On a narrow one-way street in Cabbagetown one blustery fall evening, seven strangers ease past a squeaky metal gate and bustle into the parlour of a hidden Victorian house. Inside, a fire crackles as a pretty, urbane Indian woman gathers their coats and brings them a drink. They’ve never met, but they know they have at least two things in common: a sense of adventure and an appetite.
Secret supper clubs are a relatively new and quiet phenomenon in Toronto. Guests pay a fee to attend a dinner with a handful of strangers at a private location that isn’t revealed until a few days – or, in some cases, a few hours – before the event. Once there, attendees indulge in a hand-crafted, gourmet, multi-course meal, usually prepared by a chef or at the very least a seasoned home cook.
At the Cabbagetown version, guests feasted on four courses of expertly spiced Indian delicacies: turnovers stuffed with paneer and green pepper, moong dal with fried mathris, scallops in coconut milk curry with cluster beans, potatoes and cinnamon basmati rice. All the dishes were homemade and prepared by the host, Ronica Sajnani.
Ms. Sajnani, a middle-aged writer and actor, isn’t a professionally trained chef. Instead, she honed her culinary skills over many years of trial and error.
“Oh, my poor kids,” she laments. “In my attempt to get them to eat everything, I made some very horrible dishes, really horrible dishes. I also burned stuff and called my mother a lot.”
But years later, her children grown and her cooking skills refined, Ms. Sajnani travelled to Buenos Aires, where closed-door restaurants, or puertas cerradas, are a burgeoning tourist industry. These home restaurants don’t publish their address. They hold flexible hours and allow attendance by reservation only, usually only for a handful of guests. After attending a few puertas cerradas in Argentina, and hosting a meal herself, she brought the idea home with her to Toronto and has been hosting her own secret supper clubs since.
It’s not a complete secret, of course. Ms. Sajnani has a website and uses online community sites to connect with new customers. She also declares all her income and pays taxes as a small business owner. It’s secret enough to keep the clientele exclusive, but not so secret that a Google search won’t point a prospective customer in the right direction. Still, she says most of her business comes from word of mouth.
It’s a more low-key, intimate version of the now-world-famous Charlie’s Burgers: a Toronto-based guerrilla dining experience that gives talented sous-chefs the opportunity to design and deliver a menu to a group of 50 or so diners, who are kept in the dark until a few days beforehand.
Along with the puertas cerradas in Latin America, secret supper clubs have cropped up across the United States and Europe over the past decade, including a handful of similar clubs in Toronto, some more selective than others.
In Buenos Aires, Dan Perlman decided to open a puerta cerrada as a stepping stone to opening a conventional restaurant. But Mr. Perlman, a chef for almost 40 years who worked in New York City for much of his career, liked the freedom of a closed-door restaurant so much, he’s stuck with it.
“We can open when we want to and not open. We don’t have to worry about employees. If we feel like taking off for a month, we take off for a month,” he said, adding the industry is almost entirely tourist-driven.
“A lot of people are nervous when they come but I don’t think anybody is by the time they leave. Almost universally people enjoy it. There are always going to be people for whom it’s just not a fit … but it’s rare.”
In a tourist market, where guests are already testing their limits and seeking adventure, it’s an easier sell. At home in Toronto, it takes a certain type of person to agree to such an experience. Secret suppers offer a similar feel to an upscale dinner party, but with the added variable of not knowing your host or your fellow diners. The idea of sharing such an intimate experience with complete strangers is a turn-off to some.
“I know that I have had questions about: ‘You mean I’ll be sitting at a table with people I don’t know?’” Ms. Sajnani said. “Some people are just not comfortable with it.”
Marcus Rowntree runs an online hub for underground supper clubs across the globe. He’s based in London, and started his site there, but has quickly expanded to open the market in other cities. He added a page for Toronto a year ago, but admits it hasn’t taken off as quickly as other places, which he finds surprising.
“I’ve heard it’s a very sort of friendly, open city with lots of different cultures and different foods to try. So I thought it’d be fantastic,” he said.
Still, Mr. Rowntree thinks there’s room for the concept to grow in Toronto.
“I think it will just take time for more people to get inspired and have a go as well.”
But in many ways, the fact that secret supper clubs aren’t for everybody is what makes them so special. At Ms. Sajnani’s home, the conversation flows from architecture to Rob Ford to Jian Ghomeshi. Guests bond over haunted houses, cycling accidents and whether or not Hamilton is the Brooklyn of Toronto (verdict: it’s not). Somewhere between the spicy food and the bumping elbows, some kind of magic transpires. The strangers begin to feel more like friends and Ms. Sajnani begins to seem more like a long-lost aunt.
As diner Yvonne Popovska explains, it scratches an itch not satisfied by the typical restaurant experience.
“It’s intimate, a different atmosphere. You don’t do this every day,” she says, simply.
“It’s very special.”