The Underground Supper

November 4, 2009

My Mentor: Robin*
Details: The Swallow Tail Supper Club


Two-thirds through her sommelier certification, Robin knows her wine

With the commencement of the Roadshow, I’ve had to put one of my favourite past times–dining out–on hiatus. I’m not alone in this–for many, economic belt-tightening means slashing non-essential expenditures like eating out. But as a foodie, I don’t have the patience to wait for my current economic situation to change before I can frequent restaurants again. I want to satiate my culinary cravings with delicious food, too much wine, and the company of good friends. Thankfully, there is a financially viable answer for the fiscally challenged: the underground supper club.

Underground restaurants are burgeoning in popularity. This surge could be attributed to this past year’s credit crunch. But it might also stem from the growing throngs of non-industry food-obsessed. Or the increasing number of people concerned with food security and commercial farming practices. Or it could be these underground establishments can now easily net crowds and generate a meme through social media. Most likely, it’s a combination of all of the above. But whatever the reason, more of these not-quite-illegal restaurants are sprouting up and opening their doors (often of their homes) to hungry, budget-minded diners. It’s become the hot new trend on the culinary scene; like last year’s poached egg, they’re popping up everywhere.

But it’s by no means a new phenomenon. Vancouver’s Apartment 12B, run by Chef Todd, has been open since 2007. My first venture into underground dining was in 1998 at one of Cuba’s paladares restaurants. Underground establishments have existed in Argentina for at least 30 years, known as estaurantes de puertas cerradas, or locked door restaurants. But in North America, pirate restaurants are garnering more media attention, and in turn, more clientele. I wouldn’t be surprised if Saveur magazine named underground supper clubs as the cuisine of 2009.

For this stop on the Roadshow, I got behind the scenes of one of these ‘by-donation’ restaurants. (It’s a legal grey area, but not quite illegal, so I haven’t broken rule number one.) I joined the chef and hostess, Robin, as she prepared dinner for eight for her underground supper club: Swallow Tail Suppers. In her East Vancouver home, Robin serves dinner to groups of 6-12. In the summer, guests dine outside, surrounded by a lush garden and shaded by fig and pear trees–the fruit of which often appears on the menu. In the winter, people sit at a long wooden table in her front room.


Robin cooking in The Swallow Tail's kitchen

Robin started her supper club this past February as an offshoot of her B.C. tour company, Swallow Tail Tours. Focusing on the province’s food and wine, Swallow Tail offers seven to one-day hiking, snowshoeing, culinary, and cycling tours where guests can eat and drink their way through the Okanagan, the Gulf Islands, Harrison Hotsprings, or Vancouver. Robin started Swallowtail Tours about a year ago after leaving a ten-year career as an art director for a video gaming company. She wanted to pursue her passions: food, wine, and B.C.’s outdoor fun. The supper club seemed a natural extension of the tour company.

The kitchen isn’t an unfamiliar place on the Roadshow. I have already worked a day as a line cook. But with this gig, I was to be prep chef, hostess, waitress, and dishwasher. My tasks were pretty straight forward: chop zucchini, zest lemons, wash pots, build a fire in the grill, slice onions. It was a much simpler language than the one spoken in kitchen’s of conventional restaurants. And things moved at a much more relaxed pace. Feeding eight people is far less stressful than feeding 80.


Tiger Blue from B.C.'s Poplar Grove Cheese

Robin bases her menu on seasonal, local ingredients. Like most underground restaurants, she, not the diner, determines what’s for dinner. Her guests send her a list of dietary restrictions and culinary dislikes, but what’s served is her decision. And diners don’t find out what they’re eating until it is on the plate in front of them. She does, however, email her guests a suggested wine to pair with each course. And she can make recommendations with authority–she’s two-thirds completed her sommelier certification. Booze is one of the underground supper club’s big draws for the fiscally challenged. It’s BYO, which means no exorbitant mark up on what you drink.

