THE FOOD ISSUE

Inside the secret supper clubs of America

By Allen Weiner

Walking toward the funky food trailer in central Austin on a chilly October evening, the scene was reminiscent of an awkward middle-school dance.

It was the regular meetup of Austin Vegan & Vegetarian Association with members, newcomers, and curious dates gathered in small, familiar groups outside the African-style restaurant. First-timers looked around for a safe place to land and share their passion for food made without animal products, dairy, or other processed materials.

Three years ago, my wife and I made the difficult decision to become vegans, a choice that can be an isolating one in a world hellbent on bacon, cronuts, and pizza with all the toppings. Since the day we turned our backs on all things not plant-based, it has been our mission to connect with others who share our belief in what we feel is a healthier diet. Surveying the local and national scene for meetups and social dining experiences, it’s clear we’re far from the only ones.

At the Austin meetup, as additional members gathered and the delivery pace of sweet potato fries and tofu Thai burgers increased, tentative conversations became more animated, and folks drifted from table to table. The hosts, Fletch Brendan Good and Rhonda Baird, warmly made the rounds, greeting guests and making those socially reticent at ease. By the end of the evening, my social network had a net increase of five contacts.

In an everything-old-is-new-again trend, social dining in its many forms has become a way for singles, travelers wanting casual company, and those just interested in jawboning over a ribeye to spend a few hours away from their daily routines. The gamut for these food-related experiences is a regionally rich kaleidoscope of gastronomical adventures, including surprise dinner clubs, Facebook-driven ad hoc gatherings, online dating events, and specialty-themed restaurants.

While the concept dates back to ancient civilizations where people gathered to commemorate harvests and holiday celebrations, the power of social media and a white-hot interest in all things food has put social dining 2.0 in the spotlight.

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Two days after the meetup, on a clear, starry night in South Austin, I ventured out again for the latest installment of the local branch of Dinner Lab, a membership-based social dining experience. A large glass jug of nitrous-oxide infused Witches Brew greeted the attendants. The concoction of whiskey, apple liqueur, cider, and other Halloween-inspired flavors provided the perfect lubricant to encourage mingling between Dinner Lab stalwarts and newcomers.

As is Dinner Lab’s custom, attendees were not told of the location or menu for each feast until the day before via email, an act that lends it the mystique of an underground supper club.

The Dinner Lab concept began in New Orleans with a team that wanted to create a radical take on social dining, which morphed into its current, membership-based concept. Now diners can purchase up to four tickets for each event. A year and a half ago, with expansion, Austin became the first market outside the Crescent City. There are now 20 cities on board.

The best way to describe the implementation of Dinner Lab at the Austin outpost is a blend of predictability mixed with a touch of irreverence and whimsy. On this particular outing, seven large, rectangular tables dotted the dreamscape of the Sanctuary, an idyllic outdoor meeting space. Some 30 minutes after cocktail hour began, folks moved over to sit in groups of two, three, four, or more. Some seemed to believe there was safety in numbers; others bravely sat randomly next to welcoming strangers.

The power of social media and a white-hot interest in all things food has put social dining 2.0 in the spotlight.

In keeping with the theme of Halloween, which was only a hours away, the menu had a few of the courses with ghoulish descriptions. Creamed brains, the second course, was in reality roasted mushrooms in a vol-au-vent, while course four, blood & hearts, was a salad-like affair of beets, apples, pickled celery, local artisan feta and blistered duck breasts. Looking around our table, our fellow diners appeared to be a mix of those willing to eat pretty much anything and those who gingerly explored each dish to identify its components before eating.

Being unfamiliar with others at our table didn’t last long. At the outset, groups chatted among themselves, but things changed when a young couple, Mark and Emily, sat at the head of the table. Both teachers, the couple from Round Rock were Dinner Lab veterans who shared their best moments from previous gatherings, as well as other social dining clubs they have joined. At the top of the list was the Uchiko Food and Wine Project (led by nationally renowned chef Tyson Cole), which uses a seven-course meal of off-menu dishes to test possible new additions to its regular roster. Of the duo, Mark, who was the king of the clean plate club, admitted he was raised to never let any food go to waste; Emily, a dead ringer for a young Andie MacDowell, was a bit more cautious, looking askance as some of the more exotic fare.

Midway through the meal, the evening’s chef, Janelle Reynolds, toured the tables explaining the sourcing behind her creations, and, as if reenacting the scene from Portlandia where the server explains the origins of the restaurant’s free-range birds, Reynolds talked of the ultra-humane farm in Colorado that raised the hogs used in the event’s meal.

