Secret dinner societies: Underground dining in Sydney
A sense of intrigue, mystery and palatable surprise awaits in Sydney's underground, guerrilla-dining scene that is giving new meaning to the evening meal.
It goes something like this: you pre-purchase a ticket and just a few hours before the dinner is scheduled to start, you’re sent the address via text or email. You arrive at the venue to dine and wine with strangers.
The venues change as much as the people, and the food is always experimental.
This exclusive and secret dining scene caters to a fraction of food enthusiasts around Sydney, but the culinary speakeasy is en route to replacing the predictability of fine dining.
It requires no advertisements or marketing teams -- it’s a slave to word-of-mouth -- but you have to get in quick to secure a spot.
“To add a fun element, we give eye masks to everyone who attend the dinner. It stays true to our brand name as well,” says organizer Alex Adams.
With a literal covertness in its name, Secret Foodies has been popping up successfully for 18 months in restaurants around the inner west and eastern suburbs.
“But we don’t just pop up at a restaurant,” says Adams. “We like to challenge our chefs to cook us something unique, like cooking lamb in seven ways or using produce within a 100-kilometer radius of the restaurant."
Popular amongst interstate travelers and corporate workers, Secret Foodies has created a bit of a name for itself.
Secret Foodies, ticket under $100 for weekly sessions, +61 (0)422 667 488, www.secretfoodies.com.au
The venue and the food come with secrets at Minus 8. “When you say Japanese food, all you think of is tempura and sushi," says head chef and organizer, Anton Verplak. "I cook up lesser-known dishes. It’s almost a traditional Japanese night with a twist.”
This Japanese-themed underground dining caters to only 12 people per mysterious sitting and promises “real Japanese food.”
“It frustrates me to think that people go out to eat what is tagged ‘authentic Japanese’ and then pay for tinned food,” he says. “Everything from dressing, sauces, to toppings, is pre-frozen and exported.
“I use local produce and everything that goes on my plate is fresh.”
This Eastern journey runs via a mailing list. If you’re not on it, you’ll have to miss dinner for the night. Apologies.
The Table Sessions
“I don’t want to alienate anyone -- I don’t want it to be too quiet or literally no one will come,” says contemporary chef Darren Robertson. “I like to give it the ‘secret’ tag, though. It seems romantic.”
Known to cook in less obvious spots, the liberty and flexibility to cook anywhere is what originally lured Robertson into this business idea.
“I quite like the idea of a barbeque in a fine dining restaurant. I also once held a session on a cliff and another in a flower shop,” he says.
The Table Sessions can contacted via Facebook, Twitter or the company’s website.
Everything is a mystery for this meal: the venue, food choices and even the hosts’ real names, who like to comically refer to themselves as Mr. Computer and Ms. Dos.
“Fine dining is boring, so we pick venues on their ‘wow’ factor,” says Ms. Dos. “It’s never in a specific suburb or restaurant -- it’s always quirky.”
From setting a pop-up kitchen in a sewing factory, converted mansion and hairdresser, any venue is a potential restaurant.
The idea sprung when Mr. Computer, also a chef, wanted to give young apprentices a chance to show their wares.
“Our first apprentice was from Quay restaurant. We then started working with his network of young chefs. I make it my explicit goal to help them find their authentic style,” he says.
To apply for a seat, send an expression of interest, because this dinner is invite-only and groups are handpicked by organizers.
Transient Diner, $100, enquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Table for 20
One of the original trendsetters in the underground food industry, Table for 20 has now graduated to becoming a platform to host dinner parties.
Its non-secrecy is a factor in its popularity.
“We started it that way, kept really quiet about it," says owner Michael Fantuz. "But as the business grew, people just knew about it. The minute people know about something, it’s no longer underground, is it?”
Every night of the week welcomes a new dish to the Italian-influenced menu. The restaurant seats 40 people, with two large tables, each serving a three-course communal meal.
“The table is what it's about: the conversation and the conviviality,” says Fantuz. “People have lost respect for it. It’s the idea of coming to a table and sharing with others. It’s also about the good value experience and robust meal”.
Table for 20, 182 Campbell St., Surry Hills, Wednesday–Saturday, 8 p.m. onwards, $70, +61 (0)416 096 916, www.tablefor20.blogspot.com
The Bite Club House
The enchantment of this historical Woollahra house wraps you in its arms. Its rustic and intriguing wall dents span all the way to the kitchen.
Debra Cronin has hosted dinner parties in the 1885-built house since 2009, and protected the property’s homely charm, while also hosting theme nights.
“I thought there’s no better way to utilize the space and justify it than by feeding others,” says Cronin. “I’ve done it up with Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-The-Adams-Family theme.”
She works in collaboration with ex-Otto chef, David Speck.