Underground Dining: The Allure of Illegal Pop-Up Restaurants for Chefs and Diners Alike

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Pop-up restaurants have recently begun appearing in more and more cities, offering chefs a venue to explore cooking dishes outside of their own restaurant or to test culinary concepts that may one day be transferred into a brick and mortar.

Yet another restaurant concept has also been been making headlines: underground dining. These illegal restaurants operate without proper licensing and are often times run in personal homes or other non-zoned locations.  

So what is their allure amongst chefs and diners alike? Read on to find out.

Starry Kitchen

One of the best known underground restaurants was Los Angeles’ Starry Kitchen, run and operated by Nguyen Tran and wife Thi Tran. Thi and Nguyen pursued cooking as a pastime, posting a number of photos of their dishes to Facebook before food photography became en-vogue. After Thi lost her job, the two were encouraged by their friends to give their cooking a go and the duo got together and opened an illegal restaurant in their tiny apartment. With just a few folding tables on the patio and a donation box at the front, the first few dinners were comprised mostly of friends of the Trans, however down the road, they began leaving flyers in neighboring apartments and news about their tiny restaurant began to spread.

Through their leaflets as well as word of mouth, Night Market became a must visit dining experience throughout Los Angeles, with someone eventually even creating a Yelp page for their "restaurant." Eventually, local publications started getting wind of their operation, but as the news started to spread, so too did the health department. Ironically, by the time the health department discovered the underground restaurant, the Trans had already begun negotiations to open Starry Kitchen as a legitimate restaurant. And while they were given a verbal warning by the health department, the duo continued to operate their underground restaurant until their last night before opening a brick and mortar, albeit with much more secrecy than before.

When opening their brick and mortar, the Trans sought to keep some of the allure of their underground experience, such as serving illegal ant eggs smuggled in from Mexico, or cooking a series of marijuana dinners. The brick and mortar eventually would close, however Nguyen is now cooking his same style of Asian comfort food at a new LA restaurant, Button Mash, that draws in a number of followers of the old iteration. 

The Allure

Looking back, Tran explained how it was "fun to share in an illegal and underground experience with people you have just met. Even if it’s just food, that element of danger makes everything and everyone that much more heightened.”

This danger element is an acknowledged aspect that helps explain the allure of these underground restaurants. As these restaurants are operating without permits, and thereby illegally, there is a level of secrecy needed to prevent authorities from discovering and shutting down their operations. Generally, the location will not be revealed until hours before the dinner, and sent only to those diners who have already confirmed and paid for their attendance. As such, there is a heightened level of excitement that exists in the surprise details and the camaraderie that these diners are participating in an illegal dining experience.

Additionally, underground dining offers chefs complete freedom to test potential restaurant ideas, dishes and concepts. While the only advertising many of these concepts engage in is word of mouth or social media posts, the buzz generated by them can also often be enough to secure the restaurants financial backing by investors intrigued with the concepts. 

Yet despite his enthusiasm for the concept as a whole, Nguyen was quick to explain the drawbacks of underground dining with an example his own pop-up restaurant faced.

“Getting caught by the health department showing up at your doorstep with no humor and only your full Twitter feed printed out to let you know you are more than just a glorified dinner party…and all the food that’s been made is going to waste because the health department won’t participate in culinary camaraderie with friends new and old over food.”

Additionally, as there is no oversight, there is a risk of health or sanitation issues (and even labor law violations) and thus these concepts have an inherent element of trust implied in their operations.

When asked if he would ever consider operating another underground dining experience, Nguyen answered a firm yes, but with stipulations. 

"I would, but now it’s a game of one-upping myself and giving myself creative challenge[s]" explained Nguyen. "Not just taking on a[n] illegal and underground ‘pop-up’ space just because it’s available. If I can do something unique (like our marijuana dinners) that is a Yelp-proof-like experience…then game on!”