Secret supper clubs break restaurant barriers

‘Pirate restaurants’ created by aspiring chefs put relaxed spin on dining out.

This story originally published on Feb. 14, 2010.

There’s no obvious sign that the tidy bungalow near Grant Park will soon be the secret sanctum for a one-time gourmet meal cooked by a local chef.

But inside the home of Ryan and Jen Hidinger, the 10 strangers who’ve arrived on a cold January evening crowd into a narrow hallway with a mix of nervous energy and giddy anticipation, making introductions, sipping wine and stealing glances into the kitchen.

Call them pirate restaurants, underground supper clubs or dinner party networks, nowadays these kinds of events are taking place all over Atlanta. Many are much larger and more elaborate than the Hidingers’. Some feature unusual locations, such as a cemetery or a farm. A few boast celebrity chefs, while others serve as a laboratory for home cooks to test recipes and network with like-minded culinary obsessives.

Weeks ago, in response to an e-mail alert from the Hidingers, tonight’s guests made reservations for the coveted first-come, first-served spots. Details of the menu were revealed a few days in advance, along with a neighborly greeting: “dinner’s at our house — casual and comfortable; five courses with beer or wine; $65 per head donation.”

With six seated at the cozy IKEA white table and four at the bar, Ryan, who is chef de cuisine at Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna, begins assembling the first course. Indie rock flows from an iPod dock as Jen pours more wine and delivers artfully arranged plates of a salad that blends spicy fried chorizo with tart pickled green tomato, cilantro and red onion.

A couple of hours later, after a final course of chocolate terrine with caramel and sea salt, the group offers a rowdy round of applause for the chef and a ragged rendition of “Happy Birthday to You.”

“The first dinner we did was a birthday gift to some friends of ours,” Ryan said. “After, Jen and I started talking and we agreed it would be a phenomenal way to start marketing what we hope will be our restaurant one day.”

The Hidingers already have a name for their restaurant, Staplehouse, and their intimate dinners have been dubbed Prelude to Staplehouse ( ). Since January 2009, they've put on more than a dozen and hope to up the pace to two per month through 2010.

Some of the guests who’ve made it to more than one Prelude dinner say they like coming to the Hidingers’ house because of the easygoing atmosphere.

“At first I was watching our Ps and Qs and trying to make it more like fine dining,” Jen said. “But we’ve come down from that. We actually don’t care if there’s noise or if I say a curse word. You’re in our home and you’re just kind of hanging out with us.”

In contrast to the Hidingers’ laid-back style, some other clubs go for a more high-profile, theatrical approach.

Jenny Levison, owner of the long-running Souper Jenny soup and sandwich shop in Buckhead, regularly recruits some of Atlanta's most celebrated chefs, including Gerry Klaskala of Aria and Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene, for her Underground Supper Club ( ).

Last year, Top Chef finalist Richard Blais cooked up a spooky Halloween dinner at Oakland Cemetery, served on gravestone-shaped plates.

“I think underground supper clubs are just another fun, creative way to entertain,” Levison said. “I didn’t start ours as a chef that couldn’t afford to open my own place. I really was interested in entertaining outside of the restaurant. People who know me know I love a good party.”

Souper Jenny supper club dinners are limited to about 30 people, personally chosen by Levison from the e-mails she receives (the more creative the better), and the cost can be as much as $150.

“Our supper club is more expensive than others like Lady Rogue at Rogue Apron,” Levison said. “She is one of my favorite personalities around town and is super creative.”

Lady Rogue, the exuberant young woman who runs Rogue Apron ( ), prefers to remain anonymous. But she has plenty to say about perceptions of the underground dining scene.

“Writers paint these scenes of fancy meals or secretive meet-ups,” Lady Rogue said. “These are seductive details. But I think there are much more interesting stories. Why have 2,000 people joined the Rogue Apron mailing list? What is missing from people’s experiences with food that so many of us are excited to join an underground dining community?

“From my perspective, the Rogue Apron community is as diverse as Atlanta — not comprised of the fashionista foodies, but people from all levels of income and background.”

Lady Rogue’s back story includes a short stint as a restaurant cook, though she’s quick to point out she has no formal training. She prefers beer to wine and often collaborates with a group of East Atlanta home brewers.

Her suppers tend to have themes, such as Mama Mediterranean. One of her favorites took place at the Starlight Six Drive-in. The cost is usually $30, with opportunities for volunteers who “can’t float the cash.”

“We’ve had people join us who were celebrating their birthdays, pregnant couples enjoying a night out,” Lady Rogue said. “And we can boast at least one romance from folks who met at a dinner.”

Chef Shaun Doty of Atlanta’s acclaimed Shaun’s Restaurant said he’s had some misgivings about the underground dining phenomena. But a recent experience cooking at a For Food’s Sake event helped change his mind.

For Food's Sake ( ) pairs chefs with Georgia farmers at a variety of Atlanta locations. This time, Doty partnered with Nicolas Donck of Crystal Organics Farms and chef Julia LeRoy of Bookhouse Pub for a dinner at an intown art gallery.

“I cooked for 60 people that night,” Doty said. “I had, like, 40 people in my restaurant that same night. I think people are hungry for these kinds of experiences. I had an opportunity to meet the guests and express my personality. Most of all, I had a chance to talk about things I care about, like farm-to-table cooking and being part of the community.”