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

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

By Courtney Walsh, West Coast Editor

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.

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Chef Phillip Frankland Lee Talks the Power of Plating and Presentation

In today’s world, diners enjoy their meals as much with their eyes as they do with their mouths. And more importantly still, these same diners judge a restaurant by the images it presents on a variety of social media platforms of the dishes it serves.

Chef Phillip Frankland Lee of Los Angeles’ Scratch Kitchen explains that at his own restaurant, “we make sure that when we post images of our dishes to social media, we don’t use any filters. We want to guarantee that what diners see is what they get—an authentic experience to the one they see online.”

”Good photos may entice guests,” Lee furthers. “But if it doesn’t deliver on taste, they won’t be back.” Read More

LA Chefs Discuss the Organic Movement

Over the last decade, more and more chefs are taking a leading role in determining where their food is sourced from and how that food is treated. Recently, capitalizing on consumer sentiment, many restaurants have announced plans to work only with organic and non-GMO ingredients. 

How do local chefs feel about the future of the organic movement? And do they think it is possible for restaurants to work solely with organic and non-GMO ingredients? 

Read on to find out…

Dreux Ellis, Executive Chef, Gratitude in Newport Beach, Café Gratitude in Los Angeles and San Diego

"My commitment to organic food as a chef is an extension of my commitment as a human being to the earth and its well-being. For the last 30 years, I have watched the organic food movement sustain local farmers, soil regeneration and community initiatives. While the regulation of "organic" has been imperfect and burdensome for many farmers and there is room for improvement, it has also provided food security to the consumer and raised the awareness of the general public to the health benefits and environmental impact of choosing an organic diet. I have chosen to eat exclusively organic for many years now and am proud that professionally, Café Gratitude has stood by our commitment to a 100% organic menu. It is a win-win for everyone."

Chandra Gilbert, Executive Chef, Gracias Madre in West Hollywood

"Regardless of diet, organic food is a wise choice. When we buy organic food, we vote with our dollars for sustainability and planetary health, as you are avoiding GMO's, hormones, antibiotics, chemicals and pesticides. It helps reduce our use of water, and reduces air and soil pollution, while also preserving agricultural diversity. Spending dollars in the organic sector is a stand for farm workers' rights to a clean and safe work environment. And.....organic food tastes better. Why would anyone, if given the choice, choose differently? The answer is usually money. Every year tax dollars subsidize commercial agribusiness. This price tag marginalizes the poor with costly health problems and medical bills. It's time to band together and demand organic food for all people, animals and the environment." Read More

Cook-It-Yourself Dining Now Trending In LA

By Allison Levine, Foodable Contributor

From Korean BBQ and shabu shabu to hot pots and fondue, it is as popular as ever to go to a restaurant where the servers bring you the ingredients to cook your own food. It seems we have come full circle. Now we are paying others so that we can “cook our own meal.” 

Cook-it-yourself restaurants are not passive experiences; they’re interactive and communal. For many, the social aspect is the appeal. Groups of friends sit around a hot pot or a grill in the middle of the table as they drink, eat and chat. Diners select pieces of prepared raw food on platters around the table and then wait for them to cook. This enables the diner to cook the meats exactly as they want it. 

As for the restaurant, “cook-it-yourself” has some benefits as well. The biggest benefit is in overhead costs. While the restaurant can focus on quality of the products served, they can minimize the number of people needed in the kitchen and on the floor. Service will vary from restaurant to restaurant and from style to style. While there is generally a more hands-off approach in these “cook-it-yourself” restaurants, there are servers are on the floor to help you. For example, in Korean barbecue, servers will regularly check on the table to adjust the temperature of the grill and assist with cooking the meat. At hot pot and shabu shabu restaurants, servers will continue to fill up the pots with more broth which tends to cook down over time.

Learn more about the LA concepts embracing this trend here

California's Jolly Oyster Raises the Standard for Sustainbly Sourced Seafood

With a growing consumer interest in locally sourced, sustainably farmed produce and humanely treated, free-range/cage-free proteins, restaurants are increasingly paying closer attention to the provenance and treatment of every ingredient on their menus. From backyard gardens to in-house recycling programs, a number of like-minded chefs and restaurants have become inspired to work towards a great level of sustainability throughout their entire culinary programs.

For partners Mark Venus and Mark Reynolds, co-owners of one of California’s top seafood purveyors, as well as local oyster market and shuck shack, the Jolly Oyster, sustainability is of paramount concern. After having observed how the modern seafood sourcing was entirely destructive to the environment, they sought to work to create a sustainable and healthy alternative. Read More