By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010; E01
On Feb. 23, a select group of Washingtonians received an intriguing e-mail: "The orange arrow is pointing at you," the subject line read.
It was an exclusive invitation to "an exclusive underground anti-restaurant," the e-mail explained. "Because the DNA of the magical dinner is unmapped, these events will evolve, month to month, season to season, place to place & plate to plate."
The invitation alone wasn't enough for diners to make the cut, however. For the privilege of attending Orange Arrow's inaugural, $125-a-head dinner, guests had to agree to abide by certain rules.
"If you can't/won't eat certain things, this is not for you."
"No crybabies, whiners or buzz kills can come to our party. This isn't reality television."
"Don't try to sell your ticket on Craigslist. Failure to show basic decency gets you on the blacklist."
Reached by phone, Orange Arrow's co-founder, a James Beard award-nominated chef, made no apologies for the invitation's tone or defiant exclusivity. "We don't want them in if they're not fun or interesting," said the chef, who requested anonymity. "This is a private club. In a restaurant, you're a whipping post. This is a completely different thing."
In a city best known for its see-and-be-seen culinary destinations, a new breed of underground restaurants is emerging. These supper clubs shun pomp, circumstance and plebian steak dinners in favor of more-offbeat dining experiences. Some operate as for-profit businesses. Orange Arrow plans to obtain location and liquor permits for its ambitious suppers, which will host as many as 150 select "hungry, hedonistic gypsies" at venues that range from a museum to an alleyway. Others lurk in a legal gray area, accepting "suggested donations" for the food and wine to get around requirements for business and liquor licenses. Hush, the brainchild of a former World Bank staffer, invites no more than 16 for an intimate evening of home-style Indian food and culinary storytelling. There are even traveling underground restaurants. On Feb. 20, 40 in-the-know hipsters surrounded a long table to eat garlicky shrimp (and learn to suck out the heads) at the area's first Wok + Wine event.
Already, demand is strong. Orange Arrow sold 30 percent of its tickets within 24 hours; it requires visitors to visit http://orangearrowdc.com to list a reference in order to get past the virtual velvet rope. After just one month of taking reservations at http://hushsupperclub.wordpress.com, Hush has an e-mail list of 300 interested diners, and every meal has had a waiting list. "The demand is unbelievable," said the host, who goes by the name Geeta and runs Hush out of her home in Northwest Washington. "I thought, you know, I'd join Twitter and send out some e-mails and maybe some people would check it out. I thought it would take six months to build interest, not 10 days."
Unlicensed restaurants have long prospered overseas. In Hong Kong, si fang cai, or speak-easies, in private homes are considered by many to have the best food in the city. But clandestine kitchens are a more recent phenomenon in the United States. The Ghetto Gourmet, which began serving meals in the basement of an Oakland, Calif., apartment in 2004, was one of the earliest. Soon, the concept spread to big cities everywhere. In Atlanta, RogueApron threw an event in an alley between boarded-up houses. In New York, patrons of A Razor, A Shiny Knife have together learned to carve a 150-pound boar. In Washington, two professional chefs launched a short-lived underground experiment, also called Hush, in Eastern Market in 2007. But it wasn't until this year that the trend took off in earnest.
Washington's new underground restaurants generally divide into two categories: amateur cooks who want to offer a new kind of experience and recovering restaurateurs who want to set their own rules.
Hush falls into the first group. For between $50 and $75 per person, Geeta serves the dishes she grew up eating in her mother's kitchen, including dhokla, steamed lentil-and-rice flour cakes, chana masala (chickpea curry) and sweet carrot halwa. It's a way of sharing her Gujarati culture and her religion, Jainism, which prescribes a diet that bans root vegetables as well as meat and dairy products. "If you want fine dining, go to Rasika," Geeta said, referring to the popular restaurant in Penn Quarter. "This is the comfort food I've been served since I was in the womb."
The message comes through food and storytelling. At a recent dinner, Geeta told guests about when, as a young girl, she was given her first masala spice box. She encouraged the roomful of strangers to talk about what was interesting and meaningful to them. "We live in a divisive town. We could go the whole night talking about Sarah Palin," Geeta told the group as they sipped their welcome cocktails, made with coriander-and-saffron gin. "But we are more than what we do. I want you to share things, things that maybe you didn't think anyone would be interested in in Washington, D.C."