At 6:50 the doorbell rings. Robin checks her calculator watch (guess the gaming geek still lurks within). The first guest is early. We pour her a glass of her wine–an Okanagan chenin blanc and one of Robin’s suggested wines–and she stands in the kitchen chatting as we work. When the others arrive shortly afterward, they congregate on the living room’s large, mint-condition cobalt blue seventies sectional sofa–complete with a wooden liquor cabinet built into its corner. It perfectly accompanies the wood paneled walls, white-washed fireplace, and taxidermy owls. Behind the long dining table, a huge fish-filled aquarium bubbles soothingly. It’s a combination of crisp modern design and hipster retro kitsch–a genuine personality, rather than one of the handful of predictable “concepts” or “aesthetics” reproduced by consultants all over town.

When the first course is ready, I usher the guests to the table, which is decorated with hydrangea, smokebush, and winterberry floral arrangements picked from Robin’s garden. We ladle and garnish the soup and deliver to the diners. Robin describes in detail the steaming consommé with pork dumplings; each local element of the dish, where it came from, and happily answers any questions as the guests begin to eat. She does this for each course, creating a sense of attentiveness and interaction with the chef not often found in regular restaurants.


Second Course: Zucchini in Balsamic wrapped with Prosciutto

After each course, the guests lounge on the sofa, hang about the kitchen, smoke on the back patio (an underground supper club luxury), and uncork more wine. By the third hour, between the third and fourth course, two of the diners have plopped themselves on the floor in front of the stereo, which happens to be located next to the kitchen. They flip through Robin’s record collection choosing what tracks they want to hear next–records are splayed out on the floor around them. They’re in the mood for a little pre-dessert eighties dance party. As Pat Benetar starts to spin, a few more diners join them for some booty shaking. Robin laughs as she mixes the batter for the pear crepes. As her forty-something diners rock out to ‘Love is a Battlefield’ she tells me that one of her favourite parts about hosting the dinners is how differently each group responds to the experience. Some linger at the table for the entire evening, others crowd just outside the kitchen watching her prepare the courses, and others sprawl about the house and treat it like a dinner party at a friend’s house.

When dessert is served, the guests call us to join them at the table. They pour us each a glass of dessert wine and we quickly fall into the table’s revelry. More wine is poured. And a little more eighties dance party booty shaking starts up.

At midnight, the last of the dinner guests head home, with hugs and thanks for us both.

As we washed up, I thought about how underground eateries are often described as modern-day speakeasies. The Swallow Tail Supper Club, with its quasi-illegal status, living room setting, ‘by-donation’ Mason jar on the mantle, and free-flowing wine, certainly qualified. But since none of the guests actually experienced Prohibition, the truth must be that these supper clubs are tapping our zeitgeist rather than our grandparents’. To me, these underground establishments have become restaurant 2.0–a dining experience that is defined by and relies on user-(or diner)-generated content.

The Swallow Tail’s dinner that night:
Consommé with Pork Dumplings
Zucchini in Balsamic wrapped in Prosciutto with Lemon Zest
BBQ Romaine with Tiger Blue Cheese and Double smoked bacon
Braised Beef Short Rib with New Potatoes
Pear Crepes with Chocolate Ganache and Cream Anglais
Cost $45

Learn more about Swallow Tail Tours or book your own Swallow Tail Secret Suppers.

You can also check out the Ghetto Gourmet, a social networking site dedicated to ‘pirate’ restaurants and underground supper clubs. To try out another of Vancouver’s ‘by donation’ experiences–this one vegan–check out Secret Supper.

To book a dinner at Swallow Tail Suppers or check out a Sunday open house, click here.

*Given the quasi-illicit nature of pirate dining, I’ve refrained from using Robin’s last name.


5 Responses to “The Underground Supper”

  1. joseph pallant Says:

    “For this stop on the Roadshow, I got behind the scenes of one of these ‘by-donation’ restaurants. (It’s a legal grey area, but not quite illegal, so I haven’t broken rule number one.)”

    Three cheers for the slippery slope!


  2. Brenton Says:

    And? Is this the career for you?

    • Helen Stortini Says:

      Possibly. Not sure I have the mad cooking skills or the spacious house to pull it off quite like this…Perhaps a slight variation…

  3. […] (upcoming post) Dog Walker Personal Trainer Software Developer Acquisitions Editor Film Swing Sous Chef for an Underground Supper Club Stockbroker Transportation Planner Business Reporter Graphic […]

  4. […] writing, food education, and food systems was where I wanted to focus. (Thank you Chef Kristine and Chef Robin.) I guess I’ve always secretly wanted to be the love child of Jamie Oliver and Alice […]

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