Savory Secrets

If you can find them, local underground eateries offer homey, social dining, minus the feed-and-flee restaurant vibe.

Between courses, a gregarious pit bull named Shinobi showed off his jumping skills for a dozen guests sitting on floor cushions swigging our own wine. Next, the Brownbum Blues played old Robert Johnson tunes. Then a woman in a POW! T-shirt passed out glasses of crab-avocado cocktail, a few poached shrimp hanging from the rim.

We were breaking the law. And it sure tasted good.

Somewhere between Richmond and Hayward are two underground restaurants run by un-restaurateurs in their twenties. A cross between a house party and a supper club, these events have attracted a following from both sides of the bay. Both offer a comfortable ambience, cheap prices, and solid food. Just so long as the Man doesn’t come around.

My friend Bob made a reservation for us at what I’ll call the Underground Restaurant via its Web site, the address of which I’m not going to reveal. Owners Jeremy and Joe — also pseudonyms — started cooking dinners for a mix of friends and strangers a year and a half ago. Joe, now 23, had quit his job cooking at a tony supper club in San Francisco, and Jeremy, 28, a poet and copy editor, charged himself with attracting clients the good old’ American way — bluffing. “I got on Craigslist and made it sound like we’ve been doing this forever,” he says. He began posting an enigmatic pitch in the personals section, beckoning singles looking for a novel way to score dates.

Jeremy and Joe’s dinners for ten soon bloomed into what Jeremy calls a “nomadic restaurant.” Their events have ranged from ambient-DJ’d pajama parties in San Francisco to art-and-music-filled supper clubs in a local warehouse. For a while they moved into the kitchens of a legal venue, where their following grew. But the space changed owners, and the brothers went back to throwing parties in their house.

Walking up to the Underground Restaurant on a rainy Monday evening, Bob — name changed to protect me — and I wove through a crowd of underground diners smoking cigarettes on the porch. Inside, a table in the wood-paneled dining room had been set for eight, with another eight to ten places arranged around coffee tables in the living room. Gregarious Jeremy played host, welcoming folks and making introductions. Back in the kitchen, his wild-haired younger brother fried chicken.

After a half hour of stilted party talk with the other guests, Bob and I slid to our respective cushions as a pair of servers began to ferry food from the kitchen. Joe’s food was simple, clever, and good.

The fried drumsticks I spotted in the kitchen emerged, juicy and crackle-skinned, alongside a mixed-greens salad tossed in a tangy buttermilk dressing and corralled by a thin strip of cucumber. The shrimp on the shrimp cocktail, course number two, were a mite overcooked, but when we scooped them through the creamy crab, avocado, and mayonnaise dip it didn’t seem to matter much. The main course, lamb chop set on a chile-dusted polenta cake, itself balanced on poached giant asparagus, was beautifully cooked and enriched by a few stripes of a veal-stock reduction sauce. And everyone gasped when the “Ghetdonuts” materialized — cubes of fried cake studded with raspberries. After all, who doesn’t love fried cake?

As the meal progressed, the discrete groups of friends began to blend, guests looking farther and farther down the table to talk to strangers. Eventually, Jeremy passed out little envelopes, into which we slipped $25 a person plus tip — for four courses, mind you. At that point, guests were lolling around the floor picking at a cheese and fruit plate and sharing the last of their wine. Soon after, the hosts and most of the guests finished off the night by trooping through the rain to a bar around the corner.

Why exactly are underground restaurants illegal? After all, some food businesses operate outside of commercial kitchens. Caterers often cook their meals in their clients’ kitchens, and people pay cooking teachers to come into their homes to help them and their friends make a meal.

Ron Browder, chief of environmental protection at the Alameda County Environmental Health Department, says that underground restaurants are different from the above businesses because technically the owners are selling food to the public, not performing a service in the buyer’s home. And they’re doing it without health permits, business licenses, and licenses to sell alcohol. “In essence, they’re evading taxes and putting the public at risk,” he says. “It’s important that the public understands that it’s bad enough that things happen in regulated restaurants. If we don’t have any knowledge of the unregulated restaurants, we can’t protect the public.”

