At 6 p.m., the September sun cast a rosy glow on the building across the street. I parked and my friend Mike checked the map. From the sidewalk, we saw a woman heading our way, red and white apron flapping in the wind.
“Down there, down the alley,” she called out. Sam Hammich (a pseudonym) was our hostess for an evening at Under the Table—A Culinary Speakeasy. We spied twinkle lights streaming along fences and tree branches on both sides of a long table set for 20. A makeshift kitchen with an array of small tables came into view. A DJ set up his rig—a pile of LPs and a turntable—for our dinner music.
The gravel drive had been leveled with wood mulch. It was a rustic touch in contrast to the dinnerware, wine glasses and candles. We saw some familiar faces and new folks as well. This was Hammich’s inaugural event, an opportunity for her to serve cuisine that is a step up from her usual repertoire. She’s been a chef around town for many years. But for now, she was trying something different.
Over the next three-plus hours, we enjoyed great music, excellent company and a fine seven-course meal—each course paired with wine we brought to the occasion—all for a nominal donation and tips. The service was familiar and courses arrived at intervals throughout the evening. From an amuse-bouche of fancy fruit to a delectable pear tart dessert, we agreed we’d do this again.
Under the Table is just one of the underground dining clubs that have sprouted in the Duke City. Meals like these have been happening around the world for years, conjured up by chefs plying their craft for a select few guests who are willing to try dishes that might push the culinary envelope.
The gravel drive had been leveled with wood mulch. It was a rustic touch in contrast to the dinnerware, wine glasses and candles.
You have to do some sleuthing to find these local venues. I found Under the Table and Speakeasy Culinary Club on Facebook and followed instructions to get on their mailing lists. Like the speakeasies of the prohibition era, some can only be found by word-of-mouth. Passwords and secrecy about hosts and locations are de rigueur.
Our next underground meal was Speakeasy Culinary Club’s 2011 New Year’s Eve celebration. Our hosts Chef Michael Lantz and partner Lauren Ball began their venture when friends, who are chefs and servers, got together for dinner parties. The quality of the meals escalated, each chef trying to outdo the next, until someone suggested they take it public.
New Year’s Eve was the club’s third foray, and after a last-minute change of venue from a Downtown location, we found ourselves driving east on I-40, past the mountains. It was a completely different experience. The dining room was large enough for two tables seating 20, with room for a small performance area. This event focused as much on entertainment as on the food.
Roaring Twenties costumes were encouraged, and the Toaster Puppy theater troupe presented clown skits, songs and acrobatics to accompany each course. Five hors d’oeuvres and a dessert were served with wine pairings. This event cost more, but wine and Champagne came with the meal.
Underground dinner clubs are a good fit for folks who enjoy meeting new people as much as eating new cuisines. A willingness to go with the unexpected is key. I’ll be keeping my ear to the ground for upcoming events. Maybe I’ll see you there.