Chicago has a history of underground, illicit activities. Remember prohibition? Just ask Geraldo Rivera about Al Capone’s vault. Apparently, Chicagoans enjoy a little under-the-radar dining as well, choosing to seek out “dinner clubs” that require sign-ups, secret agreements and a willingness to let someone cook whatever they want in someone’s apartment/loft/gallery. The key is that these culinary “speakeasys” are outside the reach of the city’s health department, and therefore, are able to do things on their own terms. Bonus: most of them are BYOB as well.
1. EL ideas, 2419 W. 14th St., (312) 226-8144
EL ideas’ tables are booked months in advance and reservations are given by lottery. But they are about to change this. Call (312) 226-8144 or click “Reservations” on the EL ideas website to be entered into the reservation lotto. Dinners are one seating only, and offered from Wed. – Sat.
Phillip Foss (former owner of the Meatyballs food truck) constructs elaborate, elegantly plated dishes in a three-hour progression from his cozy Little Village industrial kitchen/dining room that seats about 12. Guests can get up and mingle, even help plate dishes if they wish, while peppering the staff of two cooks with questions. The soundtrack here was beyond eclectic, ranging from the Mary Tyler Moore theme song to Roddy Frame’s Aztec Camera crooning his cover of Van Halen’s “Jump.”
2. Sunday Dinner Club, (773) 878-2717
Usually held at the co-owner/founder’s apartment in Logan Square; you can join the Sunday Dinner Club by referral – someone who’s in can connect you – or by visiting their booth at Green City Market or at events. Meals are usually rustic and hearty, constructed from the best of the Green City Market’s bounty. Their cassoulet and burgers are legendary, and those nights fill up fast.
3. The Stew Supper Club, (773) 216-5580
I just attended one of these about a week ago at The Darkroom. You have to buy the wine ($6 – $8 glass, $22 – $30 bottle) and they also offered inexpensive cocktails. The six-course menu’s theme was “From Ukrainian Village With Love,” which meant a beautiful beet soup with cabbage slaw; a choucroute containing plump kielbas, belly and kraut; also, a magnificent charcuterie platter from Madison, Wisconsin’s Underground Food Collective (Double Underground!) The blood orange cake with citrus meringue was a clean, refreshing end to this lovely, candlelit meal.
4. Bonsoiree, 2728 W. Armitage Ave., (773) 486-7511
Join the mailing list for invitations to underground dinners here. People either love or dislike this place. The BYOB policy keeps them top-of-mind to serious BYO’ers, but when I ate here a few years ago, I found it a little pretentious without the strong culinary chops I had been expecting. (I discovered later the chef wasn’t in that night, but of course, that fact wasn’t reflected on the bill, and is that really an excuse anymore?) I think to be fair, based on the positive feedback I’ve heard from others, I would still give this place another shot.
Events are held at different locations, all over the city. Join the mailing list for dinner invitations here, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The meal I had last year, in a Humboldt Park gallery/loft, was lively, fun and freewheeling. Nearly every dinner is completely different from the previous one, and themes vary wildly, so be sure to read the fine print; they’re not about to do substitutions. This is a dinner club for the truly adventurous eater.