San Francisco — THE room is abuzz with 30 chattering diners who sip bring-your-own wine and dip plantain chips into creamy layers of pureed sweet potato, Peruvian Aji peppers and Dungeness crab. Between courses, local blues singer-songwriter J.L. Stiles strums a guitar and sings about love, life -- and food.
To the uninitiated, the people sitting on floor cushions discussing peach salsa and almond-crusted saffron cheesecake might look like a gathering of food-loving friends, but in fact, most are strangers.
They've been brought together by Ghetto Gourmet, one of several underground supper clubs at the forefront of a rapidly growing "anti-restaurant" movement. Based in San Francisco, Ghetto Gourmet has branched out in recent months, staging dinners in June and October in Los Angeles, with others planned for next week in New York.
It's a movement that started in Northern California and Oregon but is spreading nationwide as impresarios behind intriguingly named entities such as the Hidden Kitchen, Supper Underground and Vagabond have become active (in Sacramento; Austin, Texas; and Seattle, respectively).
The roots of several of these alternative or nomadic dinner events can be traced to would-be chefs and restaurateurs with more ambition than start-up money, but the concept takes many forms.
Some, such as L.A.'s Secret Restaurant art-and-food evenings, are by invitation only; others take online reservations. There may, or may not, be a professional chef in the kitchen. Meals are served in homes, on farms, in parking lots or just about anywhere a restaurant is not. And there are San Francisco values in play.
One new Bay Area supper club, SubCultureDining, calls itself a "pirate faction" and posts a "creed of ethics" endorsing "commitment to good food, community, sustainability for all."
"The point of an underground restaurant isn't just to gather people together to eat in an alternative setting," says Ghetto Gourmet's founder, Jeremy Townsend, 30. "It's to change the way we experience food -- truly without walls and without the boundaries."
At the recent Ghetto Gourmet dinner, Townsend bounds up and down the narrow attic staircase, balancing half a dozen plates on each trip. A volunteer crew of friends plates dishes in the bare-bones kitchen of a subdivided Victorian shared by five twentysomething roommates.
This evening's cook, Efrain Cuevas, once worked in a restaurant in Chicago but is now a mechanical engineer. Townsend at times uses enthusiastic amateurs in the kitchen but has also hosted dinners prepared by such professionals as Peter Jackson, executive chef at Piatti Locali in Santa Clara, Calif., and Serge Santiago, former executive chef at Mecca in San Francisco.
The Ghetto Gourmet got its start in 2004 when Townsend began posting on Craigslist (under "Miscellaneous Romance") the weekly dinners he and his brother Joe, who cooked under Santiago at Mecca, put together at their Oakland apartment. The ad read, "Two brothers, a poet and a chef ... are hosting an underground restaurant in a dark corner of Oakland.... In an effort to make the world a groovy place, we're inviting you to dinner. RSVP required."
This kind of invitation strikes a chord with young people who make social connections online. At underground supper clubs, the chat room and restaurant have merged.
A way to meet locals
JONATHAN MAYER, a Google employee, heard about Ghetto Gourmet when, new in town, he placed his own Craigslist ad requesting, half-jokingly, tips for meeting locals. A sincere Ghetto Gourmet enthusiast suggested he check out a dinner. "I wound up at this random dinner, eating in someone's house I don't even know, which was hard for me to adjust to at first," Mayer says. "But I keep coming back for the same reason as my first visit -- to meet new, interesting people."
Online chat rooms, blogs, photo blogs and urban communities such as Craigslist have enabled the underground restaurant scene to flourish. But Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, began attending another San Francisco simply because he's a friend of the organizer, James Stolich.
Stolich, a former Internet executive and enthusiastic cook who "interned" at San Francisco's Quince with owner and executive chef Michael Tusk, launched his small supper club out of his home last spring. "James' food is certainly part of what keeps me going back," Newmark says. "But it's really about the social aspect -- you just can't re-create that in a restaurant."
For people outside the inner circle, getting invited to one of the smaller events can be difficult. Websites seldom list a direct phone number.
"I'm most concerned about creating an interesting dinner party with the right people, so I use e-mail as a filter," Stolich says. "With only 14 guests, it's important to make sure everyone is sincere and really wants to be there or the mood is ruined."
Small roving dinners, such as Paladar Temescal in Oakland, reveal the dinner's location only to those who firmly RSVP by e-mail.