I walk hesitantly through an unmarked door, blinking into the dimness of a strange room and stomping snow off my boots. The heady scent of exotic spices wafts out from a kitchen filled with the muffled thump of trays being loaded just out of view. Someone checks my name and hands me a drink and I stumble for a prime seat near a good-looking stranger at a long, communal table.
That’s how supper club starts. Or, at least, how a recent underground Dinner Lab event I attended in Washington, D.C. called “The Black Pineapple, a Tribute to Antigua,” recently started.
The black pineapple is a fruit unique to the island and its official symbol. It looks like a Hawaiian pineapple, except it’s ripe when it’s still dark green, and so delicate that it’s rarely transported off-island. (Alas, there was no taste of it this night, but plenty of talk about its magnificent sweetness.)
Shortly after all the guests arrived, waiters brought trays of curry fritters with tamarind chutney. There was a A round of rum drinks wasordered. Then there was vegetable stew (pepperpot), (cornmeal dumplings) fungee, and a particularly storied West Indian curry. By the time dessert was served—a roasted coconut pudding made from cassava—the room was full of the laughter of old friends.
Chef Viviana (Viv) Nunes heads up the pop-up kitchen this evening, making the recipes she “stole” from her Antiguan grandmother on a recent trip home. “There were no measurements at all in her recipes, so I had a lot of work to do,” she says.
The food of Antigua and Barbuda, the tiny island nation in the eastern Caribbean, is influenced by Chinese, Indian, African, and Middle Eastern cooking, thanks to the many traders, slaves, and conquerors that came through. And many staples are still imported by ship. “As a kid, we’d go without milk or yeast for weeks,” Nunes recalls. What they had plenty of, she says, is tomatoes, tropical fruit, saltfish, and goat.
Caribbean cooking, and Antiguan in particular, is not well-represented in Washington, and perhaps that’s why 50 or so diners showed up in a January snowstorm for a taste of the tropics.
Interest in a limited-time-only meal is booming. Food and drink events scheduled via Ebrite, an online invitation service, experienced a 47 percent-growth in 2014 over the previous year. One-time dining events accounted for some 82 percent of that growth across the U.S., according to the company. It’s growing globally, too.
“Whether it’s an unexpected location, a personal interaction with the chef, or a unique menu or theme, these events cater to the ‘Experiential Diner’—who craves not just an amazing meal, but a new and exciting dining experience,” says Sarah Hoffman, head of food and drink marketing for Ebrite. And pop-up offerings run the gamut from dinner in a graveyard to rooftop cocktail parties to meals in private homes to food trucks rolled out in the park.
Underground supper club sponsors like The Black Pineapple’s backers, Dinner Lab, which launched in New Orleans in 2011 and now operates in 33 cities across the country, are happy to fuel the interest. For a fee paid in advance, diners are treated like VIPs in a way that would be hard to replicate in any traditional restaurant. It allows chefs a wide berth, and in return, asks for feedback about the menu.