« What I'm working on | Main | What do you know about the Afghan restaurant in Clarksville? »

November 11, 2009

Black market restaurants



Have you heard about underground restaurants? The New York Times was writing about them over a year ago, so they aren't exactly news.

(I did a search to see if the Sun had written anything that I had missed. We hadn't, but one of the results was a story mentioning Subway.)

When I was looking at last year's list of this year's supposed trends from our restaurant consultants to see how many of them pertained (before I got too excited about next year's trends), I came across this: ...

There’ll be big growth in “black market” restaurants this year … one-night-only unlicensed dinner ventures staged by skilled home cooks (and occasional professionals) in warehouses, garages, cellars, vacant nightclubs and personal dining rooms. With ambitious menus, these dinners are by invitation only … word spreads via blogs, text messages, notices on Craigslist. ... “Gastronomic speakeasies” are mushrooming because: they offer a sense of adventure … sort of like slinking out to buy some cocaine; people are seeking alternatives to standard restaurant experiences; in some cases guests help prepare the meal; they get to meet like-minded foodies in unconventional surroundings; and they’re “sticking it to the man” by patronizing entrepreneurs who have no health department license, pay no taxes, insurance or social security to the cooks and waiters that these promoters hire for the event.

Underground restaurants or supper clubs may have mushroomed this year in New York or Los Angeles, but I haven't heard anything about them in this area, even in DC.

And our Craigslist guru, turkeybone, hasn't pointed out any notices for them either.

But there is something naughty, romantic and appealing about the concept, isn't there? Except for the part about no health department license.

(Nanine Hartzenbusch/Sun photographer)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 7:05 AM | | Comments (22)


Bourdain did a show on this phenom not long ago. I think it was in San Fran, but not completely sure. It was a "club" made up of fellow chefs who made a sort of pot luck dinner. I remember that I was rather unimpressed with the one course that had Pop Rocks in it.

However, I was dazzled by the hidden in a baby's diaper and smuggled into the country unpasturized cheese from France.
Vive le fromage!

When I heard black market restaurant, I figured it would be a place serving up various endangered species. Eagle egg omelets, bog turtle soup or whale kabobs on ivory skewers would all be on the menu.

Baltimore Foodies ran an underground dinner this past summer. An article appeared in the November issue of Style magazine detailing it. We do plan on doing another one in the Spring.

There are also a number of "black market" coffee vendors.

When I heard underground restaurants I was thinking a feast in the Hall of the Mountain King or a banquet in Ali Baba's cave. Or a Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Maybe a cuppa coffee in the Jean Valjean Cafe. Or a burger at the Little Cavern. A descent Beneath the Planet of the Crepes. Bananas Flambe Under the Volcano. An enchanted wine cellar.

Or at least, pizza and beer in somebody's club basement.

Point to Laura Lee!

Laura Lee, if any of those places come to Baltimore, I'm so there!

I don't think I'd enjoy Grendal's mother's home cooking, though.

Alas, the last Little Cavern closed awhile back.

Oh yeah, that's what I want to do when I eat. Go to some unlicensed stranger and eat food from his uninspected kitchen. Does the cook have any idea of safe handling of food? Is that deadly nightshade or a more innocuous mushroom. Who knows? And I trust this guy, why? Because he's a "foodie"? Even if that were enough, how do I know?

It's bad enough that the standard for meat inspection has fallen off so much in this country, without adding another layer of taking my health and flinging it to the wind.

I take it Cheap Jim has never been to a dinner party.

Thanks Hal. The Club LT was subterranean even above ground.

However, I was dazzled by the hidden in a baby's diaper and smuggled into the country unpasturized cheese from France.

One of my favorite "I Love Lucy" episodes!

Kids these days, right Cheap Jim?

In the mid 1990's there was a place like that run by anarchists in Mount Vernon. They had a string of lights outside, if the lights were green the place was open, if red, closed. The food was vegan and delicious. They closed when too many people in the neighborhood found out about them and serving food became more of a chore than a pleasure. So that trend is at least a decade old.

Is there any connection between the old Anarchist Cafe and Red Emma's? Are any of the players the same?

Of course, the best anarchist dining film of all time is "Eat the Rich."

Beneath the Planet of the Crepes

It was all well and good until the last one, when Caesar leads the revolt founding the French nation. Sure, the series had long jumped the shark by then, but one could at least still hold out hope.

A dinner party, that's someone I know. I know who they are, a good idea of their general cleanliness, and I've probably been in their kitchen. We're talking a restaurant here. Do I know everyone in the kitchen? Not in most restaurants I've been in.

Oh, and don't get me started about the kids with the weird hair and the molecular gastronomy and the *faugh*!

"Does the cook have any idea of safe handling of food?"
Hey Cheap Jim have you ever seen how food is handled in many restaurants? I was a manager, many years ago, for Marriott's "Hot Shoppes" in DC. The first Shoppe I worked at was located on 14th and G. The HS was on 14th, Marriott's Sirloin & Saddle steak house was on G. They had a common kitchen. When I was in training I dropped a steak on the floor, a very dirty, greasy floor. I retrieved it and tossed it in the trash can. The S&S manager saw me do it and went nuts, made me dig the slimy steak out of the trash, and put it on the grill. Food Cost is what it's all about. If a piece of meat had been in the walk-in box too long, and developed a strong odor, you rinsed it off with vinegar and cooked it. Now true, this was 40 years ago but I don't think much has changed.

Things are that bad, eh? And how much worse would they be without health inspection? You're making my argument for me, Jack.

They had health inspectors, but many were on the take. They would overlook many incidents.

My point is a Black Market Restaurant is probably not much different then many regular restaurants

2:12 and 2:13 are spam. Of course. Appropriate next to a discussion of men on the take, I guess.

I mean, after a certain point, size is painful!

Post a comment

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

Top Ten Tuesdays
Most Recent Comments
Baltimore Sun coverage
Restaurant news and reviews Recently reviewed
Browse photos and information of restaurants recently reviewed by The Baltimore Sun

Sign up for FREE text alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for dining text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Food & Drink newsletter
Need ideas for dinner tonight? A recommendation for the perfect red wine?'s Food & Drink newsletter is there to help.
See a sample | Sign up

Stay connected