Since last August, when I first posted about the blossoming underground fine dining scene in San Francisco, the phenomenon has grown exponentially and started spreading up and down the west coast. From Vancouver to L.A., chefs are ditching the kitchens of established restaurants and setting off on their own, and using shrouds of secrecy, weird locations, and social media to create an entirely new scene in the struggling fine dining segment.
What is underground dining? It can take many forms, from sumptuous seven course meals served in an abandoned warehouse to super-secret, invite-only seats in a chef’s home kitchen. The common threads binding this movement together is five star cuisine served in a novel environment, prix fixe, and usually to a limited number of lucky invitees.
Underground dining even has a website, called The Ghet, which allows those searching for a coveted invite to an underground event a way to connect with those in the know. Social media has also played a huge role in the success of the movement, with many underground chefs posting coded messages on Twitter, Facebook, and even Craigslist informing members where the next event will take place.
The combination of superb food and a sense of exclusivity and adventure has fueled the success of underground dining. For traditional restaurants, the phenomenon has perhaps raised the bar of diner expectations.
So what can the fine dining establishment take away from the success of the underground movement? The most important lesson here has got to be variety. As baby boomers retire and a new generation enters its peak earning years, the rules of the game in fine dining are changing.
Many restaurants are ditching old dress codes and revamping menus to draw this new crowd of younger affluent diners. But the time has come to take things further and start infusing the spirit of adventure and unique experience into the traditional sit-down restaurant.
Some ideas for taking your restaurant underground:
Theme nights. No, don’t put up a couple plastic palm trees and call it Gilligan’s Island. Transform your restaurant into something completely different. Dress your staff differently. Serve some unique specials and really take things to the next level. Make your regulars feel like they’ve never been in your restaurant before.
Seasonal menus. You probably already have seasonal dishes that you sprinkle into your menu’s repertoire over the course of a year. What if you took a week out of each season and completely changed your menu and promoted it to all your customers? That underground feeling of a once-in-a-lifetime experience would start to sink in for sure.
The ultimate take-out. Abandoned warehouses? Defunct wine cellars? Just because those underground chefs have started making weird places cool places for eating doesn’t mean you have to be stuck in your restaurant for all time.
Take what you do, sign up 50 or 100 of your best customers, and put on a prix fixe meal extravaganza in some cool, quirky place outside your restaurant. If it can work for a rebel chef it can work for you, and your customers will love the unique experience.
The underground dining movement is surging in popularity, and like any new trend, there’s some gems of innovation behind the success. Taking an “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude may just give you some ideas that can make your restaurant really appealing as more and more customers get on the underground bandwagon.