Me and the SO have been doing the underground dining scene for quite some time now. Groups like Ghetto Gourmet, Canvas Underground and Wild Kitchen/ForageSF have been around for awhile. Used to be you'd see a listing on Craigslist or something which led you to a website where you put in an email address to get on a secret list. When dinners were announced you'd get a notice and then send your credit card info to some stranger. From there you would get an email the morning of the day of the meal about the location which could be anything from a fish monger warehouse to a closed down taqueria to a house in a sometimes slightly sketchy neighborhood. Then you would show up with wine in hand and be treated to a multi course dinner of surprising food with folks you don't know. Dinner with strangers.

The meals ranged from seafood to Mexican to Southern to whatever the cook felt like experimenting on or creating. These cooks were usually actual chefs from restaurants who wanted to try something different than what they normally cook everyday. The food ranged from interesting to tasty to unusual and all things in between. Plus there was also the added advantage of being able to jump in and help, learn a new recipe or have some musical entertainment from folks who would entertain as trade for a chance to eat. While not all the meals were stellar, it wasn't totally about the food, but about meeting new folks and trying new things. All under the guise of secrecy for these pop-up food events that were basically skirting food health code laws.

These days things have changed and underground dining has come out of the shadows and into the mainstream. As the latest tech boom app explosion continues--food is the thing--and there are now several places to openly sign up for and attend an array of dining choices. From EatWith to CookApp to Feastly to Lazy Bear, which has gone all brick and mortar legit--secret dinners are no longer so secret. Being the food adventurist sorts we decided to give the easiest one a try and went with Feastly. They are separated into city versions. From there you can choose dates, types of food and in a new twist--price. Dinners can range from $20 to ten times that and types pretty much run the gamut of whatever nationality you can think of. Trolling through the list we eventually settled on a Caribbean feast that ran $30 a person and was on a night we could both make it. I put in my cc info and a day later got a confirmation and an address to a meal in a weeks time.


We showed up at this spectacular house in the Mission and the first floor was set up for serving that then lead into a huge kitchen that flowed to a lovely outdoor space. The lady who was throwing the dinner evidently knew the guy who owned the house and he offered up the space to her, but turns out he actually also rents it out for events. If you can why not. It was a great space, though it lacked some of the intimacy from past dinners at strangers houses we went to. 

The vibe of this dinner was different from the ones we had gone to before. The crowd here was mostly young and they all seemed to kind of know each other and the hostess. Right off we felt a little out of place as everyone wasn't unknown to others. It also seemed a little disorganized. Our hostess spent most of the time doing the food with the help of three dudes who were never introduced to us. Appetizers, as they were, came out haphazardly and a couple of them didn't quite make it around to everyone. They didn't seem to make enough fritters and puff pastry for everyone to try some. Odd considering this was limited to 30 guests. It was a sell out and she know how many were coming--she should have been covered. As for the food itself, well, it was a hit or (mostly) miss affair. 

Here we have cucumbers, carrots and avocado in a lemon garlic juice. Fried plantains. Fritters made with shrimp and herbs served with a spicy chutney. West Indian curried goat. Jamaican jerk chicken with red beans and rice. Rum cake with pineapple and mango. The half a fritter I had I liked. I would have liked more but there were none to be had and a number of folks didn't even get to taste them. As for the rest of the food, ehh, kind of blah. Didn't really get the raw veggies thing and couldn't taste either the lemon or garlic. The plantains were what they were. The goat curry was more potato than goat. Too many bones and fat and not enough of the meat to go around plus, not much flavor or spice. The jerk chicken, which should have been spicy wasn't even close. Add in the fact the piece I got was raw inside (as were other folks). We asked to get them cooked more and when they came back 10 minutes later they were still pink and undercooked inside, ugh. The red beans and rice were decent enough, but again, lacked any kind of spice. I mean this was supposed to be a Caribbean feast--where was the flavor? Where was the kick heat and spice? As for the dessert, if you like rum then this was for you, it was soaked in it, much to the detriment of any other flavor. Maybe they should have served this first, that way you get a little tipsy, then it makes things taste better.

Beyond the unexciting food the other thing that bummed me about this dinner was the hostess pretty much disappeared into the group when we were seated to eat. Unlike other things I've been to, she neither introduced herself to the assembled folks nor explained the dishes or what her inspiration in picking and serving this food was. It would have been nice to know why Caribbean. What exactly was her connection to this food that made her say "hey, I want to make this for folks". Would it have made things taste better, no, but at least we'd have gotten some kind of backstory to make things more interesting than they were. Sadly, me and the SO finished up quickly and took our leave.

Not exactly underground dining as I remember from the last time. Previous experiences have been more interesting and tasty. Before the food was served I had a chance to talk with someone who works with Feastly and she said they do vet the cooks and meet with them several times and go over menus to make sure they are up to the task. Our particular host had done one dinner before this and had some good reviews on the site, though now I'm guessing many of those are from her friends that attended the event. Feastly may need to re-think their vetting process.

As with any new ventures there are going to be some growing pains, especially when you expand exponentially and can't quite keep up with either demand or product integrity. You may also be surprised that while this particular meal wasn't to my liking, I will probably try Feastly again. Overall I like the idea of what they are doing, or trying to do and some of the other dinner listings look interesting. Recently they've also upgraded some of their cooks as several of these not-so-secret dinners are being hosted by well known chefs and restaurants. Their prices are high, but I'm sure their are some techies that can afford it. Me, I'm still more interested in what the home cooks and future pop-up chefs are doing and am following the new choices closely to see which dining adventure will work next for the SO and me. Till then I'm on board with the new dining with strangers options. Let's just hope next time things come together a little better to make it an all around entertaining experience.