Keeping in mind that adult beverages accompanied two of the courses, the social interaction at our table increased as the hours passed. Even though my guest and I were years (if not decades) older than our tablemates, there was no pretense, and the conversation spun from a serious discussion about educational technology to why having a sugar glider as a pet is not for the faint of heart. The group, now focusing on after-dinner drinks, roared at the details of how this “unusual” squirrel-like creature brings challenges of its nocturnal behavior and tendency to shriek at dog-whistle debacles.

“I have yet to see a dinner where friends aren’t made or business cards aren’t exchanged.” —Derek Smith of Dinner Lab

The evening came to a close with warm goodbyes, full stomachs, and promises to see each other at future Dinner Lab meals.

For Derek Smith, Austin market manager for Dinner Lab, it was mission accomplished. “We want to redefine the night out,” he told The Kernel.

Naturally, curating the right chef for a given meal requires some careful due diligence. Smith looks for chefs “not trapped in an ego game” and are looking to try their hand at cuisines for that they have a passion but rarely get the chance to serve in their day jobs. For example, Smith would look for a cook who works at a Peruvian restaurant but would love to express his or her penchant for cuisine from Central Mexico.

Food and location are but two sides to the triangulation that makes for a meaningful social dining evening. What Smith calls the “mixology” of guests can vary from one event to another, but overall he observes a strong social vibe that comes from the intersection of fine food and splendid setting.

“I have yet to see a dinner,” Smith said, “where friends aren’t made or business cards aren’t exchanged.”

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Best known for being a finalist in season three of Top Chef, San Diego restaurateur Brian Malarkey considers the social aspect of dining as important as farm-to-table freshness and signature cocktails. Working with a hospitality group that operates a number of restaurant and nightclubs, Malarkey has developed a concept called the fabric of social dining.

Malarkey’s underlying notion is that social dining is more than a planned gathering or members-only club; every meal at a restaurant should be shared experience. Working with noted German-born designer Thomas Schoos, the pair realized it was time to go beyond the fairly common notion of an open kitchen and create an atmosphere that brings together kitchen staff, wait staff, and patrons. The resulting modern eatery, Searsucker, is laid out—in San Diego and Austin—to be warm and inviting, with a living room in the middle of the establishment.

“For chefs, it is rewarding to see a meal go from the window to the table and see the customer say ‘wow,’” Malarkey told The Kernel. “I wanted to create an experience that would be like coming to my house and eating in the kitchen while waiting for more courses to come.”

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The menu is geared with items that are meant to be shared, he notes. “We often see people passing food and wine from table to table.” The socialization is not forced, but Malarkey says his goal is for people to come early and stay late. “If you don’t bump into someone at an intersection of our restaurant, you have not enjoyed the experience,” he says.

He describes the typical patron—if there is one—between 30 and 60 years of age, the sort of person who is “too old for clubs but too young to go out for dinner and then immediately head home.”

Malarkey may have the most celebrity recognition, but he’s far from the only one pushing the boundaries of social dining in Austin. M Craig Vanis, a mechanical engineer turned trained culinary artist, is the man behind Bistro Vonish, a supper club for vegans. It was his path from cooking school to hopeful restaurateur that took him to providing a social experience for vegans.

It began with catering an anniversary dinner at a friend’s house after the celebrants realized there was nowhere local to go to have a vegan-based fine dining experience. After a successful evening, the hosts and caterer became friends, with the goal of opening a restaurant featuring Vanis’ upscale yet accessible vegan cooking.

“I wanted to create an experience that would be like coming to my house and eating in the kitchen while waiting for more courses to come.” —Brian Malarkey of Searsucker

Vanis’ plan was similar to those who toil away in their food trailers hoping to gain a following on their path toward opening a brick-and-mortar establishment. While raising the funds to fulfill his dream, Bistro Vanish currently exists as a monthly supper club that brings vegans together at varied locations to enjoy good food and make new friends.

“People stay afterwards while we are cleaning up because they meet new friends with whom they want to stay in contact,” Vanis told The Kernel. The chef says that he eliminates the social pressure off of guests who often come alone and are shy by assigning seats in advance. “I pair people who I think will have something in common,” he said.

