Cooks Anonymous: Some of the North Bay's most exciting food is served in locations we can't disclose, prepared by chefs we won't name.
Underground restaurants serve up a slice of speakeasy--if you know where to find them
By Ella Lawrence
Ro Smith never thought he'd be cooking the best meal of his career in a gutted Airstream trailer. Gracefully sealing sushi seams with a practiced flick of his wrist, Ro, just 25, but with nearly a decade of professional kitchen experience and globetrotting under his belt, quickly and carefully arranges the gorgeous rainbow rolls on a mismatched set of Japanese sushi boats.
As dub reggae thumps from the speakers set up in a field outside, Ro turns to his partner, Mo Smythe, and queries, "Dude! How long have the lychees been marinating in that lavender honey?"
"Just a few minutes," Mo responds. "Let's give 'em another 20 or so before we freeze them for the ice cream. Now feel! The fury! Of my sushi roll!" He hurls a nori-wrapped unagi roll at Ro's head.
Ro ducks, missing the flying eel by mere millimeters, and lets loose with a sweeping roundhouse kick aimed at Mo's midsection. Mo artfully dodges the kick and lets fly a fistful of jumbo shrimp from the sleeve of his chef's coat. Ro tightens the black belt around the waist of his own crisp chef whites, flipping an opened bottle of hot sauce from the countertop into his hand in less than a second. "You will suffer! The power! Of habañero hell!" he shouts, but the words don't quite match up to his lips. The dub reggae gives way to the theme from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Mo assumes a Clint Eastwood squint.
This is not the set of Iron Chef, and neither is it a restaurant kitchen. Inside this Airstream trailer, devoid of everything but a giant movie projector and a DJ booth on its hardwood floors, a kung-fu food-fight movie that these two young chefs made to accompany tonight's service runs in the background. Dealing only in cash and soliciting customers via word of mouth and e-mail, Ro and Mo cook for a different crowd than the go-where-you're-told-by-Zagat foodies. They run an underground restaurant.
Ro Smith and Mo Smythe are not their real names, of course, but for these ambitious and well-known chefs who run an illegal restaurant away from the constraints of the health department and the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, recognition is not on the menu.
Underground restaurants are popping up all over the nation. Michael Hale, a server turned sommelier turned restaurant owner, recalls his early experience with underground restaurants while living in New York. "It's like having a whole city right in your apartment building," he says. "There's this guy down the hall that's cooking Bengalese food; someone downstairs is doing chop suey. That's how I got started in this business--we'd do all of these dinner parties, and I thought getting paid to do that would be brilliant. So I decided to open up my own place."
Hale's place, the successful Manzanita Restaurant in Healdsburg, operates on quite a different scale than Ro and Mo's, whose venture runs without a dining room, a kitchen or a license. The illegal establishment has fondly been dubbed the Blind Pig by the two chefs, a reference to the speakeasies of Prohibition-era America, when alcohol was illegal.
Bruce Frieseke, head chef at Manzanita, believes the appeal of underground restaurants comes largely from diners' shifting attitudes toward the entire restaurant scene. "I think this is part of a trend," he says, "even in traditional restaurants, to make the dining experience more homey."
This change toward wanting a dining experience to be more comforting and less highly formalized is a welcome one, according to many restaurateurs. Taking a restaurant out of the traditional context and putting it--quite literally--in a homier setting allows people to relax. Providing this type of low-key atmosphere is much easier when running a restaurant out of a basement or a garage, and these illegal dining spots are rapidly gaining cult status.
Young, tattooed Mo, who has worked in some of California's best restaurants as a sous chef, vehemently denies that his underground restaurant might be part of a hip dining trend. "No, it's not hip at all!" he insists, laughing. "There is no hipness or attitude at the Blind Pig. I see it as more of a cultural restaurant. Like there are these great Chinese restaurants where Chinese people go to eat. This is a West County restaurant where West County people go to eat. Everyday people who enjoy good food go and hang out, and we just do it as funky as possible."
