Maurice Carson, wearing a gray vest and bow tie, and his wife Alicia Carson, in a long blue dress and heels, pull up to an address they had received in an email only 24 hours earlier. They have been waiting three months for this night.
They walk into a home in East Atlanta’s Urban Loft Townhomes after 8 p.m. on a Friday to find a large wooden table with candles, flowers and place settings for the 15 strangers who are soon to arrive. Four cooks in the tight kitchen are zipping around each other in harmonious chaos.
The Carsons are at Dinner Party Atlanta, a supper club. Like many other cities, Atlanta has seen a host of supper clubs, underground restaurants and pop-up diners open for business in the last decade. About 10 seem to remain relatively active. In most clubs, chefs set up online waiting lists, prepare multi-course, high-end meals at a secret location or their own home and request a “suggested donation” at the end, which usually works out to be $60 per person.
Whether it is the exclusivity, the intimacy or just darn good food, these dining experiences continue to draw adventurous eaters. And whether it is a jump-start method to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant or an extension of an established career, Atlanta chefs are filling the demand.
Patrick La Bouff, Dinner Party Atlanta organizer and former employee at the restaurant Top Flr, brings experienced chefs to a one-night, pop-up restaurant at random locations, such as Georgia Tech’s basketball court or an airplane hanger.
“It’s a ballet. Food, wine and spirits, everything is a ballet,” he said, adding, “[People] don’t want restaurants. They want a place to eat.”
He may be right. Maurice Carson said the spontaneity of the night has drawn him in.
“You never know what to expect,” he said. “It’s not the traditional restaurant.”
Liza Dunning, editor-in-chief of ScoutMob, the local restaurant discovery app and website, has gone to 10 supper clubs since 2009. The supper club movement changed the city’s selection of your traditional restaurants to new, creative experiments in dining, she said.
“In Atlanta, it started off as this novel concept,” she said. “It kind of turned a little more mainstream. … I wouldn’t even say it is a trend anymore. It’s just kind of a way of dining.”
Caleb Spivak, editor of WhatNowAtlanta.com, a website about happenings in Atlanta’s restaurants, retail and real estate, said the underground food scene has snowballed for three primary reasons: social media spreads news about the movement; an active and growing “foodie” community; and a recession that forced aspiring restaurant owners to seek alternative incomes.
Ryan and Jen Hidinger are the organizers of another casual dining experience at Staplehouse, one of the first and most popular Atlanta supper clubs. They sold out their first dinner in 2 1/2 days. Now, they say they have 2,000 people on their waiting list. Staplehouse events sell out so quickly that before the owners can hit refresh on their email, their dinners are booked.
“It’s been a giant, for a lack of a better term, experiment,” Ryan Hidinger said. “I’m honored to be a part of this small, little accent of Atlanta . … I love it. I love it to death.”
That passion also drives Robert Lupo, sous chef at Leon’s Full Service in Decatur and chef of the new vegetarian supper club West Sherrywood.
“I’m not looking at this as a money-making endeavor,” Lupo said. “I am looking at it more as an extension of my career.”
Lupo’s club started about a year ago, with help from the Hidingers.
“I felt like vegetarians in Atlanta needed something like this,” he said. “You don’t have the overhead of a restaurant so you can be more experimental with the food.”
Jennifer Kirby, the department manager for food protection at the DeKalb County Board of Health, thinks some clubs may be entering illegal territory, especially when it serves “the public at large.” Questions can be raised about food safety in dining places that have not been inspected, she said.
“Of course, food borne illness is real … and that’s a huge liability for the operator that is operating illegally,” Kirby said.
To operate legally, a supper club needs a business license and that requires regulatory oversight on everything from the way employees wash their hands to the temperature of the food. But enforcement has been difficult since the supper club phenomenon is a tricky area to regulate, Kirby said.
But while clubs are licensed, others are not and these concerns haven’t seemed to deter Atlanta diners.
Natalie Driggers, La Bouff’s good friend, attended Friday night’s loft dinner said: “It’s a little more off-the-cuff. There are foodies out there who are ready to roll the dice.”
By the time the second course rolls around and multiple bottles of wine have been opened, the room’s ambiance has changed. The guests, who began the night in awkward conversation, lean into talk of sports, kids and jobs. La Bouff said nights like this are not just about food. It’s a “sociological experiment,” almost a “culinary petri dish.”
At the last course, the chefs and server join the table for some final words from La Bouff.
“Don’t ever expect it to be the same.” he said, “This is your night.”