“It’s like having a whole city right in your apartment building,” says Mike Hale, former owner of Manzanita and the Willowside Cafe, who has dined at several of these clandestine spots. “There’s this guy down the hall that’s cooking Bengalese food; someone downstairs is doing chop suey. That’s how I got started in this business—we’d do all of these dinner parties, and I thought getting paid to do that would be brilliant. So I decided to open up my own place.”
One chef believes that the draw to attend an underground restaurant comes less from wanting to have a traditional “dining out” experience and more because diners’ attitudes toward the entire restaurant scene are shifting.
“I think this is part of a trend, even in traditional restaurants, to make the dining experience more homey,” he says.
This change toward wanting a dining experience to be comforting, rather than the highly-formalized restaurant experience offered by such famed spots as the French Laundry, is a welcome one, according to many restaurateurs. Taking a restaurant out of the traditional context, and putting it—quite literally—in a homier context allows people to relax. Providing this type of low-key atmosphere is much easier when running a restaurant out of a basement or a garage, and these illegal dining spots are rapidly gaining cult status.
In an underground restaurant , where inventive restaurateurs don’t pay taxes, social security, or any of the costs of maintaining a full-time staff, this funky, homey atmosphere is created naturally. And chefs aren’t bound by the traditional ‘chicken-and-fish’ menu rules.
The difference between a traditional restaurant with a low-lit dining room, full of comfortable customers enjoying their cassoulet and their Gigondas, always attended by an unobtrusive and polished server; a kitchen full of curses and banging pots—dead silent during the dinner rush, the quiet broken only by the concise sounds of plates being laid out on the line, the grill hissing as another grass-fed steak sizzles its juices onto the wood coals below and an underground restaurant—where you’re literally eating in someone’s living room—is profound.
One of the best things about having an underground restaurant, those who do them say, is the variety of people who come to dine. Because advertising is all word-of-mouth, everyone who shows up enjoys a common thread: either they know the chef one way or another, or they’re in the restaurant industry. But while the clientele may share common interests, they are all very different.
“We get so many kinds of people!” enthuses one underground restaurateur. “All ages, men, women, different sexual preferences, whatever! It’s so great to see all of these people come together through food.”
Another positive aspect of running an underground restaurant is that freelance chefs do not have to invest a lot of money or time. When they started the culinary speakeasy two years ago, two Bay Area renegade chefs had planned to supplement their rent by throwing dinner parties where friends paid to be wined and dined like any gourmands, only without the restaurant structure. But the guys couldn’t find a house with a garage, so they did it in a field. Word spread like wildfire, until “this one night we had Indian food, and ninety-five people showed up,” laughs one of them. “It was way too crazy. We decided if this many people want to show up, we might as well do it.”
A potential downside of running a popular underground restaurant is just that: its popularity. “The amount of people attending just keeps rising,” he says. “We’re turning away like five more people every week. I feel like we’re doing something good for the community and our friends, but at the same time we don’t want to get in trouble for it.”
But underground restaurant might not be so underground any more; they just might be the wave of the dining future. Such once-small venues as
Oakland’s “Ghetto Gourmet” have blown up with publicity in recent months; being featured on the cover of the Chronicle’s Sunday paper as well as National Public Radio, the once-underground restaurant is now in negotiations to film a television show. San Francisco
One underground restaurateur describes his restaurant as a “speakeasy—a tiny little place with a vibe—a kind of word-on-the-street thing,” he muses. “We’re doing something unique, not run-of-the-mill. I think that’s the best way to live, really. Doing something fun that makes us truly happy. Those are our reasons behind starting the underground restaurant.”