underground dining

Underground dining growing in popularity.

In an old converted warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission district recently, about 65 gourmands dined by candlelight at The Wild Kitchen, an event presented by the group forageSF.  One after another, courses arrived from the kitchen: fish soup, duck fat potatoes, fusilli con cinghiale (pasta with wild boar). With each bite and sigh of delight, the crowd eagerly participated in a crime — a scrumptious one, but illegal nonetheless.


Welcome to the world of underground dining: gourmet pop-up restaurants that operate outside the system of health department licenses and inspections. Food lovers have attended these clandestine feasts for years, but the general public’s growing appetite for adventurous eating has caused the popularity of these events to rise and could produce a new generation of culinary stars.

Unless they get busted first.

“They’re renegade restaurants,” said Alison Bing, food writer and San Francisco Lonely Planet guidebook author, who has tracked the phenomenon. “People are willing to pay for a unique experience.”

Being illicit is part of the excitement, with diners learning the secret locations only hours before service. There is also a heightened level of camaraderie, since attendees eat together at large tables.

“It has a lot to do with the communal dining experience,” said Anil Margsahayam, co-founder of another underground eatery, the Stag Dining Group, so named because all five owners (chefs, hunters, marketers, performers and conservationists) are unmarried and want diners to mingle.

The Wild Kitchen’s menu — $100 per person (B.Y.O.B.) on two packed consecutive nights — was inspired by a recent trip to France by Iso Rabins, 29, a chef and the scruffy, charismatic founder of forageSF. As the group’s name implies, the dishes contained ingredients — mushrooms, leafy greens and seaweed — that were gathered in the wild.

Mr. Rabins described foraging as “collecting food that won’t run away.” The exception was the wild boar, which was hunted, shot and skinned on private property near Paso Robles. (After many hours of cooking, it tasted like pulled pork.)

Mr. Rabins, whose first name, Iso, means “seashore” in Japanese — “My parents were hippies,” he said — is one of the more prominent faces of the underground dining scene. He has taped segments for two coming Travel Channel programs, “Bizarre Foods” and “The Wild Within,” where he prepared “roadkill raccoon.” (The raccoon was supplied by the TV show, he noted.) He has about 22,000 subscribers to his newsletter, which promotes the dinners and a monthly Underground Market.

Attracting some 2,500 fans, the market allows home cooks to sell their creations — from fresh baked fruit tarts to savory meat dishes — an idea that runs afoul of health codes. At the first market in December 2009, city health department inspectors arrived.

“I was terrified,” Mr. Rabins said. “They said, ‘This is illegal.’ ” The contretemps was resolved by making the market a membership event where attendees sign a release acknowledging the risks.

The restaurants, however, are not as easily legalized, since the meals are not prepared in inspected, commercial kitchens, and because ingredients that are foraged are not subjected to government safety regulations.

“People are taking a risk. If we get complaints, we’ll investigate,” said Richard Lee, manager of restaurant inspectors for the San Francisco Department of Public Health. But Mr. Lee said he knew of no cases where diners had become ill at the events.

Ms. Bing, who has attended underground dinners, said she had mixed feelings about the lack of health department oversight. As a food journalist, she considers inspection scores essential when covering restaurants, and she raised possible concerns about fair wages and compliance with environmental laws.

“We are close to a zero-waste environment, a zero-landfill environment,” said Matthew Homyak, a co-founder of Stag Dining.

As far as employees are concerned, volunteers work the events for now, but there are ambitions to become a thriving legal business, perhaps even to obtain a catering license.

In the meantime, they say they are following the same food preparation rules of any clean restaurant. “We’re keeping ourselves safe,” said Jordan Grosser, one of two professionally trained chef-owners with Stag Dining.

Mr. Rabins did not attend culinary school. He has a film degree from Emerson College and had limited professional cooking experience before this venture. His passion for foraged food, like city snails to make escargot, seems more of a personal calling.

“It really changes the way you view the natural environment,” he said.

Via New York Times