Kate Fox, a London anthropologist, concludes that what is most distinctive about the English is that they will do almost anything to avoid interaction with people they don’t know.
A joke has it that Medusa once visited London. As the gorgon crossed Trafalgar Square, the snakes hissing in her hair, Italian and French and American tourists were turned to stone. She boarded the subway. Again, she left a sculpture trail of tourists: Australians, Japanese, Africans. The British, however, continued on their way quite unaffected by her petrifying glare. As she was leaving, she hailed the station guard: “Perish!” she demanded. “I fear you’re in the wrong place, madam,” he replied, instinctively avoiding eye contact like all his countrymen, “you’ll find the French capital on the other side of the Channel.”
Perhaps because the English fear spontaneous social contact so much, such encounters carry a frisson that they could not generate anywhere else: an illicit thrill that other nations reserve for surreptitious sex. That, at any rate, is my theory as to why, since last year, underground restaurants have become the hottest dining venues in London.
For the uninitiated: Underground restaurants are not located in basements; nor do they involve eating on the Piccadilly line. They are supper clubs, typically run by enthusiastic amateur chefs, where guests come and dine in their living rooms. Sometimes known as “pop-up” restaurants because, like mushrooms, they may appear for a season and then vanish, underground restaurants do not post signs on the wall reminding you of the Heimlich maneuver or telling you how many people fire regulations permit to stand in them. You eat there at your own risk. And most fascinatingly for the English, you meet at your own risk, too.
We are all familiar with dinner parties. Guests bring booze; hosts sweat over the chocolate mousse. At worst, the one is so busy trying to prevent the meat from burning, and the other is so busy trying to prevent the conversation from glaciating, that both feel under strain. Underground restaurants have the informality of a private home: You can peruse the book collection, peek in the refrigerator, or help yourself to water. But the element of surprise—and the fact that there is a financial transaction involved so there’s no obligation to make small talk, and the host won’t be waving from the kitchen like a trapped octopus—gives the experience a fresh energy.
Here’s what you do. You find the underground restaurant online. You send an email. You pay (normally £25-£35) in advance. A day before the event you receive the address and the time of the dinner. Then you take your courage and your map in both hands and set off along strange streets to ring a doorbell that will deliver you to—Meals of the Unexpected.
My first underground dinner was at The Secret Ingredient, run by Horton Jupiter in an area north of King’s Cross that is on the road to gentrification but hasn’t yet arrived. Alighting from a bus, I found myself amid former public housing, with apartment blocks that allude hopefully to Britain’s literary history: Shakespeare Way, Marlowe Court, Milton Avenue. I traversed epic and tragic pathways before finding Mr. Jupiter’s bijou pad, into which other enterprising underground diners were ducking.
The sense of welcome and of fun was immediate. We were ushered into a living room furnished with trestle tables, funky posters, and fairy lights. I sat with Lyndon, an architectural photographer, and Nina, a Finnish singer. Before long we were so deep in conversation that we almost didn’t notice when the first of eight courses arrived.
Horton specializes in Japanese cuisine. We were regaled with delicious dishes including edamame; fish soup with a poached quail’s egg in it; marinated onions; tiny asparagus like mascara wands; miso and sticky rice; a mirror plate with green beans; radish with lemon and apple; seaweed and cabbage; shitake mushrooms; tofu coins and pink potatoes; and green tea jelly with sake.
The mood of the company was lively but laid back. Most dinners were under £45 and I was interested to note that my table was half black and half white, a mix that isn’t as common at London dinner parties as it might be. By the end of the evening, people were swapping numbers and promising to keep in touch.
Horton Jupiter appeared with dessert. He’s a likeable man: smallish, shaggy of hair and large of smile—rather like the kind of dog in the park that brings you, a complete stranger, a ball in its mouth, inviting you to play with enthusiasm so winning that your resistance melts.
“Is Horton Jupiter your real name?” I asked him. “Well, Santa’s real, isn’t he?” grinned Mr. Jupiter. When he isn’t running The Secret Ingredient, which he does twice a week, he sings and plays guitar in a pop group. “Has anything ever gone wrong with these dinners?” I asked. “Well, we did once have a guest who didn’t want to leave,” he mused. “He ended up staying the night here.” I believe him. I had to depart before midnight, but Lyndon and Nina reported the next day that they had stayed into the small hours, feasting on cheese and toast and drinking wine on the house.
Emboldened by this experience, I tried another supper club, run by “Ms. Marmite Lover,” the self-appointed doyenne of Underground Restaurateurs. I chose one of her culinary theme nights: An evening devoted to food based on the novels of Patrick O’Brian. Nautical attire was requested. So I rode the subway clad in a stripy matelot dress with a skull and crossbones headscarf, bearing a bottle of rum. I disembarked into a dining room with white walls and a high ceiling, white linen tablecloths, candles, a wood fire with a huge mirror above it, roses on the mantelpiece, an eclectic selection of antique plates, and Victorian lemonade glasses.
