Underground Dining in Oakland

By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, October 11, 2004

We wander down the quiet residential street in Oakland, wondering if we’ve been followed. Are we imagining faces glaring out at us from behind drawn curtains? Was that black Ford Crown Victoria an undercover unit?
And where is this place?
We find the address we were given via e-mail, eye the row of garbage cans along a wall and climb the stairs of the 100-year-old house.
We’re anxious. And hungry.
The Host greets us at the door. We’ve met him before, when he was wearing a T-shirt, handing out handbills at a music festival. But now he’s wearing a black dress shirt and colorful tie, and his manner is gracious and welcoming.
He is fairly beaming with pride, for we have arrived at our undisclosed location. The air smells of onion, cumin and candle wax.
We have found The Restaurant.
We promised The Host we wouldn’t name The Restaurant, or reveal his name, either. If we did, the authorities would find The Restaurant and end his nascent career.
The Host is running what he calls an “underground restaurant, ” serving five-course meals, from appetizer to dessert, to two seatings of 30 or so guests, two nights a month, in his dark, wooden-beamed home. He charges $35 for the fixed-price meals, and his chef uses the home’s kitchen to cook the meals, while his two roommates act as waiters. A glass of wine or two is extra.
And it’s not legal.
Which is, of course, part of the experience. Patricia Tate of Washington, D.C., is in town visiting a friend. Tate is charmed by the place, and the idea.
“It’s rather clandestine, isn’t it?” she says in her soft British accent. “It’s quite fun. It’s a new concept to me.”
It is a new concept to a lot of people, judging from conversations with restaurant professionals around the Bay Area and Sacramento.
Jordan Rasmussen is spokeswoman for the California Restaurant Association, which is based in Sacramento and has a membership of about 20,000 restaurants.
She’s surprised to hear of an “underground restaurant.”
“It’s in his home?” she asks. “That’s weird …”
Rasmussen notes that for a restaurant to be legal, the owner needs a use permit for the land, a health permit, a business license, and an alcohol license, if alcohol is being served. And that’s just for starters.
Restaurants have liability issues, tax considerations, equipment costs, employee rules, payroll expenses, building code issues and a host of other – expensive – hoops to clear before they can host diners.
The Host, who has worked in restaurants for many years but is currently an apprentice building contractor, has attempted to meet the spirit of the law, but says he can’t afford to follow the letter. And that is not entirely welcome in some quarters.
“Where is it?” asks Mee Ling Tung immediately upon hearing about The Restaurant. She thinks this is a complaint about The Restaurant, and as Director of the Department of Environmental Health for Alameda County, she has a responsibility to control such breaches of the law.
When it’s explained this is just a call for information and comment, she says she’s never heard of such a thing. But she says her department has certainly dealt with illegal food preparation.
“Once in a while, we hear about people preparing food at home and then selling it, ” she says. “We have seen people preparing food (for sale) in the driveway, in the garage. And we’ll pretty much just shut it down.”
In fact, Tung said violators could be fined up to three times the cost of the annual health permit, or approximately $1,500. But she said levying fines is not as important to the department as shutting down potential health violators.
But, she adds, “Something like this is pretty hard to find, so what we do is based on community complaints.”
The patrons at The Restaurant do not seem inclined to complain. Tate is raving about the lamb, and declares she and her dining partner are “four courses for four.”
“From the outside, we didn’t expect it to be so lovely and gracious inside, ” she says. “I eat out a lot in D.C., and this compares very favorably … very unique flavors.”
A nearby table of four self- described “foodies” are enjoying their meals, one diner comparing it to eating out in Italy. All are impressed.
Indeed, our two meals eaten at The Restaurant show that The Host and his chef – who works professionally at another restaurant in the area – have a flair for food, as well as intrigue.
A recent menu began with zucchini blossom crepes and a beet salad with fennel and arugula, moved on to steamed clams with jalapeno and lemon grass, and peaked with a choice of grilled beef tenderloin with a striking mint and watermelon rind chutney or a pan-seared halibut with mashed potatoes. Dessert was crème brûlee.
This is not something someone could whip up in their driveway. Or even the garage.
