Secret Meals: Underground Dining in Vancouver

UndergroundDining-22Underground dining has come a long way in Vancouver.

Back in the day, you used to have to “know somebody” to gain entree to these clandestine restaurants, operated secretly out of people’s homes and apartments.  Locations were kept carefully hidden and a series of clues led you to your dinner destination.

These days, underground restaurants are hardly off the radar.  In fact, some of them even have their own web pages, where you can browse menus, look through a gallery of photos and even make a reservation for an upcoming meal.

Last week, I checked out one of Vancouver’s best-known underground restaurants (if that’s not an oxymoron): the Birds Nest.  Once a reservation had been made, emailed directions sent me to a historic apartment building in the South Granville  neighbourhood.  I buzzed the designated apartment, the front door unlocked and I wandered inside and got into a creaking elevator.

I was joining a group of a dozen colleagues for brunch, just one of the offerings at the Birds Nest. Prices were surprisingly accessible: $25 per person was the “suggested donation” (to use underground dining vernacular) for a meticulously prepared, home-cooked meal. (Plus, you can bring your own wine, beer, etc. at no extra cost.) Dinners apparently range from around $45-$65 and are considerably more elaborate affairs.

I made my way down a long hallway until I found the right apartment number and let myself in.  Inside, I could smell food cooking but the mysterious host/chef had yet to make an appearance.  I took the chance to explore the period apartment, a high-ceilinged, wood-floored affair dating to the early 1900s.

UndergroundDining-11In a dining room, a long wood table was set with glasses and silverware.  French doors opened to the street below and sun filtered in from outside. The adjoining living room was spare but elegant – massive windows, large (working?) fireplace, built-in cabinetry and all kinds of carefully curated bric a brac (old typewriter, vintage radio, etc).

Eventually, the host materialized from the kitchen, in apron and chef’s whites.  While serving, she revealed a few stories about how she got into the underground restaurant biz.  With a background in real estate, she had never had any formal culinary training, but she had always loved to throw dinner parties.  During a trip to Buenos Aires in 2010, she experienced an “underground restaurant” for the first time and came back to Vancouver determined to start her own.

At first, she kept her day job and just served brunch on the weekends.  Demand grew so fast, however, that she quickly made it a full-time gig.  Four years later, Birds Nest is so popular that reservations often have to be made weeks in advance.

UndergroundDining-17But how about the food? Brunch – served on carefully plated dishes – consisted of a crab and prawn cake, topped with a poached egg, nugget potatoes with local veggies, a kale salad served with spicy curry dressing and even a fresh fruit compote with cinnamon cream and oat crumble.  It was exceptional: exactingly fresh ingredients, beautiful presentation and incredible flavours.  This was all the more remarkable considering it had been prepared by one person, in a tiny, residential kitchen.

But the food, of course, is only part of the experience.  Half the appeal of underground dining is the ambience.  It does actually feel like you’re a guest in someone’s home (albeit someone with very good taste and a gourmet touch in the kitchen, who caters to your every request).  There’s none of the anxiety, hustle-bustle and stiffness that characterize a trip to any restaurant, no matter how nice.  And, getting back to the food again, something highly personalized and intimate comes through in the dishes – an experience hard to replicate in a restaurant where hundreds of meals may be plated every hour.

UndergroundDining-13After the meal, I made my way back out into the hall, into the elevator and through the foyer.  I passed a few other residents of the building along the way, going to and from their apartments.  They barely looked up. Whether they had any inkling of the feast just served for a dozen guests by one of their neighbours, I’ll never know.

Have you experienced underground dining in Vancouver? Let us know below. 

Follow me on Twitter @RemyScalza.

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