Ms. Marmite Lover is the kind of woman you would cast as Mistress Quickly in a production of Falstaff. Ample of bosom and girth, short like pastry and sharp like mustard, she is an earthy, commanding hostess. Be late and you may have to walk the plank. But her supper club has sparkiness: a bourgeois Bohemian sense of theater. You come for the experience as much as the food.
Appearing in a white apron with feathers in her hair like a Victorian barmaid, she explained the menu at the start of the evening, which was helpful. There was Grog (strong rum punch); Blind Scouse (a barley and vegetable soup) and Hard Tack; Stargazy Pie (herring and egg) with the Dog’s Body (split peas) and mushroom ketchup; then, for dessert, Blind Baby (a stodgy but tasty suet pudding) with rosewater custard, cheshire cheese with oatcakes and honey, and coffee with Ratafia biscuits.
The food was a learning experience. Hard Tack is ship’s biscuit that was oven-baked four times so that it could travel on sea voyages lasting years. It looks like napkins that have been folded lengthwise several times and then nuked by a ray gun until they practically turned to stone. It tastes a bit like uncooked pasta. Like pasta, once you’ve soaked it in your soup for 20 minutes, it becomes edible. Everything else tasted pretty good. And the Stargazy Pie merited a photograph, the heads and tails of the herrings poking skywards out of the pastry crust.
My fellow diners were charming. Sweetly entranced by their own daring in being there, they agreed that the best thing about pop-up restaurants was the social fun. People shared wine. The record player playing “The Four Seasons” got stuck a few times so we had to live with a perpetually arrested Spring. (Given British weather, what’s new?) But it was evident that all the guests were enjoying themselves, especially the ones who were stopped by transport police on the way for carrying fake cutlasses.
The final underground dinner I attended was at a very different kind of supper club, Nuno Mendes’s The Loft. Mendes was a chef at El Bulli, the renowned Spanish restaurant with three Michelin stars, before coming to London to mastermind his own restaurant, which will open this year. He started The Loft as a way of trying out new recipes on the kind of diners he’d like to attract. Every week he, or a guest chef, cooks for around 20 guests, who pay £117.50 for 10 courses paired with wines.
The Loft would not look out of place in Brooklyn. It is a converted warehouse, with exposed brick walls decorated with experimental black and white photographs. The atmosphere is informal. People arrive and mingle as they would at a party, assisted by cocktails. We nibbled very thin slices of melba toast dipped in celeriac froth. The guests were mostly young urban professionals; the one thing they had in common was a fascination with food. Some had been to renowned gastronomic destinations. They told horror stories of gagging on raw razor clams and a concept dish called “The Sound of the Sea” that involved plugging in an iPod and listening to crashing waves as one consumed a plateful of edible “sand” swept by a wave of lemon foam. This made me feel quite nervous.
Our evening’s menu, however, was stimulating without being at all scary. The chef was Ben Greeno of Noma, a top-notch Danish restaurant. Nordic cuisine, like Nordic design, is not about richness so much as clarity. All the dishes had the freshness of an inspired idea that has always been around, but has never been presented to you so well. Our first course was an oyster, half filled with rhubarb granita, paired with rosé wine the same deep ochre-pink as the tulips on the table.
There followed nine small plates of equal brilliance. My favorite dishes were the salt-baked beetroot with licorice and goat’s cheese, the potato sliced into waxy coins and presented in a tiny puddle of cheese “soup” with mushrooms, and the perfectly cooked beef with onion puree, charred spring onion and brown butter. All were essays in style: texture, color, and flavor. Unusual ingredients included gorse flowers and seabuckthorn berries, which have an astringency and sweetness similar to passion fruit.
I enjoyed the surprise of not choosing or knowing what I was about to eat. The sign of a really good course is that it makes you think again about some familiar unobtrusive ingredient which has been quietly working for you for years, but suddenly reveals an intense talent, a gorgeous face, you’d never suspected. In my case it was the onion, which was sensational. It was as if Mr. Onion, a pedestrian chap from Accounts, had suddenly taken off his glasses and swept me into a romantic embrace.
Alas, it was over far too soon. People sallied forth into the real world of takeaways and building supply depots that cluster in this area of North London. But they had given me useful information: names of other good supper clubs that have sprung up recently: Urban Sage, London Fields. Clearly there is something about underground dining that is just what London needs right now.
People have posited economic recession as a reason for the phenomenon. But I don’t believe them. The British have always loved the idea that behind a very ordinary-looking door there lies a fantasy world. This is the premise of Alice in Wonderland, of Narnia, of Harry Potter. Eating underground, you become the protagonist in a small adventure of this kind. And that’s a relish you can’t buy in the shops.
Sara Lodge, a lecturer in English at the University of St. Andrews, is the author, most recently, of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.