In an underground restaurant, where inventive restaurateurs don't pay taxes, Social Security stipends or any of the costs of maintaining a full-time staff, this funky, homey atmosphere is created naturally. And chefs aren't bound by the traditional chicken-and-fish menu rules. "When you write a menu in a traditional restaurant context, there are certain unspoken rules that you have to follow," Frieseke sighs. "A lot of times, you only find out what the rules are through breaking them."
But in an underground restaurant, you can check the rules at the door. When dining at the Blind Pig, you'll have it Ro and Mo's way, thank you very much. And lately, their way is themed. "We've done Thai night, French, Italian, Moroccan, Japanese, stuff like that," Mo lists excitedly. "We recently got a crew, these two girls who come and decorate everything to match our theme. So we started doing matching ambiance to the food, and it's been going from there."
A recent set-up for the Blind Pig includes a large table that seats 12 in the center of a two-car garage. Layers of white muslin flow from the ceiling, obscuring the bare wooden beams, and the walls are covered with bamboo matting. The perimeter of the space is filled with two tables that each seat six, a few four-tops, a couple of small tables and a lounge area that is reminiscent of '70s-era cocaine lords, complete with couches and tacky mirrored coffee tables. The portable bar, made of bamboo and covered in mirrors, also lives in this corner. The numerous Japanese paper lanterns that provide most of the lighting are all on dimmers, and candles abound. "We like natural decorations, and cheap ones," Ro says. "So we do a lot of stuff like those little twisty bamboo shoots in water, plants and lots of candles."
While the funky atmosphere and the relaxed expectations are certainly the plusses of running an underground restaurant, the downsides are potentially dangerous. Laws regarding licensing vary from state to state. In California, dining establishments must comply with local agencies' restrictions, as well as be inspected by the fire department, the liquor authority and the health department. In addition, a state-certified "food handler" must be on the premises at all times.
"It costs $200,000 just for a permit to be allowed to buy water from the city!" exclaims Hale. "You have to get tons of permits from various people. You've got to get a building permit, a permit if you want to remodel, you have to get licenses for beer and wine, and you have to get certified by the Health Board."
Ken Sato, principal environmental health inspector for the San Francisco Health Department, says an underground restaurant would only be investigated in case of a complaint.
"We'd issue a notice to cease and desist operation," he says. "We want to prevent food-borne illness, so anyone doing something like that should know how to properly handle the food and have a permit from us. There could be other issues as well," he continues. "Temperature violations, structural violations, equipment violations, rodent violations, ventilation violations."
Ro and Mo have garnered a huge following in the two years the Blind Pig has been in operation. "It started as a completely word-of-mouth thing," says Mo. "At first, only people who knew one of us could come. The next time we did it, we expanded the guest list enough so that everyone who'd been before was allowed to bring one other person, as long as they were someone cool, and it's just branched out from there."
The two started their own restaurant because they were tired of the constraints of the restaurant industry and "sick of working for other people" in stuffy places where customers got their food "how they wanted it, when they wanted it." The laid-back chefs explain their endeavor simply as "all of our favorite things in one night! The food we would want to eat, the music we'd want to hear, the drinks we like to drink and the people we'd want to hang out with. It doesn't get much better than this!"
One of the best things about having an underground restaurant, they say, is the variety of people who come to dine. Because the advertising is word-of-mouth, all who show up share a common thread; either they know Ro and Mo one way or another, or they're in the restaurant industry. But while the clientele may share common interests, they are all very different.
"We get so many kinds of people!" Mo beams. "All ages, men, women, different sexual preferences, whatever! It's so great to see all of these people come together through food."
Another positive aspect of running an underground restaurant is that freelance chefs do not have to invest a lot of money or time. When they started the culinary speakeasy two years ago, Ro and Mo had planned to supplement their rent by throwing dinner parties where friends paid to be wined and dined like any gourmands, only without the restaurant structure. But the guys couldn't find a house with a garage, so they did it in a field. Word spread like wildfire, until "this one night we had Indian food, and 95 people showed up," laughs Mo. "It was way too crazy. We decided if this many people want to show up, we might as well do it."
