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Part of the thrill and the allure of traveling is the food. You truly aren't experiencing a culture without savoring the local fare - and people vie to find their own secret hidden gems to come home and brag about. Some check popular foodie mags or websites and spend the bank on a "once in a lifetime meal." But it doesn't have to be that way. Sure, you could go to a popular restaurant and order from the menu and have a great meal — but where’s the fun in that?
Many of the world’s finest meals and most thrilling dining experiences aren’t in restaurants at all. Or if they’re in restaurants, they’re events where the entire menu is a one-off surprise.
The world’s underground dining scenes have never been as playful or delectable. Here are seven ways from Italy to Seattle to have an unforgettable meal that’s also an adventure.
Italy: Home Food
Ever dreamed you had your own Italian nonna to stuff you with secret recipes passed down for generations? Now you can thanks to Home Food’s cesarines (empresses of the kitchen), who specialize in cooking regional food — and making guests feel like family. If you’re in Bologna, you might get fried pork cutlets covered in prosciutto and cheese, followed by spaghetti with a hearty meat sauce that’s been simmering since morning. The company’s goal is to preserve the rich history and culture of Italian food and they vet their cesarine hosts accordingly. Expect old-fashioned home cooking served at a leisurely pace. (And because you’re the guest of an Italian matriarch, it’s going to be hard to say no when they urge you to have seconds or thirds.)
Italian grandmas, Italian food, Italian delicious. (Photo: Homefood.it)
Buenos Aires: Adentro Dinner Club
Buenos Aires is the king of puerta cerradas (closed-door restaurants), where guests often dine in the chef’s home, if not an offbeat location. Chef Gabriel Aguallo’s traditional Argentine asado (think grilled steak, short ribs, chorizo, blood sausage, intestines, shrimp, corn, and mushrooms) is the ultimate barbecue feast — and favorite of both locals and English-speaking tourists. Aguallo and Colorado-born co-host Kelly Brenner sit, eat, and drink, often until 2 am, with visitors at their table for 10. Free-flowing conversations about food, politics, technology, love, sex, and art are just desserts.
Chef Gabriel Aguallo by his home’s charcoal-fired grill. (Photo: Andy Wang)
Guests at the Adentro Dinner Club wine and dine over asado late into the evening. (Photo: Andy Wang)
Los Angeles: Wolvesmouth
Even among LA’s ultra-hot pop-up and guest-chef scene — leading to restaurants like Chi Spacca and The Hart and the Hunter — there’s nothing wilder than Wolvesmouth, chef Craig Thornton’s ever-evolving dinner-cum-art experience. For his latest installation, “Cut Your Teeth: Evolution,” Thornton teamed up with artist Matthew Bone to create a temporary fantasyland out of an Atwater Village warehouse replete with a chandelier made with more than 7,000 coyote teeth and taxidermy animals frolicking amid 800-plus pieces of flora both artificial and real. Guests dined on elaborate creations like fried quail with chipotle, Surinam cherry, and pickled green tomato to a soundtrack composed by M83’s Morgan Kibby; after dinner they smashed their plates against a wall. That’s the way Thornton thinks: He’s ready to create immersive experiences and just as ready to destroy them. Whatever he builds and knocks down next should be a trip.
Rabbit croquette at Wolvesmouth Cut Your Teeth: Evolution dinner (Photo: Courtesy Wolvesmouth)
Guests arrive to Wolvesmouth’s Cut Your Teeth: Evolution dinner. (Photo: Courtesy Wolvesmouth)
The concept is simple yet devilishly delicious: Foodie “guinea pigs” show up at some of the city’s hottest restaurants to eat dishes like foie gras spam musubi, lamb tongue salad, veal brains meuniere and even deep-fried water bugs. The idea is that top Miami chefs (including Timon Balloo of Bocce Bar and Jose Mendín of Pubbelly) get an opportunity to cook anything they want for a crowd that’s agreed that there’s no menu and no substitutions. They cook, you eat. It’s clearly not for everyone, but the finest things in life never are.
Chefs plating during a Cobaya “Ideas in Food” dinner (Photo: Frodnesor/Flickr)
London: Basement Galley
Basement Galley’s Underground Supper Club is a play on words: A five-course tasting menu is served on a decommissioned 1967 Victoria Line carriage. The seasonal dishes, prepared on just a tabletop oven, have included braised oxtail with Dauphinoise potatoes, anchovy mayonnaise and samphire (sea vegetable). And unlike some other underground dining experiences, they’re happy to work around your dietary restrictions. Just let them know when you book online.
Eating in an old tube carriage at London’s Basement Galley (Photo: Basement Galley)
Seattle: Velvet Underground Dining Club
Want to really know where your meal came from, how it was prepared, and why it got paired with a certain beverage? A rotating cast of chefs, food suppliers, brewers, and winemakers host guests at a warehouse space equipped with an open kitchen. Each dinner is a different adventure in creative cooking. Chef Brendan McGill of Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island (one of the area’s most beloved restaurants) recently prepared a locally minded eight-course blowout dinner that included two dishes with giant Pacific octopus. VUDE, that’s awesome.
New York City: City Grit
Don’t just call it a pop-up — Sarah Simmons’s SoHo showroom turned “culinary salon” regularly brings in guest chefs who run the most buzzed about restaurants in the country, from modern Israeli ace Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav to Peruvian sensation Ricardo Zarate of LA’s Picca. Top Chef winner Paul Qui, a king of both Austin’s restaurant and food-truck scene, has also cooked here. Events tend to sell out well in advance. Up next, a preview of Raleigh chef Scott Crawford’s soon-to-open Standard Foods.
"Knuckle Sandwiches" from a recent Antennae-to-Tail Lobster dinner at City Grit (Photo: Instagram/City Grit)
Andy Wang is founder of Consortium Projects HQ, a custom publishing firm specializing in luxury real estate, destinations, and food.