What we call little things are merely the causes of great things; they are the beginning, the embryo, and it is the point of departure which, generally speaking, decides the whole future of an existence. One single black speck may be the beginning of a gangrene, of a storm, of a revolution.
– Henri-Frédéric Amiel
The spice trade has made kings. Pasta has altered migrations. Water has started wars. It could be said that culture is most often characterized by what iss on the menu and national borders are decided in the kitchen. How did this become so? In the history of the world it is hard to pinpoint the emergence of any one movement, the birth of a nation. Especially dealing with food, since most everything that lives needs to consume in order to continue to do so, it can be a messy business. 10,000 BCE finds the beginning of the agricultural revolution, and thus the centralization of human activity, the cessation of nomadicism, the formation of cities, the ability to store food. People found out applying heat to foodstuff made it easier to chew and, in some cases, taste better. Pretty soon thereafter some yeast blew into an earthenware container of dried barley and beer was born. At this point all hell must have broken loose with everyone putting everything they could find into their mouths, to more or less comedic failure. Behold the invention of the restaurant (and probably soon thereafter the hospital).
Fast forward twelve thousand years or so and you may find yourself at any one of the best1 restaurants in the world: Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley or Thomas Keller’s nearby The French Laundry in Yountville. Ferran Adrià’s elBulli in Catalonia is closing next year, but Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Bray is still in search of perfection. And then there is Noma, Copenhagen’s best of the best, run by René Redzepi, dedicated to an “innovative gastronomic take on the revival of Nordic cuisine.”
What if you don’t have the €250 to sit at elBulli (which even at that price operates at a loss), or the surprisingly low DKK745-DKK1,150 for a set meal at Noma, but still want to eat unique, creative and delicious food? You might find yourself sitting cross-legged in a basement, on a boat beneath a bridge, in a disused building, surrounded by strangers and about to partake in food and drink that may only be available for one night, before moving somewhere else, or disappearing altogether. This is what is known as Underground Dining, aka the Pirate Restaurant, and are basically paying, itinerant dinner parties.
The history of Guerilla Dining has its base in many pots. Supper clubs, often located on the outskirts of the anytown, USA of a century ago, are the predecessors of roadhouses, diners, truck stops and the fast food devolution of today, as well as share a direct lineage with speakeasies. Speakeasies, as many know, became popular during the 1920-1933 U.S. Prohibition as a way to bypass federal law restricting consumption of alcoholic beverages, but also as a way to avoid costly taxes, high priced liquor licenses, and teetotaling religious zealots by being easy to set up and break down and located largely by word-of-mouth.
These days the evolution of the restaurant and eating habits in general could be pinned to economic woes. When economies go south for the winter-and stay there-restaurant-enthusiasts tend to eat in more. Hipsters hosting co-op dinner parties with high-end food bought with food stamps. The proliferation of backyard gardens, home-canning, stews and soups and traditional peasant recipes, often with homegrown ingredients, are all wildly popular, in no small part due to gastronomic television programming and more time spent at home. The grass rootsiness of the Slow Food Movement is slowly trudging forward with stick-to-your-ribs local, seasonal goodness, but nothing quells the hunger pangs for a great meal out in singular surroundings with like-minded individuals. Here is where creativity meets economy.
Meeting Tiffany of Silver.Spoon Guerilla Dining in Copenhagen was a great introduction to the meat-packing district of Vesterbro-the flagship area for the artisanal revolution going on in Denmark: beer and wine, bread and coffee-as well as finding out about the seemingly unlikely concept of an American running a “pop-up restaurant” abroad.
“The venue dictates the event,” she told me as we walked along Istedgade, the main drag of one of the liveliest areas in the city, “so we think of each dinner as a kind of one-night art installation.”
“How are the Danes responding?”
“The main focus of these dinners is meant to remove the diner out of the traditional restaurant paradigm while still providing some of the typical comforts of a restaurant. Our guest chefs are amazing, and the prices are really great for Copenhagen, but the Danish tend to be…”
“People here like to eat early and stick with what they know. The Caesar Salad is frustratingly popular,” she laughs, “though we are making headway.”
The recent Thanksgiving Dinner & A Flick event, which partnered with chefs of San Francisco’s graffEats for the second stop of their guerilla dining world tour to offer a “memorable 5-course twist on the American Thanksgiving tradition,” was a success despite logistical difficulties.
“The overall event was a smash, the film curation was excellent and the wine pairings were good, but given the layout of the venue, the time between the courses took much too long.”
Yet one of the inherent dangers-lack of familiarity of the surroundings-of the ephemeral food trade is also one of the boons. Ghetto Gourmet‘s Jeremy Townsend describes it well, “When you get thousands of people from the internet to have dinner with each other on some stranger’s living room floor, you get a lot of great stories.”
Is it any wonder that the Ghetto Gourmet is from the Bay Area? Started serendipitously in 2004 and reported by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006, the New York Times wrote about them in 2007. The phenomenon popped onto the radar in Buenos Aires in 2007, the U.K. in 2008 and by that point the underground culinary world should have become common knowledge. But somehow it hasn’t.
People talk about who was first, who started what, and being late-in-the-game, but the truth is that anymore, more than the games we play to make our egos swell, more than even needing to eat it, we all love food. Who cares where the phenomenon came from? First and foremost, eating food is about survival. The various discoveries of different edibles and techniques for preparing them has largely defined who we are and where we live. We must give thanks to those who came before us and gave their lives so that we would know the hearty goodness of the noodle, the satisfying fulfillment of warm rice, the buttery contentment of bread. We are the next step in the evolution of food. And these days, we love eating out. Eating well out. Eating well out together with our friends and family. And once with them, does it matter where we do it, as long as the same loving attention is paid to flavor, presentation and ambiance?
1 “Best” refers to Restaurant Magazine‘s annual list.
If you are looking for a comprehensive listing of the underground dining scene, Dan Perlman’s Saltshaker is it.