So they rented a two-car garage, slowly equipping it with restaurant booths from an abandoned Chinese diner, thrown-out silver and mismatched china from the Bohemian Grove (the ultra-exclusive men's resort in the California redwoods where presidents go to play and no women are allowed), where one of the chefs works during the summer. They've rented a portable bathroom and built a kitchen outside with a pop-up car tent, a mini refrigerator and homemade propane wok burners. The dishes are washed in bins in the backyard, and now the restaurant runs on reservations only.
"After that one crazy night in the field, we had to make it a little more regulatory," Ro says. "The rule for attendance is that you can come as long as you know one of us, and you can bring one friend. From there, we've built an e-mail list, which is how we advertise for the next event."
The restaurant operates anywhere from two to four times a month, depending on how much energy the guys have and also how much money is in the Blind Pig piggy bank. Ro and Mo started the restaurant because they were "sick of going out and eating, and paying way too much money for mediocre food." Their desire to serve high-quality food in a unique setting is now a reality because they don't pay any taxes or licensing fees. "It keeps the costs down, and it's a lot of fun," says Mo. Indeed, the prix fixe menu only costs between $15 and $30, depending on how many courses there are.
It takes us three days to do the restaurant," Ro tells me by phone from the grocery store. "We used to have some other people who helped us, but one guy went back to school and another guy is starting a new job so he doesn't want to be involved with the risk any more. The day before the restaurant, we spend all day shopping for what we'll need for the menu. We do a lot of prep work that night, as well as all day the next day, of course. Then we serve that day, and spend the entire next day cleaning up. You can't just show up and do your thing, like in a typical restaurant--it's not like you've got someone delivering your stuff!"
The two split the duties of the pre-Pig grocery run. Mo does the food shopping and Ro is in charge of keeping the bar stocked, which is the biggest expenditure for the Blind Pig. During service, the bartender at the curved, slatted-bamboo bar pours wine and mixes cocktails (the well consists of top-shelf alcohol like Stolichinaya vodka and Bacardi rum) for a $3 donation; specialty cocktails like martinis and "pain-in-the-ass" drinks like mojitos are $4; and bottles of beer are $2. The bartender is Ro's brother. "He's our favorite," says Ro. "He's trustworthy, and the bar is the leakiest place as far as finances go."
Ro and Mo have "never really figured out the profit margin on the bar," they say. "We're worried about selling alcohol, but we've heard from caterers that if you call it a 'donation' instead of a 'charge,' you can't get popped." Furthermore, the chefs insist on carding those who appear to be under 21. "It's definitely an illegal business, but we're being safe about it," Mo chuckles. Unlike the bar at a normal restaurant, the bar at the Blind Pig isn't the biggest moneymaker; the food is. Food costs alone are between $330 and $500 for one evening of serving approximately 50 guests. Add decorations, propane for the stoves and the heaters, and nonalcoholic beverages for another $200, and the costs for one night's worth of underground revelry are covered.
"We just have this wooden shoe box, but it's only the size of one shoe," Ro explains. "We keep the money in there, and when it starts to overflow out of the box, Mo and I take some out and split it. We pay the servers from there, if they don't make enough tips, and the bartender. We pay the dishwasher from there, too."
The guys are more excited about "having a great time, eating lots of good food, and collecting a whole slew of random equipment" than making money, Ro says.
A potential downside of running a popular underground restaurant is just that: its popularity. "The amount of people attending just keeps rising," Mo says. "We're turning away like five more people every week. I feel like we're doing something good for the community and our friends, but at the same time we don't want to get in trouble for it."
The plates are dirty, the candles are burned down to stubs and literally every last grain of rice has been consumed at the Blind Pig tonight. Ro and Mo flop down on a couch in the corner of the garage and clink their bottles of Rolling Rock together in a toast. They survey their domain and sigh contentedly.
The guys plan to take their hot restaurant really underground from here on out. This month, the Blind Pig will begin moving between three separate locations in three separate counties. Ro and Mo plan to do a little more "fine-tuning" so that the restaurant can maintain its busy clientele while still flying under the radar. "It's been such a special experience, I don't want to quit doing it just yet," says Mo.
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From the April 6-12, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.