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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17 Responses to Secret Meals: Underground Dining in Vancouver

  1. M. Taylor

    It’s a shame that your site chooses to promote these illegal businesses. The suspects pay no tax, no wages and no overhead costs, never have to submit to health inspections, fire codes or liquor licence requirements, yet charge the same prices or more than legitimate restaurants.
    With “no formal culinary training”, what is the risk of food contamination or improper handling?
    Many people in this city work hard to earn a living working for, or operating decent restaurants. through taxes and employment they contribute to the economy and the city as a whole. The trendy yet illegal underground operations take revenue and opportunities away from the real restaurateurs.

    • Sweetonchu

      At M. Taylor: This is a welcome comment. I thought of how posh these venues looked, as well as the homey and great service they would provide with such a “low-key” business.

      However, you are right. They don’t pay taxes, and they might operate under suspect foods services. Probably won’t be going to one of these places haha

      • Tom

        Sweetonch-you’ve been brainwashed so badly that you must require hand holding your entire life? “They” need to control every aspect of your life, from cooking to eating to paying half to your non existent partner in life. I have been poisoned, sick and vomited by some of the so called-“policed restaurants” you talk about..I bet every person here has..

    • Tom

      Most bizarre post ever, so you need a person to babysit you while you cook for yourself or others from now on? You need the tax police to send you a bill because you made $20 on a meal? You require the city to extort a fee because you warmed up a pot and turned your oven on? WHAT??

      • M. Taylor

        Tom, Not so bizarre, just expressing my opinion, ok dude?
        It’s not about “babysitting”. My concern is that these places are taking business away from real foodservice facilities. If you’ve ever worked in the industry, you would understand the real risk of food poisoning at every stage in the storage, preparation and cooking process. And yes, if you charge customers and make a profit you are running a business. If you host 20 people for dinner at $55 each, with a 30% food cost and no other expenses, you’ll clear around $770 for the night. Not bad for a days work, but a business enterprise and nothing more.

        • Tom

          M. Taylor you’re kidding right? You honestly believe a couple of homes serving some food is “taking business away”? Thats quite funny, thats like saying MacDonald’s is taking business away from Black and Blue because its cheaper there..
          So a guy makes $770 for a night and thats BAD? So he should pay half to the imaginary partner and give the rest to some “restaurant” because he wasn’t POLICED PROPERLY! The guy preparing the food THAT HE WILL EAT, will probably poison himself..LOL

        • MakeSense

          M.Taylor – what you are describing is a problem with the restaurant business model in Vancouver, and taking it out on the emerging, decentralized food scene — that has stepped in to fill a void. You should take your complaints to City Hall if making a living in the restaurant business is unsustainable, unless you’re the Donelley Group. I agree with you that Vancouver’s restaurant prices are too high, the food is not particularly exceptional and the experience does not always meet people’s expectations. That’s the privilege of living in Vancouver. You make it sound like running a pop up restaurant is the road to becoming a millionaire. I venture to guess that a real estate agent would not be running a pop up restaurant if her day job paid enough to survive in Vancouver, or she’s pursuing her passion while her real estate job pays the bills. Either way, the point is that people keep coming back because it’s an excellent experience. If people got food poisioning in a pop up restaurant, they would stop coming pretty fast. I’ve gotten food poisoning more times than I would expect at Vancouver’s regulated establishments, but the only recourse is not to go to that establishment again. Maybe that’s why the food service business in suffering in Vancouver? People come back because the quality and service is exceptional, and the experience is personal and intimate. If your restaurant is not doing well, you should consider if you provide your customers with an outstanding experience that’s worth the price. People are ready to pay the same prices at pop up restaurants as regular restaurants because they feel that they are receiving real value– and that’s the bottom line for any successful business. If your business is not providing real value and a exceptional experience, you’re not working hard enough.

    • John

      We do not need government to legitimize our existence or right to make a living. If a bunch of friends chipped in for a posh, pot luck dinner party, it would be the same thing. Do people ask their friends to see their “food safe” certification before dinner?

  2. Melanee

    Thank you for sharing an inspirational story! Thank goodness we have entureupreal individual in a city where everything is overpriced and a city that has a big personality but very little soul it’s the Wild West where you only make it on your own

  3. Hey Remy,

    Have you heard about NFA (No Fixed Address)?

  4. Miss Adventure

    I think that you are missing the point M. Taylor.

    These are people who are having dinner parties – you are paying for the experience.

    Some people do this because cooking is a passion but they never got into it. Some people do this as a way to meet new people because they have a hard time with that. Some people do this to learn from each other, share recipes.

    These are NOT restaurants, there are people, creating menus, buying ingredients and sharing their passion.

    You need to think outside the box, I already wanted to go, but your comment is making me go =)

    • Kelly

      I agree its like kicking in some cash to attend a great eating experience in the form of a dinner party. By the way you have a better chance of getting food poisoning or some such thing at local chains employing temp forgeign workers!!! I will be supporting underground eating!!

  5. Lillian

    @M. Taylor and Sweetonchu: Exactly how do you know these people do not pay taxes? Do you prepare their tax returns? Do you audit their bank accounts? Accusing them of tax evasion is virtually libel. Perhaps you should mind your own business unless you have some solid facts. And if you dont like the idea of this business, simple….don’t participate.

  6. Monique

    I have had the great pleasure of dining at The Birds Nest. In fact, I “hosted” an intimate 50th birthday party for 14 people and it was an enormous success. We all brought the finest Pinot noir’s we could find and had a beautiful 4 course meal. It was divine, affordable, unique and I still go on about how wonderful the food was. I recommend this experience whole heartedly.

  7. sweetonchu

    Pretty sure I’m entitled to my opinion, which was formulated from working both at a restaurant and having family members that own their own businesses. I didn’t draw silly conjectures and had no intention of insulting anybody – you should really figure your life out if you get this angry about a post you see online haha

    Anyways, we require all our shift managers to have their food-safe certificates, we’re audited by a third-party cleanliness inspector, and there are certain menu items and prices that are fixed and not arbitrarily changed which are things I appreciate when I pick up a crepe, a cup of coffee or to dine somewhere.

    I’m sure this place is nice, a refreshing change, and anybody would love to confirm that the old South Granville houses are just as beautiful on the inside and out, however this may not be a desire of mine until I know someone who has been there.

    • MakeSense

      What is happening is that the decentralized and sharing economy movements are disrupting traditional business models. If you’re running a pop up business or impromptu dinner party, consider accepting bitcoin or other community currency like seedstock.ca. It would help support the movement and free our lives from over regulation and constant control.

  8. Vickio

    I would suggest Swallow Tail is actually the most well known operation in Vancouver. I have been to a number of secret supper clubs that have come and gone and have also enjoyed the experience in several other countries. Personally I prefer my meals prepared by a trained chef – turns out that most people who open these businesses are culinary professionals.