It was a dark and stormy night. As the rain poured down and the wind battered our umbrellas, we opened the newspaper box and pulled out an envelope bearing our name. After opening the letter and reading the instructions, we placed $220 in the envelope, walked a block or so west and headed down a darkened laneway, then a steep flight of stairs. We knocked and a small window in the door opened. “What’s the password?” a burly face asked. “We’re here to see Charlie,” I replied, a quiver of fear and anticipation in my voice. The door swung open. The man took our envelope of cash and directed us down a hallway where we entered a room revealing a scene like something out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. The champagne was flowing, the band was playing, and everywhere we turned, gastronomic delights were spread across tables for the taking.
Okay… not quite. The evening was sunny and mild, the room was a brightly lit west-end gallery space, and (thankfully) no pretentious password was required to get in. Comparisons to a 1920s speakeasy aren’t far off when talking about how to get into an event in Toronto’s underground restaurant scene, but it’s actually much more subdued and cultivated – the emphasis being on great food and drink more than anything else.
The room filled with 30 local food-lovers who were greeted with gin and tonics and then trays of canapés. We sat down to four courses of stupendous food on a French theme with wine pairings created by Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar sommelier Jamie Drummond.
First a charcuterie plate featuring goose rilettes, venison tartare, olives and prosciutto was brought out for couples to share. Then canard en conserve from Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, each can cooked sous vide and opened at table where it was dumped onto toasted bread and cauliflower puree. Following that, a massive cheese plate featuring eight French cheeses that was probably close to a pound of cheese to share between two people. Dessert was a poached pear with bread pudding and almond walnut ice cream.
A fabulous, memorable meal – and not exactly legal.
Secret, anti, underground or guerrilla restaurants have been popular in various US and UK cities for years but the trend has only recently caught on here. Toronto’s food scene has, over the past few months, been abuzz with the phenomenon that is Charlie’s Burgers, and between the anxiety about being accepted and then getting an invite to one of the monthly dinners, not to mention the true identity of Charlie, this might be the hottest dinner ticket in town.
Who is Charlie? He’s no one and everyone. Despite speculation that it might be Jamie Drummond (it’s not, and that post has just a wee touch of a stalker vibe to it) to a variety of other industry-related folks (our short list included Ivy Knight and Shinan Govani), as best we can tell “Charlie” is actually a group of restaurant people working together. Usually they refer to Charlie in the third person (“Charlie welcomes you this evening.”), but at various points each of them slips up and says “we” when they mean to speak in the third person, and the guise wears thin. We take to calling them all Charlie by the end of the evening, especially since a few of them won’t reveal their real names. “Blond Charlie” tells us they’ve had over 500 applications so far and that 250 people replied to an invite to come to last Sunday’s dinner, although there are only 30 seats at the table – including guests.
To get in, interested diners first have to visit Charlie’s website and fill out an application form detailing their favourite restaurant and their ideal last meal on earth. Blond Charlie points out that more interesting answers are more likely to get applicants noticed – citing McDonald’s as your favourite restaurant will see your application end up in the virtual circular file – it’s about a love of good food, after all. Blond Charlie also insists that everything is on a first come, first served basis when it comes to replying to invitations. When I point out that some people online claim to have replied within 6 minutes of receiving the email and didn’t get in, yet I waited a full day to reply and here I am, he offers another excuse of everything being on a first come basis; that they look at when that person’s application was accepted before determining if they get into dinner.
Blond Charlie also denies that media were being courted to attend and write up the event, but it’s interesting that both I and another writer at the table have been solicited by Charlie to fill out an application, which likely guaranteed our inclusion at the dinner. (As an aside – we both paid full price, just as the other guests did – our meals were not comped.)
Despite the potential illegalities of such an event, guests were permitted to see the kitchen area as they had to walk through part of it to access the restroom. The evening’s chefs were working on a four-burner stove and a few tables set up as a prep area in the basement, and it was clear that many of the Charlies were not normally front of house staff. As I was waiting for the loo, red-sweater Charlie revealed that he had been carrying a box of cheese knives when the bottom fell out of the box, and upstairs, baby-faced Charlie tended to the spilly side of service when pouring wine. There were also regular clatters and crashes as dishware got dropped.
However, the vibe overall was fun and inclusive. It was hard to meet the other guests as we were all seated at one long table, but the pretentiousness we expected from the cloak and dagger invitation process never really happened, and all the Charlies were friendly and chatty, just so long as we didn’t pry too much about the details.
Charlie’s Burgers is not the only underground restaurant in town, though, and a few nights before our dinner with Charlie, we got to attend the test run of 6°, another invite-only dining series with a completely different atmosphere.
Created by Karen Viva-Haynes of Viva Tastings, the dinners, which will take place roughly twice a month, occur in the Viva Tastings catering kitchen. Unlike Charlie’s Burgers, where the location, menu and chef changes each month, 6° will have a static location that meets certification standards for health and safety regulations and is regularly inspected. Viva-Haynes has been using the space for corporate team-building events and cooking classes for years, and by making her dinners BYOB, she avoids the issue of selling alcohol without a license. Basically it’s like a party in her kitchen where guests make a donation toward the cost of the food.
The space is able to accommodate 14 guests at stainless steel worktables set up in the middle of the room. Viva-Haynes and her sous chef work at stations around the perimeter of the room, doing all the serving and clearing themselves, as well as the cooking. The less formal atmosphere makes the event feel like a down east kitchen party where guests share bottles of wine while someone stands at the stove searing scallops.
Like Charlie’s Burgers, the cost varies from dinner to dinner but is expected to range between $75 – $95 for a menu that includes 5 to 8 courses.
The menu at the first 6° dinner included fondue to snack on while all the guests arrived, then an amuse called a BLT bite which was a tomato stuffed with bacon and bread crumbs. Following that was a tomato and chorizo soup with coriander cream; risotto made with coconut milk and Thai spices topped with a seared scallop; a cold napoleon of smoked trout and arugula; organic, sustainable salmon in filo purses with a mixed green salad; and then a choice of a pear and pepper tart or a lemon and chocolate tart for dessert. As Viva-Haynes works with a lot of local, seasonal, sustainable and organic ingredients, this philosophy will be carried over into the changing menus at 6° events.
There is a catch to getting a seat at a 6° dinner, though, which is that guests have to know someone involved. “The dinners are open to people who know someone at Viva Tastings or someone else who knows us.” Viva-Haynes explains. “So, when they email, they just need to tell us who they know. This is a dinner party for friends and acquaintances.” Invitations will be sent out via email – the next two events take place April 9th and April 30th – so prospective guests can send an email through the Viva-Tastings website (6° website coming soon) to be added to the invite list.
Toronto’s underground restaurant scene may still be small, but the buzz surrounding it is sure to continue to increase its popularity. Anything exclusive and unique is always a draw in Toronto’s food scene and both Charlie’s Burgers and 6° work on the premise of exclusivity. But exclusive shouldn’t be confused with snobbish, because both dinners were fabulous and wonderfully fun. I’ve been a fan of Viva-Haynes for some time so I knew I’d have a great time at 6°, but I have to admit that I was skeptical about Charlie, expecting something pretentious and annoying. I was pleased to have been proved wrong, and even if I never find out who “Charlie” really is, I’d be happy to accept an invite at either underground restaurant again.