Food porn meets urban chic at underground dining clubs

The food porn chefs on TV know almost nothing about food safety; those seeking to avoid city licensing may know even less.

A reporter from the New York Times is the latest to discover and glorify San Francisco’s underground dining scene,

The underground market seeks to encourage food entrepreneurship by helping young vendors avoid roughly $1,000 a year in fees — including those for health permits and liability insurance — required by legitimate farmers markets. Here, where the food rave — call it a crave — was born, the market organizers sidestep city health inspections by operating as a private club, requiring that participants become “members” (free) and sign a disclaimer noting that food might not be prepared in a space that has been inspected.

Fueled by Twitter and food blogs, the market has spawned a host of underground imitators in places like Washington and Atlanta, where about 1,000 people showed up for the first of a series of monthly Saturday night craves — and where Tim Ho, a young Taiwanese-American who cooks part-time, boasted that his jellyfish salad has a crunch he compared to “tendons and ligaments.” There are outposts as far as London and Amsterdam.

Even mainstream farmers markets are creeping toward nighttime, including a Friday evening market in Nashville near the State Capitol where homeward-bound workers can drink wine as they chat about kale.

Some see the growth of the underground markets as part of a high renaissance of awareness for a Fast Food Nation generation, with its antipathy for the industrial food machine. In the recesses of the markets, a certain self-expressive, do-it-yourself “craftness” flourishes.

I just threw up a little.

Underground restaurants in St. Louis: how bored are Americans?

Food pornography is nothing new. Neither are so-called underground restaurants. That the St. Louis Post-Dispatch thinks both may be new and newsworthy may help explain the decline of American newspapers (and look at that cool arm decal in this pic from the Post, right, below).

Although underground restaurants have been popping up around the country for several years, this incarnation, launched last summer, appears to be the first of its kind in St. Louis.

Diners learn about an upcoming monthly dinner only through word of mouth. They sign up on a website using a pass code. On the day of the dinner, they get an e-mail telling them where to go. Sometimes it’s a private house; other times, it’s a rented space. …

Health department officials in the St. Louis area say underground restaurants violate health codes because they lack the proper inspections and permits.

"Even if a church sets up a buffet for a charity event, they need a permit," said Craig LeFebvre, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Health Department.

If someone invites friends to a private dining event in St. Louis County, they’re not violating any laws. But if they put up any signs — including a website — and the event is open to a paying public, they need a permit, explained Gerrin Cheek Butler of the county’s health department.

The chef, who asked not to be identified, said,

"The whole thing is an experience. It’s not just this consumer thing, where you show up, order, and get pushed out the door an hour later."

Correct. It’s a way to charge a premium for porn.

Secret Suppers

USA Today yesterday reported that the underground restaurant scene is growing. Jenn Garbee, who has just written Secret Suppers: Rogue Chefs & Underground Restaurants in Warehouses, Townhouses, Open Fields & Everywhere in Between (Sasquatch Books,$18.95) estimates there are at least 100 such places nationwide, with new ones opening all the time.

Q: In a nutshell, what are underground restaurants? Are they essentially dinner parties that strangers pay to attend?

A: They’re something in between a dinner party and a supper club (in which members share the cost of dinners at rotating houses). The difference is the members aren’t the same every time. There’s a donation, but sometimes that doesn’t cover anything but expenses. So it’s sort of a paid dinner party — or like going to a restaurant where you don’t know who’s sitting next to you.

Q: Since they’re generally skirting tax and licensing regulations, most operate under the radar. How did you find them?

A: Most are Internet-driven, so I just Googled "underground restaurants"and "secret supper clubs." You can ask chefs, food folks or at farmers markets, and check out food blogs. I wanted to include different types in the book in terms of size and location and the reason the chef is doing it.