Speakeasy restaurants: Inside Vancouver's underground dining scene
The underground dining scene is burgeoning in Vancouver, and it's just the tip of the global iceberg.
Welcome to the secret restaurant
“So, how did you find out about this?” That's the icebreaker question for the guests at NFA, a sort of secret chef's presentation taking place in a trendy Vancouver suburb.
It was all very hush-hush: I didn't know the exact location of NFA until only a few hours before the event began. I arrived promptly at 6:45pm; as this is Vancouver, that meant I was about 20 minutes earlier than everyone else. A fortunate turn of events, as I got the opportunity to chat with my host for the evening, Chef Steve.
A transplant from Durban, South Africa, Steve left his life as a lawyer behind to pursue this true passion here in the Pacific Northwest. He started hosting a secret dining series several years ago, both to promote his catering business and to use Vancouver's adventurously hungry denizens as a constantly-rotating test panel.
Steve is CFO (Chief Food Officer) of No Fixed Address Catering, as well as the mastermind (and hands) behind NFA, the secret fine dining series. as friends (and their friends' friends) sharing a meal while contributing to the cost of of the experience.
Running a restaurant out of your apartment is not, strictly speaking, legal. However, NFA is not really a restaurant in the strictest terms. There's a menu, but visitors don't really get to choose between options. It's what you'd call a benevolent dictatorship.
There's a table, but only one. There's also only one seating per evening. In this case, that seating is at a massive table set for 12, but you could easily squeeze a few more people around it.
Steve described his operation as existing in a '''legal grey area”: his is not a licensed restaurant if you look at it in terms of customers paying for dinner. However, you can also look at NFA as gathering of friends and their friends, all of whom are kicking in for the cost of the meal.
A rich mix of people had gathered for this particular meal, none of whom had I met before. Among the 11 other guests were a pair of filmmakers whose work would probably be familiar, even if their names might not. Also present were two developers, an architect, and a guy visiting from Alberta. A few of us found out from one of the regular attendees, who was sort of an ambassador for the underground dining scene. One of the women had found out about NFA through Google. I wonder what her search terms were.
Also at the table was Steve's neighbour. After years of wondering what the hell was going on in Steve's apartment, her curiosity finally got the better of her. Maybe she thought Steve was running some sort of swingers' event. Alas, that was not the case, though one of the women in the group was a swing dancer.
Secret dining isn't cheap: your $65 doesn't even get you a glass of wine (though the water is free) Steve, as well as others active in the secret dining scene, cannot take advantage of the economies of scale involved in restaurant ingredient procurement. Furthermore, apartment-sized kitchens don't really offer room for walk-in refrigeration. While there is surely some profit to be had from NFA, it's difficult to imagine Steve retiring to the South of France anytime soon.
Let's look at what your cash and inside info gets you:
First course: Fish taco
Second Course: Squid in chorizo croquette and salsa verde (a new creation)
Third Course: Duck au poivre
Fourth course: Pink grapefruit sorbet
Fifth Course: Crab cake in white gaspacho
Sixth Course: Banana bread pudding (made with croissant bread)
Steve managed to accomodate for a few dietary restrictions as well, even providing an entirely separate dish for one of his guests (as opposed to swapping out a few ingredients). Remember, he was working alone. Obviously, advanced notice for such dietary restrictions is necessary.
(Note: No, I didn't Instagram every course. Perhaps you should consider abstaining as well.)
How deep is the underground?
I asked Steve if he knew of any other chefs involved in the underground-restaurant scene. He told me that there were at least six or seven others, and each had a different methodology; from beer-pairing to locally caught and foraged ingredients.
Swallow Tail, Vegan Secret Supper, and 12B are also part of Vancouver's underground-restaurant scene, a scene that attracts media attention from time to time, but remains below the what's-going-on-this-week radar for most of us.