According to Browder, the health department doesn’t necessarily go out looking for underground restaurants — not that it has the budget for that — but it investigates any reports it receives, shutting down illegal businesses and asking the operators to reapply for the appropriate permits. Browder couldn’t quote any figures regarding how many illegal restaurants the department has shut down. He did ask me — a number of times — for the addresses of the underground restaurants I mentioned oh-so-vaguely. Sorry, I told him. In turn, he asked me to mention in this article that he’d requested the addresses but that I’d refused to reveal them.

Although no roving health inspectors are knocking on her door, Elizabeth — pseudonymous proprietor of a place I’ll call Hush Hush — makes her restaurant harder to access than a speakeasy. It took me months from the time I first heard of its existence to secure an invite. Elizabeth, in fact, didn’t want her restaurant mentioned. I told her the same thing I told the health department guy.

Once a month, Elizabeth sends out an e-mail announcing the date of Hush Hush’s next dinner. It lists a phone number where you can leave a message, and admonishes recipients, “As always, quietly invite those dear.” She is booked up within days. If she doesn’t know who you are, she asks who told you about her before she’ll give out the address. (I had a friend make the call.)

Come the date of the event, if you can’t find the door, just follow any 25-year-old you spot on the block. Obeying some pheremonal homing signal, they stream toward an unmarked gate, then file up a narrow flight of stairs to what looks like an impromptu art gallery. There’s an ancient refrigerator in one of its two big, open rooms. Before and after dinner, a couple sold beers and bottles of wine from the fridge, and the diners-to-be (genus: scenesters; species: former art students and indie-rock fans) chatted as they circled the space, checking out the paintings on the walls, and lined up to pay a guy with a clipboard.

At some point the guests heard another subsonic call and begin drifting into the dining room, which was decorated with swagged garlands of plastic flowers and dark velvet curtains. My friends and I followed, claiming a table the size of our party. Unlike at the Underground Restaurant, it’s much easier to stick to your clique at Hush Hush, since the tables seat from two to eight people.

Not long after we sat down, a troupe of young women began threading their way through the room, bringing plates to the tables. Diners could buy drinks from the impromptu bar or fetch their own water and coffee from tureens.

Elizabeth had taped up posters describing her three-course menu, written in Beaux-Arts script. All three courses were vegan: First up was a gingery wonton soup, the tofu-stuffed half-moons of pasta floating in a thin, gingery vegetable broth scattered with chopped chives. With only three people working in a tiny kitchen and forty or so diners to serve, it took a good hour from first plate to last for the waiters to distribute the entrées. The dishes were elaborate in a homespun kind of way: A salad of greens, salted pistachios, and ripe strawberries. A whole-grain pilaf threaded with julienned mint. A sweetly sauced stir-fry of tofu, green beans, and Okinawan yams set on a nest of poofy deep-fried bean threads. And dessert, a watery lemon ice paired with mango-nut butter croustades, was served on top of whimsically decorated stoneware plates hand-thrown by two of Elizabeth’s friends. This take-home door prize cost diners an extra $3 — normally she charges $12 for the entire meal. Then the band started up.

As my friend Alan commented, Hush Hush’s food was “as good as the food cooked by one of your friends who’s a good cook.” In other words, not something we’d be thrilled to pay restaurant prices for, but certainly enjoyable. Again, what made the meal was the down-tempo, friendly mood, so different from any of the restaurants I visit. It lacked — happily so — that constant flow of people with their disjointed arcs of beginnings and endings; the pressure to perform that motivates every server, buser, and cook; and those small signals of impatience in the diners, of needs satisfied and needs unmet.

Illegal home-based supper clubs like the Underground Restaurant and Hush Hush create social ecosystems as fragile as their existence. That sense of enjoying someone else’s hospitality, more than the adventure of doing something on the down low, was the true source of their charm. As Jeremy summed up, “It’s such a great experience to bring people in your house and have them be amazed — not only that they’re having awesome food, but that they’re meeting people they wouldn’t have met before.”

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