The Heightened Dining Experience and the Supper Clubs of Atlanta
Rebekah Barr and her boyfriend Matt Gorrill pull up to a wooden, century old former cotton gin factory surrounded by a still scene of tractors, sleeping chickens and a gobbling turkey named Kingsley the Goat Farm in West Atlanta.
Soon, they are sitting at a long, dark, beaten-up wooden workbench in a lively and cozy loft with fern plants hanging from a wooden ceiling. Sitting with them are 18 other young, poised adults that Barr and Gorrill had never seen in their lives — but something about this seems like a family dinner. In front of them is their first course: three roasted garlic French toast pieces served with hot pepper jelly, broccoli rabe and meyer lemon hollandaise. A small sign in the kitchen says: “Breakfast for Dinner.”
While they enjoy the meal, their personal chef of the night, Zach Meloy, zips and zooms in the kitchen, making their next dish: maple cured chicken with thyme scented oats, slow cooked egg and brussel sprouts. Meloy’s left arm is a sleeve of tattoos. He wears a full-body, gray apron and an Alabama Farmers Market baseball cap. This is his home.
“Let the games begin,” he says as he exits his kitchen.
Barr and Gorrill are first-timers at PushStart Kitchen, or at any supper club for that matter. Right when Gorrill walked in, he remembered the Sunday night dinners his mother used to host.
“At first, it’s kind of uncomfortable in a way,” Gorrill said, “But really it is one of those experiences we all should have — those family gatherings.”
Barr and Gorrill are in good company when it comes to these unique dining experiences. In the past three to four years, Atlanta, like other cities, has given rise to a host of supper clubs, underground restaurants, pop-up diners — whatever you want to call them. Guests sign up on waiting lists, eat a multi-course high-end meal at a secret location or the chef’s home and pay a “suggested donation” at the end, which usually works out to be $60 per person.
Liza Dunning, editor-in-chief of ScoutMob — a local restaurant discovery tool — has gone to 10 supper clubs since she first heard about them in 2009. Supper clubs, she says, took Atlanta right away and changed dining.
“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.”
Whether it is the exclusivity, intimacy or just darn-good food, these new dining experiences have a market in Atlanta. 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.
Caleb Spivak, editor of WhatNowAtlanta.com — a site about the happenings of Atlanta’s restaurants, retail and real estate — says the underground food scene has snowballed because of a recession that forces aspiring restaurant owners to seek alternative incomes, social media that spreads the scene and a “foodie” community.
At Dunning’s first supper club meal, at Dinner Party, she learned the location two hours before the event. She found herself inside an airplane hanger sitting at a decorated table of strangers in front of a menu with her name on it.
“It was some of the best food I’ve ever had just because the chef was really letting his creative passion out,” Dunning said. “It was kind of a heightened level of dining.”
Ryan and Jen Hidinger are the leaders of another casual dining experience at Staplehouse, one of the first and most popular supper clubs in Atlanta. They had 163 people on their waiting list and sold out their first dinner in two and half days in 2009. Now, they have two thousand people on their waiting list. Before the owners can hit refresh on their email, their dinners are booked.
Being so up close and personal with his guests was special but scary for Hidinger. Even as a veteran of this scene, he still feels that giddy excitement for every dinner.
“It’s been a giant, for a lack of a better term, experiment,” he 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, 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 is still in its infancy; it started less than a year ago, with help from the veteran supper club owners, the Hidingers. He has hosted three dinners so far with only five to 10 people each in his friend’s condominium.
“Just like with opening up a restaurant, with a supper club, you want to think about why it is marketable,” he said. “I felt like vegetarians in Atlanta needed something like this … [And] you don’t have the overhead of a restaurant so you can be more experimental with the food.”
But Jennifer Kirby, the department manager for food protection from the DeKalb County Board of Health, thinks this experiment may be entering illegal territory.
“There are a number of course physical safety issues and, of course, biological safety issues from our standpoint,” Kirby said.
A supper club legally needs a business license, she says, and that requires regulatory oversight on everything from the way people wash their hands to the temperature of the food.
“There are a lot of things we would need to assess to determine whether or not the food is even being served safely,” Kirby said. “Of course, food borne illness is real … and that’s a huge liability for the operator that is operating illegally.”
The trend starts entering illegal grounds, Kirby said, when the supper club owner starts serving the “public at large” in their home and it begins to fall into the category of catering. But, enforcement on this some-what new phenomenon is tricky.
“I would say this is gray and a new area that we haven’t tackled,” Kirby said.
But for now, those concerns haven’t deterred Atlanta guests like the ones at PushStart kitchen.
When the Meloy and his wife created their club in June 2011, their waiting list blossomed from 30 to 600 in a week. They were hosting events in a 200 square-foot art studio at the basement of the factory with one outlet and no running water.
PushStart’s popularity shot up so quickly that they both quit their restaurant jobs and bought this loft. Now, they start cooking on Tuesday for three to four weekend dinners and have an email list of four thousand.
Diners Starr and Andrew Strickland have been here four times and know that they will keep coming back for both the food and the family feeling.
“We love this place,” Andrew said. “I mean, we have played with his dogs for crying out loud … And [Meloy] makes a great meal.”
As the two chime into the noisy conversation, they finish their decadent dessert — a cinnamon donut with black rum ice cream, candied orange and espresso syrup.
“It was good, good, good food,” Gorrill said. “And it was a very good experience … I would come back here in a heartbeat.”
“And I am going to look into other ones also,” Barr chimes in.
Meloy and his wife hope these guests will continue to be a part of the family when they open up their new restaurant, potentially at the end of summer. They envision an affordable, comfortable and highly interactive space where they hand you a fancy meal and you can “make fart jokes.”
“This is why we do what we do,” Meloy said. “We want to build our restaurant around our family.”