The common thread, and what sparks the buzz that leads to friendships, are the settings and the food. Bisto Vanish, which uses Facebook among its communications channels, has had its monthly vegan feasts at such locations as a popular local co-op and a mixed-use space that features a weekly farmers market. Some of his recent dishes include shiitake “calamari” seasoned with dulse, meyer lemon, with a side of sun-dried tomato aioli; chickpea romesco robust, roasted tomato and red bell pepper sauce, thickened with hazelnuts; and napoleon with seared polenta stacked tomato, kohlrabi and spinach with carrot cream, and oyster mushroom. Reviews on Facebook are overwhelmingly positive, with 18 reviews scoring an average of 4.7 out of 5.

Vanis’ philosophy, and what he hopes to continue with his restaurant, is to create an emotional connection between people, friends, and food.

“It’s not just about the food; it’s about the experience,” he said. “It’s about not being lonely eating at home or having a meal in your car.”

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Portland’s take on social dining is decidedly Pacific Northwest (sans the flannel shirts and wacky donuts).

From the the city that is on the leading edge of every national culinary fad (not to mention one of the nation’s best farmers markets), you might expect social dining to be something out of the ordinary. Chef Will Preisch along with his partner Joel Stocks fail to disappoint.

Their pop-up restaurant, Holdfast, is one of the Rose City’s hottest tickets. It is, however, a movable feast in the strictest sense of the word.

“When we first started Holdfast, it was a way to cook without any borders or limitations, without having a boss looming over you or a brick-and-mortar restaurant to attend to,” Presich told The Kernel. “It was cooking with a sense of freedom. We rent space (both to prep and host our dinners) in a commissary kitchen that is shared between over 60 different companies; this enabled us to start cooking dinners without a restaurant, investors, or capital.”

Preish said that he and his partner server 14 diners at a chef’s counter three nights a week—without servers, hosts, or busboys. “We do all of the cooking, plating, cleaning, wine pouring, and serving,” Preish added. “This has afforded us way more interaction with our guests than we’ve ever had before. The interaction is definitely what makes this a special experience, and way more gratifying for us as well.”

Social dining is not limited to meetups, supper clubs, and established eateries.

The challenge for Holdfast is to create a dining experience that appeals to a very sophisticated clientele with trendy taste buds. “Our diners here in Portland are definitely becoming more educated,” Preisch added. “We get a lot of people who have traveled and eaten at some pretty awesome places around the world.”

As far as the social component, the celebrated chef says he uses Facebook less for interaction (that would be considered uncool up in Portland). Instead, social media is used to promote ticket sales, or to advertise the availability of open seats. In addition, Holdfast posts a weekly photo album to its Facebook page.

Presich admits the social buzz at his chef’s table events can run hot or cold. “You know every night is different,” he said. “Some groups stay pretty insular, and other times it’s like one big dinner party. It definitely depends on the group, but we cap our reservations at 6pm for one party, just so they don’t control the room. When the groups are that big or bigger, they tend to kind of exist in their own little world, and we like the experience to be a little more social for everyone.”

Issue15_SocialDinner_StoryBreak3Social dining is not limited to meetups, supper clubs, and established eateries. For popular dating sites such as Match.com and It’s Just Lunch, a meal becomes an icebreaker or means to create a comfortable common ground at an awkward first date.

Match.com calls such informal gatherings Stir Events and works in partnerships with clubs, restaurants, and even cooking classes hosted by Sur la Table. My wife, a former kitchen assistant at Sur la Table who has worked at many such singles evenings, says that pairing up to prep food is a good way to get to meet new people in a fun, disarming way. (She also told me that a free-flowing supply of wine doesn’t hurt.)

With busy lives that often leave us sequestered, social dining becomes a way for us to step away from the madness and fulfill our need to connect with others

The concept of matching meals has become something of a national phenomenon. It’s Just Lunch is joined by such competitors as Eight at Eight Dinner Club, Denver’s Dinner for Six, and San Diego’s Dinner Date; all follow a pattern of screening members and arranging casual meetings over lunch, dinner, or even happy hour. It’s Just Lunch’s website boasts it has arranged more than 2 million “fun first dates” in more than 23 years.

And then there’s ventures such as Invite for a Bite, a U.K.-based business that is a women-only service that arranges dinner companions for females traveling for business or just in need of someone to chat with over a friendly meal. Founder Cressida Howard launched the site after hearing a BBC broadcast talking about how women often feel lonely dining alone while on the road.

With busy lives that often leave us sequestered, social dining becomes a way for us to step away from the madness and fulfill our need to connect with others using food as a common link. In almost every case, dining with others puts the bon in bon appétit.


Illustrations by J. Longo