How to uncover closed-door restaurants when travelling

It’s like a dinner party with strangers. Closed-door restaurants, also known as underground restaurants or supper clubs, are private eateries tucked away in a chef’s home. And though they’re not widely advertised, they are often some of the most sought-after tables in town.

For travellers, these clandestine spots offer a unique opportunity to step off the tourist track and dine like a local. Inside the home of professional chefs and enthusiastic cooks, diners can sample local flavours and unique dining styles at an easily digestible cost. The locations too, from hidden gardens to private living rooms, add to their unique charm.

The concept of closed-door restaurants is not new. With its roots in small family-run restaurants in Cuba, paladares, underground eateries peaked in popularity over the past few years.  And though the buzz has subsided the trend is here to stay.

'Tim McLoone's Supper Club, Asbury Park, NJ' by flickr4jazz. CC SA 2.0

How to seek them out

The clandestine nature of closed-door restaurants makes uncovering these secret spots challenging, especially when travelling to a new city or country. To ease the burden, a handful of booking websites focussed on alternative dining experiences have sprung up in recent years. One such site is Gusta (www.gusta.com). Created as a search engine for unique culinary events around the world, Gusta helps users navigate secret tables from Barcelona to Buenos Aires. Select a city, then find, reserve and pre-pay for a coveted spot at underground restaurants from local chefs around the world.

Eat With Me (eatwithme.net) is another social networking site focussed on connecting friends and strangers over meals. Started in Melbourne, Eat With Me now counts members in more than 80 countries and covers events from Berlin to Beijing. Visit their events page (eatwithme.net/?user-noticeboard) for upcoming dinners and other culinary happenings.

Out of the UK, the Supper Club Fan Group boasts a clever world map dotted with underground restaurants from around the globe (check out the details here). It is a useful resource though slightly outdated, so be sure to double-check the links before planning your travels. When travelling to the USA, the Ghetto Gourmet’s Supper Club Directory is a good stop for finding closed-door restaurants throughout the country (and a handful of international destinations as well) - read more here.

If the booking websites and directories don’t yield the results you’re looking for, try connecting with local food bloggers. With a keen awareness of the local scene, these in-the-know foodies can frequently lead you to the best underground eateries in their town.

Image by emilygoodstein. CC SA 2.0

Where to go

Where you’re travelling to matters. Larger cities, like London, New York, Berlin and Melbourne, often boast a plethora of stellar underground restaurants. In Buenos Aires, closed-door restaurants, or puertas cerradas, serve some of the best meals in town in tucked-away courtyards and private gardens. (Casa Felix (colectivofelix.com/casa-felix) in the Palermo neighbourhood, for instance, is not to be missed).

What to expect

Communal tables, fixed menus and rubbing elbows with strangers is a given at most closed-door restaurants. Sometimes the menu is shared in advance, though typically it is kept hush-hush. The location too is usually not provided until just before dinner. And though underground restaurants can serve as an avenue for professional chefs to experiment with new styles and techniques, it can also be an outlet for home cooks to try their hand in the kitchen. While you can’t predict the food, you can almost always expect a warm welcome, a fun atmosphere and a unique local experience.

'Scallop with corn and sherry vinegar gel' by WordRidden. CC SA 2.0

Tips and tricks

  • In the US, closed-door restaurants are typically called supper clubs. In the UK and Australia, they’re known as underground restaurants. In Buenos Aires, look for puertas cerradas.
  • If you find a closed-door restaurant you’d like to try, sign up for their mailing list or social network feeds. This is where newly scheduled dinners are often first shared.
  • Closed-door restaurants are not licensed, regulated or taxed so there is an inherent risk involved.
  • Often the menu is fixed and not shared in advance, so communicate any allergies or food restrictions with your host a few days before you arrive.

Caitlin Zaino is the founder of The Urban Grocer (www.theurbangrocer.com) and she’s scouring the globe in search of the world’s most cutting-edge food discoveries.