When I wasn't looking, pop-up restaurants gave way to supper clubs, which might also be considered pop-ups, but they more closely resemble dinner parties than temporary businesses. The gist is, a chef whips up a multicourse meal, and 10 or 12 people — strangers, most likely — sit down around a large table to enjoy it together.
I have to assume supper clubs are taking place in other parts of town, but I tend to hear more about these things happening where I live in South Park. I've caught on to several happening in the neighborhood this year, with varying degrees of public access.
I accepted an invitation to one called Culinary Hedonism, hosted by one Audrey Jacobs. The venture capitalist has attended many supper clubs during recent travels, and when she bought a home in South Park earlier this year, she realized her back yard was the perfect setting to host one of her own.
She was right. The home served as the original home office of local landscaping company Mooch Exterior Designs, and the terraced property has been thoroughly designed for both style and comfort. Key to this effort is a structured outdoor dining area framed by large palms and banquette seating.
A well-dressed table greeted guests, most of whom had learned about the eight-course dinner via neighborhoodcentric social media site NextDoor.com. There was no fixed price for the meal — rather a sort of honor system, wherein guests are advised, "Similar tasting menus offered range from $85-$150 per person," and are asked to donate accordingly.
That pricey suggestion reflects the sort of ingredients encountered over the course of the evening. When Jacobs decided to host these dinners, she linked up with freelance chef Peter Calley, who offers private cooking classes as well as catered dinners under the name Culinary Hedonism. Calley changes his menu from dinner to dinner, focusing on seasonal produce and, in this case, lavish proteins including wild boar, duck breast, spiny lobster, and foie gras.
Since there's no liquor license for running high-end food service out of your home, guests were all advised beforehand to bring their own booze to share. A professional server made sure to keep everyone's glasses full of wine, prosecco, or — in my case — barrel-aged beer.
Meanwhile, Jacobs facilitated conversation among the group of strangers seated around a table. We were a varied lot, including a semiretired financial advisor, theater folk, a social worker, and a cop. Other than foodie tendencies, we might have found little in common, but over the course of the meal, Jacobs cajoled each of us into sharing a personal tidbit, a poem or a quote, to spark conversation and open us up to each other a little bit. In fairness, the booze may have helped.
The cost of admission compares to a pretty baller night at one of the city's best restaurants, and that should get you a finer dining experience. But a supper club succeeds where a volume business can't tread. These are inherently social affairs that benefit from everyone at the table experiencing the same eight conversation-starting courses together. That said, we did drift off into other topics than food — and I swear, politics and the Chicago Cubs only got about five minutes apiece.