The Observer Food Monthly
April 17, 2008
Let’s face it: everyone likes to be the first to know about something, to have that little bit of insider information that no one else has … yet. Over the last year and a half, the media have suddenly discovered the phenomenon of secret, or underground dining spots. Not generally actual restaurants, these are more often in-home (or in ever-changing locations) places to check out dishes from glorified home cooks and budding or moonlighting chefs.
It’s also not really new. There have been what we here in Argentina call restaurantes de puertas cerradas, or locked door restaurants, around for at least the last three decades. They’ve just become a bit less underground and secret as one source after another touts them as the best thing since sliced bread. They’re even making their way into tourism guidebooks.
I have to take some blame for the sudden discovery of this so-called trend – especially since everyone seems to think it started in Buenos Aires – it didn’t, really. We simply caught the wave at just the right moment.
We were the first here in town willing to talk about the idea with the press, which brought us a ton of business – but it also attracted attention from our building association and government agencies.
Opening a restaurant in Buenos Aires is easy enough if you have money. There’s little in the way of licensing, it’s a matter of complying with a set of health and building codes, and perhaps greasing a palm or two. We don’t get exempted from that, and while what we do may be “just a dinner party”, we decided on going down the safe route by bringing everything up to code and paying taxes on our income. This is not something that many of the several dozen in-home restaurants here have bothered to do. It’s a choice – and the more attention that the press pays to all of us, the more likely it is that taking these simple steps will have been the right move.
When we first threw open the doors of our home to an invited group of diners for an experimental dinner party it didn’t feel quite right presenting a bill at the end of the evening, but I’m over that now. We offer what I consider to be a unique dining experience here in Buenos Aires; a bi-weekly multi-course themed menu with matched wines, communal tables, and an ever increasing demand for more, more, more.
So why do we do it? On a personal level, we needed some income, and I like to cook. We also enjoy having people in our home and meeting new friends every week, even if we charge them for it. We’ve also found that for locals and visitors alike we provide a casual, relaxed atmosphere in which to meet new people and try interesting food – and many similar places offer that same ambiance, one of having been invited to a party – just one where you know neither the other guests nor the host before arriving.
For some of the owners I know it’s a sort of trial balloon, a way of seeing if their food will go over well before investing in a full-scale restaurant. In fact, the in-home spot I first went to here in Buenos Aires, Verdellama, has long since ceased household operations and the owners now operate two restaurants. For some, it’s simply a way of staying off the radar – something that’s getting harder and harder to do as the word
We have fun, we don’t have to work all that hard, and we’ve built up a connected network of people operating similar adventures spread out across the globe – we hear about spots that have either recently opened, or in some cases have been open for years in places as wide ranging as Melbourne, Paris, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Havana (long a hotbed of such spots, where they actually have a name for them – paladares), Lima, Sacramento … the list goes on, and seems to get longer every week.
One of the questions I’m most commonly asked is “do you ever get guests who are a problem?” In a word, no, not really – I think it takes a certain kind of person to even opt to come to something like this. Also, most of us have some sort of screening process, whether it’s simply a gut feeling, a referral by a past customer, or whatever it may be.
And what about the other side of the coin – how the experience rates for the guest? A visit to a place like mine can be intimidating for the shy, but that just goes with the territory. It can be an issue for those who have various food concerns – allergies or simple dislikes – as the menus are often preset with no few options. Most of us are solo cooks, we don’t have teams in the kitchen to whip up special or alternative dishes, and truthfully, we probably don’t really care – it’s a “here’s my menu, if you’re not interested, go somewhere else” attitude – even if stated politely.
How would that go down with you? Is the setting in a case like this more important than getting the usual fussiness of a restaurant? And would you ever consider opening your home to paying guests?