Call them “underground,” “unofficial,” or “occasional.” Whatever the name, restaurants that don’t have a permanent address and that eschew traditional licensing are popping up all over town. Eating at one is the dining equivalent of choose-your-own adventure: diners, who exchange hushed e-mails to get on the list, show up where they’re told and eat whatever the chef feels like preparing. It’s fun, sure. But at $25 to $100 a pop, are they any good? Chicago checked out a few to find out.
$100 for five courses; includes tax and gratuity
THE SETUP: Bill Dugan, an old salt with a gritty ingenuity for finding top seafood purveyors, supplies culinary luminaries such as Charlie Trotter through his wholesale business, Superior Ocean Produce, and his retail business, The FishGuy Market (4423 N. Elston Ave.). Every Friday, he turns The FishGuy into a dinner party for 12.
A TYPICAL MEAL: Creamy shrimp with asparagus and sweet vinaigrette to start, followed by crispy sautéed red snapper tossed with mango papaya relish and buttery lobster tossed with orzo pasta.
THE VERDICT: The priciest, but true seafood lovers can justify the price tag. Dugan, a yarn-spinning bon vivant, is also a draw. By presenting the context for the meal-where the fish came from, how it was caught-he transforms a passive meal into an interactive cultural lesson.
$48 for five courses, not including tax or tip
THE SETUP: Chef/owners Shin Thompson and Kurt Chenier own Bonsoirée (2728 W. Armitage, 773-486-7511), a catering operation situated on a stretch of Armitage that’s overrun with lofts and condos. On Saturday nights, they turn their space into a dining club.
A TYPICAL MEAL: A French spring fava bean soup puréed through a strainer to a fine velvety texture, followed by mango mint salmon in a bright acidic guava emulsion that melts on the tongue.
THE VERDICT: The best intersection of price and quality.
HUSH FACTOR: Low. Held weekly; the only secret is why the Bonsoirée folks bother calling their operation “underground.” Enter your vitals at bonsoiree.com/underground. Plan two weeks out.
$45 to $75 for four courses, plus a $1.12 handling fee; tip is extra
THE SETUP: The culinary equivalent of punk rock. Brothers Joe and Jeremy Townsend invented Ghetto Gourmet three years ago in Oakland. Now they travel regularly to Chicago and other cities with their crew of five rotating chefs. On the night we were there, they had rented out a Bridgeport artist’s space known as the Orphanage, which sported a forest of fake trees fashioned from real branches.
A TYPICAL MEAL: “Forbidden” empanadas stuffed with not-exactly-forbidden pork and dried cherries. Chicken roasted in a banana leaf, which, while tender, was seriously undersalted.
THE VERDICT: The weakest of the five. Their edge is live entertainment, and on our visit, there was a performance by the human beatbox Yuri Lane. The whole experience was excellent culturally, which made us wonder why they didn’t pack more effort into the food.
HUSH FACTOR: Medium. No licenses-and a secret spot, which isn’t announced until the day before. But it’s not hard to get on the list; go to theghet.com website.
$25, plus tip
THE SETUP: Every Sunday afternoon, Jorgina Pereira opens up her home-a Liberace-like palace of alabaster paint and wooden furniture near the United Center-and dishes up Brazilian brunch. All business is word-of-mouth, which, depending on the day, could mean a handful of neighborhood folks or a rambunctious bunch of Brazilians.
A TYPICAL MEAL: Tasty deep-fried artichoke empanadas and stuffed olives to start, followed by feijoada, the national dish of Brazil, an amalgamation of rice, black beans, and various pork products. Her feijoada is magnificent, coupled with three kinds of meat, including rich, smoky pork hocks.
THE VERDICT: Like a family dinner-great, home-cooked food, odd company. Pereira, who hails from Rio, is like the Brazilian grandmother you never had (unless, of course, you’re Brazilian).
HUSH FACTOR: Medium. To sign up, call 312-491-8200 or go to sinhaelegantcuisine.com.
Sunday Dinner Club
From $35 (for three courses) to $65 (for five or more)
THE SETUP: The chefs are passionate gourmands who met at culinary school and wish to use only their first names-Christine, Joshua, and Jason. They are, respectively, a former restaurant employee/wine seller, a schoolteacher who worked in the Bronx, and a Merc trader. They’re also vets of Blackbird and Naha.
A TYPICAL MEAL: Handmade ravioli stuffed with morel mushrooms, served with homemade ricotta, pea shoots, and wild onions, followed by a sweet chili-glazed pork belly with pickled jalapeños and onions.
THE VERDICT: They were on hiatus during the reporting for this story, but experienced diners attest that the meals are painstakingly crafted with in-season ingredients and restaurant-quality detail.
HUSH FACTOR: High. To get on the list, find someone who’s gone before and get a recommendation. Or poke around on the food blogs (LTHforum.com). Chances are, some of the active posters have visited before and might offer you an in.
This article first appeared in Chicago magazine in a different form.