Memorable and Intimate Dining Experiences for Hungry Adventurers
Theodora Karatzas |
June 21, 2018
Why every chef loves a supper club, and the best ways to find them in your town.
It’s undeniable that we’re enjoying a creative culinary renaissance these days. Driven by an uncertain economy, rapid technological advances, and ever-shifting attention spans, restaurants and food culture are constantly morphing into new and unexpected experiences at greater speeds than ever before. One iteration that has blossomed over the last few years is the supper club, and there’s a good chance your city is teeming with them. It’s just a matter of finding the one you like best — or even starting your own.
photo by Giafrese for "At the Illusionist’s Table"
What makes a supper club?
A lot of it is environmental, or sometimes the lack of environment: A supper club can take place anywhere from a fancy apartment to an unused subway tunnel. And it doesn’t have to be a complex undertaking; the flexibility of the format makes putting on these meals accessible and available, so anyone can create the culinary experiences they want to see in the world. “I’ve hosted a couple supper club dinners for friends and friends of friends, and I love both dining at them and finding out about new ones,” says festival freelancer and culinary explorer Tina Yonas. “I love to be surprised and give space to chefs and talented home cooks alike to create a delicious and intimate experience around good food.”
Yonas, whose work takes her all over the country and sometimes across the globe, works in a production capacity for a number of music and arts festivals, sometimes as part of a culinary team that brings unique food experiences to festivalgoers. The community aspect that brought her to this work is also part of what has drawn her to supper clubs.
image courtesy of Tina Yonas; photo by Mamiko Inoue
“I love food, and luckily that’s made it easy to connect with other people who share the same passion,” she says. “When I have the time, I also love going to classes on how to make things, from making flower-essence water to fermenting your own kimchi. I found doing classes like that with local teachers gives you access to so many mini culinary ‘scenes.’ Being in those communities, you often hear about interesting concept kitchens and, best of all, supper clubs.”
Focusing on fabulous food
For others on the supper club circuit, it all comes down to what’s for dinner. “To me, a pop-up is laser-focused on food, and that’s all I care about,” says Dario Barbone. Barbone, who came to San Francisco with a career in molecular medicine and a tenure-track job in academia, was immediately seduced by the city’s vibrant culinary scene. He began helping friends with their events: washing dishes, working as a line cook or sous-chef, and eventually helping build menus and cooking with friends. He went on to start a pop-up with his then-wife and to co-found Baia Pasta, an artisanal handmade pasta company based out of Oakland.
“I couldn’t care less if you’re serving me on the curb of a trafficked street if your goal is to share your food passion with me,” says Barbone. “I come from a molecular biology background and can surely appreciate tinkering with textures and concepts, but pop-ups [allow you] to appreciate a chef’s mind. Moreover, I just like the idea of experiencing something that exists in one place and time, only one night. Supper clubs break rules, and it’s awesome.”
image courtesy of Dario Barbone
Eyeing an Outrageous Experience
Tyler Hauptman, an avid supper club attendee in Portland, has also run his own pop-ups, as well as an actual brick-and-mortar restaurant. “Supper clubs are great because passionate people who don’t always have the pedigree or capital can create a dining experience unique to them and what they want to do,” he says. “There is much less risk involved, since there’s practically no overhead, [so] people can really experiment and have some fun.” In Portland, this means everything from Farm Spirit, which offers 15-course all-vegan tasting menus based on what’s at the farmer’s market that week, to Mae, a decadent Southern-fried meal complete with sassafrass tea and vivid storytelling in the back of a meat market.
In other cities, the supper club experience can be unique in many different ways. NYC’s Subculture Dining takes place in secret locations with dishes both inspired and accompanied by raucous punk music, whereas the members-only Tasting Collective offers high-end cuisine to well-dressed guests who are regaled by tales from the chefs, who emerge from the kitchen throughout the meal to share their stories. In Ontario, Eigensinn Farm offers dinner in the forest with music and poetry to accompany the meal, and in Chicago, Clandestino meals feature appropriate live musical accompaniment, from Georgian tunes to acoustic blues. And the Spring Street Social Society often mixes meals with live performances, including immersive musical theatrical productions.
