beverage of choice. So much for eating at cost....
Currently, there are three UR's operating in the area.
Underground by Entre: John Perkins, known for a time as only "the clandestine chef," has recently become a bit more "above ground," using his notoriety to spur a catering company (Entre Events) and, just in the last month, a fully-functional restaurant kitchen on wheels (Entre Mobile). Despite his busy schedule, Perkins still holds an UR dinner once a month, announcing the menu ahead of time, but not the venue. All of Entre's info is on their website here.
Rogue Underground Dining Society Event (commonly known as RUDSE) was founded by two creative chefs and also holds events roughly once a month. RUDSE spends a great deal of time discussing, researching, and testing its menus and wine pairings. Neither the menu nor the venue is disseminated in advance. Contact RUDSE here.
Demitasse conducts its dinners monthly in the same private home in University City. Here, the "chef" is actually an architect who just happens to be a very good cook. Due to both the skill in the kitchen and to the controlled environment, my personal dining experiences at Demitasse have been superlative. Info on Demitasse is only via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Test Kitchen is an offshoot of the Kansas City-based supper club. It has held two dinners in St. Louis, but be on the lookout for more. Contact them here.
There are fringe UR's in St. Louis as well. Once a month, 33 Wine Bar hosts an extremely tough-ticket "Dorm Room" dinner, where noted chefs prepare a coursed meal using only cooking equipment found in the standard dorm room. Contact owner Jeff Stettner at 231-9463 or here for details. Some folks are calling the new Blood & Sand (opened September 17) an underground restaurant, but it's more of a "members only" club that charges monthly dues. Other mystery-type dinners (like the Patron Social Club) are sponsored by major liquor companies and seem to be on the uptick as well.
My take on UR dinners is this: the quality/prep of the food is always good to very good (which is commendable considering the kitchen constraints) and while all have their idiosyncrasies, I can honestly say my experiences have all been full of surprises, a ton of fun, and extremely worthwhile. Over the last several years, I've weighed in on many of them in SLM's blog. Here are the posts, in order:
"Burrowing into the Underground"
"More Underground Restaurants Surface"
"Kitchen Q&A: John Perkins"
"New Underground Restaurant: The Test Kitchen"
"The Test Kitchen Returns to St. Louis"
There may be more UR's out there I don't know about...after all, they are underground.
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