You have just discovered that the last crucial carton of cream in your fridge is sour. While you were distracted by your search for cream, the rice started to burn. And then Eskom decides it’s time for some unannounced load-shedding. This would be bad enough if you were only having a few friends round for dinner. Imagine how you’d feel if you were expecting paying guests to knock on your front door in a few minutes.
No, this isn’t the scenario for some crazy new reality TV show. It’s the trend that’s currently sweeping the culinary world: underground restaurants. Also known as supper clubs in the USA and resttaurantes de puertas cerradas (locked door restaurants) in Latin America, these are eating establishments operating out of somebody’s home. And because they often (but not always) operate outside of health, licensing and zoning laws, they tend to be advertised covertly by word of mouth or via social networks.
It’s not a new idea – supper clubs started in the US in the 1930s – but it’s only in the past year or two that the traditionally more reserved Brits have got in on the act and a number of underground restaurants now operate in London. And in fact, I toyed briefly with the idea of starting one over the summer – until my husband put his foot down on the basis that this house is half his!
Pros and cons
So what’s the attraction? For customers, it’s a way to sample new food at lower-than-restaurant prices, and a chance to dine outside of the traditional restaurant experience. You get to see the inside of a complete stranger’s house, scan their bookshelves and CD collection, and meet interesting new people over dinner (the tables are usually shared). For those running the restaurants, it can be a personal challenge (“can I really fit 35 diners into my lounge?”), a way to hone your cooking skills, an excuse to cook things you would never normally cook for yourself, and a way to build a reputation as a chef or caterer without having to start out by washing dishes at the local Spur.
It doesn’t surprise me that the tradition started in the egalitarian USA. I am, however, surprised that the Brits with their famous reserve have taken so enthusiastically to the idea, and I wonder whether the concept would ever succeed in South Africa. On the one hand, I’d like to think it would. A South African is far more likely to invite you to their home than a Brit and will often invite you over as an opening gambit, rather than the culmination of many years of friendship. And we have a tradition of having disparate people coming together to eat (witness National Braai Day in September every year).
But… I can also picture people wanting names and addresses of diners in advance so that they can run criminal records checks before people set foot in their house. Or frantic preparations the day before the dinner where everything that looks remotely valuable is locked in the children’s bedroom. And of course, within a month of opening, you can expect a visit from the local zoning official who might suggest a suitable amount for a bribe in order to turn a blind eye to your lack of business zoning. And you can bet your bottom dollar that, as the guests are chatting in the lounge and you are searing those rump steaks to perfection, Eskom will cut the power to your suburb and leave you frantically searching for a last-minute beef carpaccio recipe by candlelight.
Do you think this is a concept that will take off in South Africa? And would YOU want to run or visit an underground restaurant?
Jeanne Horak-Druiff is the face behind the multi-award winning blog www.cooksister.com. This ex-lawyer based in London now spends all her free-time cooking, photographing and eating good food.