By Sylvia Tomczak
It’s exclusive, it’s elusive, it’s underground dining — and it might just be happening in the most obvious of places. All across Canada (and the rest of the world), chefs and restaurateurs have been rethinking the concept of dining out through embracing elements of secret supper club culture. Welcoming social intimacy and offering guests a totally tailored experience, private dining might just be a way for restaurants to generate extra revenue as life picks up post-pandemic.
Once only reserved for office holiday parties, many families and groups of friends swiftly began opting to “book the backroom” as a safety precaution to limit socialization while enjoying a night out without the hassle of cooking and cleaning. With many restaurants offering up their wine cellars and rooftops for these private parties, restaurateurs may find it wise to take a page from the book of private supper clubs and start considering in-house curated events to attract the attention of patrons.
Gaining traction in the 1930s, supper clubs became popularized following the years of prohibition-era speakeasies. Inspired by the nostalgia of those exclusive hangouts, dinner clubs soon started to fill that void. But, while they were originally synonymous with triple-dollar-sign price tags, that isn’t always the case in today’s world.
In fact, underground dining today has become almost a form of social and gastronomic experiment, often hosted in odd locations with hand-picked guests scrambling to solve clues about where their dinner will transpire. Once present, patrons are welcomed with an epicurean experience with several courses of gourmet offerings. However, what remains attractive about these secret supper clubs is what they signify: status.
Whether it’s a supper club for billionaires or for a frugal foodie, the allure of these private dining experiences remains the same. Focused on exclusivity, dinner at a closed-door restaurant is like being the holder of a juicy secret — not everyone knows, but you do, and that’s what makes it all so exciting. Through invitation-only soirées, impossibly hard-to-get reservation slots, and sometimes year-long waitlists, the hype surrounding these types of establishments is the very thing that keeps them in demand. Offering a handful of guests a night of culinary delight (and on a first-dibs basis or during after-hours) can have a very similar effect for established restaurants.
Consequently, privacy is an added appeal of underground dining. The element of discretion allows for authentic experiences to transpire as “no one is really watching”, which is particularly valuable for wealthy patrons handling business affairs. However, for the general diner, it’s not so much privacy that’s valued as intimacy.
Since supper clubs pride themselves on catering to a handful of guests, an intimate atmosphere is another element that adds to the appeal. Thanks to the small group size, this allows for a lot more social interaction and networking between guests.
But it doesn’t end there. There’s also the opportunity for guests to connect with chefs — something that is usually near impossible when dining out normally — bridging the gap between culinary creative and paying patron to discuss inspiration and understand the gastronomic genius. This can also be particularly valuable for restaurateurs as building a relationship with customers can help ensure allegiance to the establishment and increase business by word of mouth.
Of course, one of the biggest components of underground dining clubs is the food. Under a bespoke dining model, a custom culinary adventure is what awaits guests. It’s totally unique, totally unduplicated, totally one-of-a-kind. While those in a typical underground kitchen could range from Michelin-starred chefs to a talented kid with a penchant and passion for food, that doesn’t mean that restaurant chefs have to be limited either. Adding a members-only supper club to your restaurant’s roster can allow chefs a chance to try something new and even test menus for the future.
While it may seem like a risk to introduce supper clubs into a restaurant, there could also be reward in the risk. Offering an unparalleled experience that cannot be recreated, private dining has the potential to satisfy the modern consumer’s desires for the next trendy dining experience. Likewise, the socially-driven connectivity is also what sets supper clubs apart from traditional restaurants, especially following the pandemic — we are eager yet cautious to join together again, and a smaller crowd eases worries while still providing an unforgettable meal.
Financially speaking, even on slower days, private events can fill seats in everyday eateries. By using that chic back room, whimsical terrace, or hidden bar, restaurants can provide a unique space that offers privacy and exclusivity. Couple that stellar space with a specially crafted menu and signature cocktails and you can create the ultimate out-of-the-box experience.
With foodies already flocking to underground supper clubs, restaurants could benefit from the appeal of these exclusive and elusive private dining concepts. The only question is, will your restaurant be ready to answer the demand?
Sylvia Tomczak is an alumna of the University of Gastronomic Sciences studying food culture, communication, and marketing. With a love of words and all things enogastronomy, she is passionate about learning new things through a foodie-focused lens and sharing them both on paper and online. Find her on Instagram at @honeyandtruffles.