Instead, The Host has remodeled his house to accommodate his crew, installed concrete counters and is able to sterilize his pots, pans, utensils, dishes, glasses and cutlery.
An affable, apple-cheeked young man of 28, The Host says that – health department interests notwithstanding – his greatest concern is not with food preparation.
“Being sued is certainly a concern, ” he says, seeming not too worried. “I’m less concerned about (health issues) than with someone falling. But I’m choosing to have faith in humanity.”
Just to be careful, he’s made a few precautionary moves, including expanding his homeowners’ policy and acquiring a business license (for a concern other than running a restaurant).
When asked whether these moves were not made under false pretenses, he agrees he’s “splitting hairs.”
“I guess you could say it’s false pretenses, ” he concedes. “But I prefer to think of it as savvy.”
The Host explains he’s being “savvy” because he can’t afford to open a legitimate restaurant yet, but that is the goal of his “three-year plan.”
He seems to be on the right track. He says that as of his one-year anniversary on Sept. 25, he’s close to having made back his investment of $15,000. His plan is to keep The Restaurant going for two more years, raising $50,000, and then coaxing other investors on board, using meals at The Restaurant to wend his way through their stomachs to their wallets.
When told of The Restaurant, Kevin Westlye, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, an area trade group, says he has not heard of such a thing. He then addresses health and safety concerns, as well as potential issues with traffic in a residential neighborhood.
He also notes that a restaurateur who doesn’t make all of the expensive investments in infrastructure, taxes, payroll and equipment is not competing on a level playing field with the market.
“It’s like a store that has to compete with a sidewalk merchant who doesn’t have to pay the overhead, ” he says.
Then, he adds, “But I love the spirit of entrepreneurialism. It sounds like he’s trying very hard. If the guy likes to cook that much, he’s good for the food business … assuming he’s talented.”
The crew at The Restaurant appears talented, and not just with food. The Host also found quasi-legal ways of getting around the laws he can’t comply with. For one, on the monthly handbill he hands out to potential customers, he lists the menu and the price: “Art showing $35.” Thus, he reasons, it could be argued customers are paying $35 to view the art, not eat the food. The food, you see, is free.
It’s a clever dodge, but it won’t work forever. Still, what The Host is doing is a variation on an old theme, says Adam Chaccour, owner and chef at Moxie, a favorite restaurant of gourmands in downtown Sacramento.
“It’s common practice among people who like to cook, or think they’d like to open a restaurant, to set up their back yard or living room with some tables, invite a bunch of people over and charge them $25 a person or whatever, and cook a nice meal for them, ” he says.
“It’s like a potluck, but everyone just chips in money for groceries and one or two people do all the cooking, ” he explains. “It’s an I’ll-fly-you-buy situation.”
The Alameda health department’s Tung is not convinced.
“This place that you mention, someone else could have the same idea, start doing that at their house, and they might not be aware of all the temperature requirements, food preparation standards, personal hygienic considerations, ” she says. “And that is a threat to the public health.”
The Host can’t deny that possibility.
On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with a little renegade cuisine, say several area observers. Narsai David, a former restaurateur and now a commentator on KCBS radio in San Francisco, hasn’t heard of The Restaurant, but he likes the idea.
“I remember a guy in the San Francisco health department, ” he says. “He tried to shut down all those shops with the ducks hanging in the windows in Chinatown (on health grounds). They’d been doing it for a century, for goodness’ sake! I just say it to show that … you can take this too far.”
The Host says his desire is not to hurt anyone. He just wants to stand at the front door, as he does two nights a month, and welcome guests in for some good food and wine.
“I really get a lot of enjoyment out of making people happy and creating that space, ” he says. “I enjoyed being a waiter and I enjoy hosting my friends. I just love, at the end of the meal, when people have this happy look on their face.”
He smiles broadly as he looks around his living room, where several tables of people are chatting, sipping and eating happily.
“I want my own restaurant. And this is my way to get there.”

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