Spring Street Social Society, photo by Sam Ortiz
Sensational suppers are just a click away
“Since 2008, there has literally been a renaissance of the pop-up and food-truck concept,” says Barbone. “It’s mostly driven by the financial crisis and the desire to nourish and create, but possibly [also] because the brick and mortar business is brutal in San Francisco, and the opportunity to experiment with a pop-up is an easy route.” He cites a plethora of examples leading this new movement, like Rice Paper Scissors, which was “born on red plastic stools on SF curbs” and has grown to encompass regular pop-up locations and is soon-to-be a brick and mortar.
While the boom in nontraditional culinary experiences has rightly been linked to an economy that’s had its share of twists and turns in recent years, Yonas thinks it can also be attributed to a population of foodies who want to be more in touch with what they’re eating and where it’s coming from. “I’ve seen a massive food culture shift [since] my adolescence,” she says. “People demand more integrity, [but] integrity almost always requires more time, more money, and more thought, and that runs opposite to the conventional economy of food. With a supper club, you’re free of a lot of those stresses, and the decreased barrier to entry means we get so many more options and experiences.”
image courtesy of EatWith
There are a number of apps and blogs that specialize in pop-ups, supper clubs, and other unique culinary experiences — Feastly, EatWith, and WeFiFo (We Find Food) are just a few that focus on connecting hungry adventurers with dining experiences. “More ‘institutionalized’ pop-ups are available through Feastly, and they’re a stellar, perfect place to begin your digging,” says Barbone. “I started cooking through the Feastly platform and have thrown several pop-ups showcasing my love for regional Italian food, based on what I call XYZ cooking: minimal, seasonal, rustic.” Yonas concurs: “I was introduced to Feastly this past month,” she says, “and their website is a treasure trove of more structured supper clubs all over the country.”
Expand your network into deliciousness
But if you want to find a supper club that appeals to you on a personal level or you’re just not up on the apps, one of the best ways is to hit up your friends and get busy on social media. “You can look for reviews, blogs, and so on, but the golden road is word of mouth and friendships,” says Barbone. “A good network in the industry is clearly a royal key, but it’s not available to everyone. Instagram is a good avenue to know what things are popping and where. Follow your favorite restaurant, get to know who makes your food memorable, [and then] expand those memories, creating new [ones] by hanging out with the people you meet behind the counter or at the table.”
photo by Alix Piorun
Hauptman has also used social media to his advantage, both on his own projects and to find new ones. “Instagram and Facebook are a really great way to stay connected,” he says. “There are hyper-motivated cooks and people who are not necessarily in the most creative of roles (stuck as a line cook, etc.). With only a small investment, these people can create fun experiences for the community.”
Another idea from Yonas: “Go into some grocery stores that center around a certain community of international people. It’s a great way to stir-up a wealth of curiosity. After that, find spaces in your city [to learn about food], like 18 Reasons. When you’re there, talk to everyone including the chef (once they’re free, of course!). That will open up the supper club world to you.”
Massimo Bottura dinner, image courtesy of GR8
And for those looking to start their own supper club, Hauptman urges you to jump in with both feet. “Don’t be afraid to try things that you’re not familiar with, and don’t be afraid to spend money on a good time. Eat lots of food and enjoy it! I like to see people having fun and creating the food they want to. It usually tastes better that way.”
To learn about the comeback of the supper club, click here.
To read up on the history of the supper club, click here.
To find the right supper club for every personality, try here.
To sip some cocktails made just for supper clubs, head here.
Theodora Karatzas is a writer, content producer, and occasional DJ based in San Francisco. She is originally from Portland, OR, and used to play the flute pretty well. Find her at theokaratzas.com.