Chicago foodies opt for more exclusive ‘underground dining’
Chicago has a vibrant food scene with some of the best restaurants and chefs in the world. But, more and more foodies are going underground. On any given night, what’s essentially a pop-up restaurant may be operating inside a home or empty business space near you. WGN’s Nancy Loo takes us inside a highly secretive operation called the “Chicago Bite Club.”
“What are the first rules of Bite Club?“ asks Nancy? That it doesn’t exist,” says our mystery chef. So, as you might expect, to get into Bite Club, you’ve just got to know the right people. “How do people get in?” “You have to know me.” The founder of Bite Club is an award-winning, veteran Chicago chef, who just doesn’t want the daily pressure of running a brick and mortar restaurant. “It’s so much more fulfilling and sophisticated than running a restaurant. This is the coolest thing I’ve done. Last week we did a Marco Polo dinner based on 1300 Venice.” On this night, it’s BYOB with a seven course Italian dinner. It includes a freshly made pappardelle Bolognese with white truffle. Each diner has paid about $40.00, though events with finer fare can cost upwards of $150. That’s after a mysterious Bite Club membership fee. “There’s different levels of membership. People have gotten in at different times. Higher now than at the beginning.” Nancy asks the chef, “How much?” “I’d prefer not to say exactly.”
Along with great food, it’s the entire experience that underground diners seem to find so appetizing.“There is an appeal there that you’re in on something not everyone can get in on,” says underground diner Rebecca. Fellow diner Michael had this to say, “ There is something charming and mysterious about it.” No menu selection pressure, and a communal table, are also appealing. Again, Michael and Rebecca. “We’re scooping out of dishes just like at Grandma’s house on Thanksgiving.” “The pasta dishes we were served were so good. We were actually saving bites because when they’re gone, they’re gone. So delicious!” They’re embracing the unknown and supporting talent that isn’t going the traditional route,” says Chicago Tribune restaurant critic Phil Vettel. He says Chicago’s underground dining scene has always been vibrant, and notes that clubs are skirting city laws and codes to operate this way. But, the secret industry is generally known for high quality.
“The underground scene has given us some very very talented chefs who have eventually opened their own restaurants. Elena Regan at Elizabeth Restaurant, Abe Conline over at Fat Rice.” Food blogger Kit Graham is among the founders of another underground club called Cinq, also known as the “Chicago Food, Wine, and Social Club. ‘Exclusivity makes it more trendy. And people feel special for being invited.” It isn’t as secretive as Bite Club, but membership is just as exclusive. “For us, the secret isn’t that we exist, the secret is, Who’s in the club, and where the events are going to be.” Cinq organizes at least four events a year. And, they are culinary productions. “A lot of it’s like fun and adventurous, creative food. We did this amazing modern winter dinner. It was six courses. And, it happened on one of the coldest days of the year last year, and we paired every single course with sparkling wine.” Again, Phil Vettel. “Moreso than in a regular restaurant,you’re only as good as your last meal. And these places have to maintain a high level of culinary excellence and a high level of hospitality every time out.” Of course, that’s only for those who are lucky enough to get in. Nancy says to our chef, “So, the Bite Club doesn’t exist. And you’re here talking to me.” “Well, as soon as we’re not talking, it will fade and it doesn’t exist.” Somewhere in Chicago, Nancy Loo, WGN News.
These clubs are so exclusive, even members don’t know where they’re dining until a few hours before the meal when they receive a text message. Bite Club’s founder hopes to expand his underground dining experience to other cities so the chosen few would be invited to secret spots all over the world. You can see this story again and share it at WGNTV.com.
Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalist Nelson Howard also contributed to this report.
You can find Phil Vettel and Kit Graham by clicking these links.