Whether it was the cocktails or the encouragement, it seemed to work. After some initial nervous chatter, the group of 20- and 30-somethings ate, drank and talked about the Olympics, what they'd cooked during the recent snowstorms and meddling in-laws. Yana Kravtsova, a 33-year-old lawyer, taught software project manager Scott Forman and Rakesh Surampudi (who followed instructions and avoided saying where he worked) the Russian way to make a toast. At midnight, Forman began playing the piano. The last guests left at 1 a.m.
"It's very refreshing," said Kravtsova. "I like the concept. Hanging out with strangers is not a very Washington thing."
Wok + Wine's mission is also to bring people together. The club was founded in November 2008 by New Zealand native Peter Mandeno, 38, as a way to broaden his social network in New York. In 2009, Mandeno organized 20 events there as well as in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, London, Madrid and Washington.
Wok + Wine's formula is simple. Interested diners sign up at http://www.woknwine.com on a first-come, first-served basis. Only 40 people are admitted. Tickets usually cost $35. Twenty-four hours before the event, guests receive an e-mail revealing the location of the party. Wok + Wine offers one kind of wine -- all the easier to meet someone by filling up their glass, the theory goes -- and one kind of food: jumbo shrimp stir-fried with garlic, salt, crushed red pepper flakes and cilantro in a high-powered portable gas wok.
The Washington event skewed heavily female. During the first hour, guests sipped a 2007 Quinta dos Grilos (it retails for between $10 and $12) and milled around the 6,000-square-foot apartment in Shaw. At about 8 p.m., everyone was called to the long wooden table, lined with banana leaves. Mandeno scattered the shrimp down the center, and his partner, Yrmis Barroeta, explained how to peel them and suck out the heads. In case anyone forgot, a sign was posted on the wall to remind them: Rip. Lick. Bite. Suck.
Guests muscled their way closer to the table. Conversations sparked easily as several people struggled to eat the shrimp as directed. "The structure definitely makes it easy to talk to one another," said Sylvia Yu, an employee of the Department of Health and Human Services who had heard about Wok + Wine through a friend. "Getting your hands dirty is messy and kind of sexy. It's fun."
Underground restaurants run by chefs are, not surprisingly, more elaborate. The goal of Orange Arrow, the chef said, is to create a place where "people who love food want to go," not another bricks-and-mortar restaurant that has to serve steak and salmon and make the rent. The first dinner is at the end of the month.
Another underground restaurant, operating out of the Northwest home of two former Washington chefs since June 2009, offers guests half a dozen passed hors d'oeuvres and cocktails, then a multi-course tasting menu paired with wine. On a recent evening, the appetizers included seared scallop with roasted beets, cauliflower soup with Oregon black truffle, steak with Brussels sprouts and sunchokes, roasted rockfish with corn grits and turnip greens, and black truffle ice with vanilla cake. The suggested donation: $195 per person.
The restaurant's founders said they had tired of the relentless pace of the hospitality industry. But after time away, they missed cooking for friends and food lovers. "We missed the interaction," the founder said. "So we found a different way of doing it."
The restaurant has no fixed schedule. Dinners happen about twice month. The chefs set up private dinners upon request or get the word out via friends and the Internet. Guests tend to be people who love food but are tired of the restaurant scene, the founder said. In general, the restaurant serves 10 to 20 guests at each dinner.
Despite their questionable legality, underground restaurants don't seem to be ruffling any feathers.
Rob Wilder, co-founder of ThinkFood Group, which owns seven Washington restaurants including Jaleo and Zaytinya, has attended two underground dinners with friends and says he has no qualms about any unfair advantage the hosts might have over legal restaurants like his. "If it's five nights a week and anyone can knock on the door, give the password like a speak-easy, they're over the line," he said. "I don't see a few people doing a few of these a month as competition. I think it's part of D.C. becoming a more vibrant, fun, adventurous food community."
A D.C. health department spokeswoman said she was unaware that such operations are taking hold here. The department requires that inspectors visit any establishment that "relinquishes possession of food directly to a consumer," including restaurants, grocery stores, convenience stores, bakeries, delicatessens and caterers. Operators also must be located in an area zoned for commercial business, and they must obtain a business license.
But the hosts say that because they request donations and not payments, their events are no different from dinner parties where guests are asked to pitch in for the cost of the meal.
"In some ways, my intention is to be very public about my desire to spread my culture and my cuisine," said Geeta. But she never reveals her name. Just in case.